Early on a mild May morning in the 1980s, I found myself with a few hours to spare before the departure of my train to Nice. So rather than languishing in Lyon’s Part-Dieu train station, I checked my bags — those were the days, since this service no longer exists — and went to shop for a picnic lunch at Les Halles de Lyon, the city’s celebrated indoor food market. After admiring the rails of dangling sausages and the ripe Saint-Marcellin cheeses in tiny aluminum tins that prevented them from becoming delicious ivory-colored puddles, I came around a corner and chanced across an oyster bar.
Although it was only 10 a.m., it was already busy with a jolly crowd, tipping back the shellfish along with copious quantities of white wine. Why not, I thought? The server behind the counter didn’t understand my bad French, but then a sturdy, good-looking man in an indigo cotton jacket intervened.
“A man needs oysters to keep his lovers happy!”
“What would you like?” he said in English. “Six oysters and a glass of white wine,” I told him. A few minutes later, I found myself seated in front of a dozen oysters with a carafe of white wine. I thought to protest — I couldn’t eat a dozen oysters so early in the day, much less down two-thirds of a bottle of wine — but the friendly Frenchman shook his head and guffawed. “A man needs oysters to keep his lovers happy!” We chatted. He asked me where I was from, where I was going and what I did. I answered, and the next thing I knew he’d rolled up his sleeve to show me a tattoo of a rooster on his bicep. “An American did this for me,” he said, “and I have American blood, since I got a transfusion in a U.S. military hospital that saved my life during the war. I love your country.” I asked him what he did, and he said, “Let me show you.” So after he had insisted on paying for my unusual breakfast, he took me around to some of his favorite stands in the market. Forty-five minutes later, he loaded me into a cab with a roasted chicken, cheese, bread, wine and a pastry, more food than I could possibly eat on my way to Nice. Then he handed me his card. “Come have a meal at my place the next time you’re in town,” he said.
As the cab pulled away, I glanced at his card: Paul Bocuse. I felt a fool for not having recognized the celebrated chef, who held three Michelin stars for his restaurant from 1965 until the present day and who had learned to cook from the legendary chef Eugénie Brazier, the woman responsible for making Lyon the capital of French gastronomy. I finally did get to his place, L’Auberge du Pont de Collonges, five miles north of Lyon, and the food was as magnificent as the hospitality. But the Bocuse meal I’ll always love best was a dozen oysters with too much Muscadet at Les Halles de Lyon. Chef Bocuse died in January in Collonges-au-Mont-d’Or, home to his restaurant and the place of his birth, 91 years earlier. He will be much missed.