Lyon – the charm of a city where time stands still

Last month, I took the biennial pilgrimage to France’s culinary capital with friends, colleagues and many of the world’s best chefs. It was the 30th anniversary of the Bocuse d’Or (a global chef competition for those who don’t know) so it was a very special time to be there. Lyon has many memories for me, since I first visited in the 80s, worked there in the 90s, enjoyed weekend breaks with family in the noughties and watched my colleague and friend, Adam Bennett and his commis Kristian, secure the best ever result for the UK in the Bocuse d’Or in 2013. When I worked at the Michelin starred Pierre Orsi in Lyon in the 90s, I didn’t immediately realise what made the cuisine so special but I started to notice the excitement shown towards the ingredients being delivered and purchased. It inspired me in many ways and anyone who knows Simpsons will appreciate the attention we pay to sourcing our ingredients. On my breaks, I’d often head into Les Halles de Lyon - heaven for anyone with a passion for food. The market attracts as many home cooks as chefs and each lunchtime the stalls are packed with locals and tourists enjoying plates of cured meat, shellfish or quenelles with a glass of beer or local wine. As a chef you can’t fail to recognise the quality of the produce. We always try to dine at Brasserie George, Lyon’s oldest brasserie established in 1836. They still serve great beer and their signature choucroute dishes and I wonder whether much has changed in 180 years because it certainly hasn’t changed since my first visit some 30 years ago. That’s what makes Lyon unique, that the city has the confidence to stay true to its culinary heritage without being distracted by the evolving food scenes developing around the world. In contrast to Lyon, the restaurant scene in the UK 30 or even 15 years ago was nothing to be proud of but the food here has been coming on in leaps and bounds ever since. London is one of the most exciting culinary destinations in the world right now and Birmingham has followed suit. It isn’t just the restaurants that are changing, but we have now some outstanding British produce. The UK has award-winning sparkling wine, beers, meats and cheeses that we are proud to serve in the restaurant. Just years ago our cheese board would have been predominantly French but now we only use British - a clear indication of just how good it is. There is no doubt that Lyon retains its charm as a city with an impressive culinary heritage and whilst it will always have a special place in my heart, I do feel that the gap is closing. But, no matter how great the restaurant scene is here, I will always look forward to returning to the world's spiritual home of gastronomy.