In an unassuming part of an unremarkable French town, gastronomic history was made by two brothers and a simple dish of salmon
With one notable exception, Roanne train station is exactly as I remember it from my first visit 17 years ago. It’s still eerily quiet, save for the odd TGV passing through en route to Lyon or Clermont-Ferrand. It’s difficult to imagine that, for decades, this sepulchral part of a nondescript industrial town in eastern France was the epicentre of French gastronomy. Indeed, such was the renown of the restaurant here that the train station was known as ‘the station in front of La Maison Troisgros’, rather than the other way round. The restaurant is no longer here, but that’s a measure of its success. Next door to where it was sits an épicerie-café under the same ownership, a little sister to the original trailblazer that has since outgrown its humble beginnings.
Today the relocated restaurant and hotel, renamed Le Bois sans Feuilles, is five miles away in a converted farmhouse, all floor-to-ceiling glass and views of lawn and field, on a 19th-century estate in the commune of Ouches. It’s a scene that Jean-Baptiste and Marie Troisgros could never have imagined when they took over L’Hôtel des Platanes in Roanne in the 1930s, changed its name to L’Hôtel Moderne, and opened the small restaurant which was to become Maison Troisgros.
Then again, neither would they have foreseen that their sons, Jean and Pierre, would revolutionise French gastronomy, with the Gault & Millau guide labelling Troisgros ‘the best restaurant in the world’ in 1968. That, however, is exactly what happened: when Henri Gault and Christian Millau coined the term ‘nouvelle cuisine’, it was in direct reference to the style created by the Troisgros brothers and taken up by Paul Bocuse, Alain Chapel and other renowned chefs of the time.
Since Jean-Baptiste and Marie Troisgros set up camp next to the railway station, the history of this family of restaurateurs spans almost a century, and four generations. Their story is one of heritage and inspiration, passed on to – and reinterpreted by – the next generation, but with the kitchen always at its heart. Today the open-plan kitchen at Le Bois sans Feuilles turns out intricate three-Michelin-starred dishes – witness its white mushroom origami with sea urchins. It’s here I meet Michel (son of Pierre), his wife Marie-Pierre and their son, César, as they eat a family dinner just before service on an early November evening.
The 33-year-old César, fourth generation of the family, is now executive chef, but cooking was not his first choice of career. Passionate about music as a teenager, he dreamed of becoming a sound engineer, but was encouraged to follow his parents after seeing how ‘happy they were at their work’. Indeed, so content is Michel that he is still around the kitchen, as is Marie-Pierre, long the pillar of the family business.
I chat with Marie-Pierre before she leaves to greet guests. ‘There were only trees here before we started the renovation,’ she tells me. With the help of their friend and architect Patrick Bouchain, an old barn was transformed into a contemporary building with a dining room framed by full-length windows, lending the feeling of dining in the garden. It’s a conspicuous change from Roanne, which was a difficult location, says Marie-Pierre. ‘You don’t get much ambience when you’re next to a railway station.’
The Troisgros family is used to change. César describes his role as continuing what his grandfather and father started, while he expresses his own style through the creation of a new cuisine befitting the new location. ‘What we do in Ouches we wouldn’t have done in Roanne,’ he says. ‘The environment has inspired us to create dishes that are more and more pure.’
‘Evolution is the tradition at La Maison Troisgros,’ agrees his father, Michel. ‘We have never restarted, but have always evolved since the times of my father, Pierre, and my uncle, Jean, 50 years ago.’ The self-questioning spirit passed on from his father is inherent in Michel. ‘As soon as I wake up I ask myself if what I am doing is good enough or if I can do it better or differently,’ he says.
Michel is a man for whom seeing the world has been an essential experience. But he has never been a follower of culinary trends or fads; inspiration has always come from within the family. The cooking methods of his maternal grandmother – who was Italian, from Friuli – influenced him as much as any Michelin-starred restaurant. ‘It might sound a little banal, but my first culinary memory is of the tomato sauce my grandmother made every Sunday lunch to go with potato gnocchi.’
For many years Michel more or less lived with his grandmother, who had a house just outside Roanne. ‘I saw her more than my parents,’ he says. ‘She loved cooking simple things which she had learnt from her mother.’
For Michel, the more time passes, the more important history becomes, especially since they relocated the restaurant. Most of the staff at Ouches have never visited the previous incarnation in front of Roanne station – the legacy is Le Central, the épicerie-café set up next door in 1996 by Michel and Marie-Pierre.
Even though most of the dishes on the menu at Le Bois Sans Feuilles are very different from those Pierre and Jean Troisgros used to cook, the rules they set – simplicity, pureness of flavour and a touch of acidity – are still essential components of Troisgros cuisine. Nothing exemplifies this style better than saumon à l’oseille, the dish that came to represent nouvelle cuisine all those years ago. Its creation was the result of serendipity. Indeed, it might never have been invented had Marie Troisgros’s garden not had an abundance of sorrel in the summer of 1962.
One day, her son, and Michel’s father, Pierre, was wondering what to do with a ‘flattened’ fillet of salmon (a new technique he had learnt at Maxim’s restaurant in Paris). Noticing a basket overflowing with sorrel, he threw a handful into a reduction of shallots, cream, vermouth and white wine. That simple dish would change the course of French gastronomy. It was one of the benchmarks of ‘nouvelle cuisine’, which was much lighter and had more emphasis on respecting the ingredients than the classic cuisine that came before.
While Michel is proud to see his son cooking this dish, he wasn’t always so enamoured of it – indeed, for 20 years the restaurant didn’t even offer it. Then he started cooking it for his children. ‘My two-year- old granddaughter Annette adores it,’ he says. ‘It is loved by all the generations; we think of it as our masterpiece. The more time passes, the more magical it is.’
From its modest beginnings in Roanne, the distinctive Maison Troisgros experience has spread, not only in France but abroad. Initially this expansion involved opening a café deli, Le Central, in 1996, just next door to the original restaurant. A few years later, Michel Troisgras set up two more ventures – in 2001, Le Koumir opened in Moscow for a three-year spell and 2004 saw the start of a 10-year residency for La Table du Lancaster at The Hotel Lancaster in Paris. Venturing into Japan, Cuisine(s) Michel Troisgros was established at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Tokyo, garnering two Michelin stars in 2008. In 2006, La Colline du Colombier opened in Iguerande, a short distance from Roanne – credited as a first step for the business moving to the countryside. Then, in 2017, the new Maison Troisgros opened – Le Bois sans Feuilles – on a rambling estate with a large house (now boasting 15 guest rooms), a farm and meadows. At the centre of it all is the restaurant, with its huge windows, nestling under a 100-year-old oak tree in a rural idyll.
The dish that started it all
Saumon à l’oseille is no longer on the menu at Maison Troisgros, but you can still order it, and César invites me into the kitchen for a demonstration. The 58-year-old dish takes only a few minutes to prepare, and seems more relevant now than ever. It is deceptively simple, consisting of only three components: thinly-sliced and pounded salmon fillet, sorrel leaves, and a local cream reduced with shallots, white wine and vermouth. The cooking process is no more than a few economic gestures: the sorrel is tossed in the sauce for 20 seconds, the salmon lightly pan-fried on both sides, the dish quickly assembled on a warm plate. Timing is critical, not only in the preparation but also in the eating, and César encourages me to start. The dish remains light and finely balanced, thanks to the acidity of the sauce, a hallmark of the brothers’ style. Each ingredient has its own character and is separate to the rest, but all work in harmony, and go beautifully with a glass of white Burgundy. As the late Anthony Bourdain put it, Troisgros’ saumon à l’oseille is simply ‘a perfect dish’.