There is the saying: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." That principle could not be more true for executive chef Christophe Muller at L'Auberge Du Pont de Collonges, the signature restaurant under the Paul Bocuse Group. It is also the only restaurant in the world to retain its three Michelin stars for the last 50 years.
"L'Auberge Du Pont de Collonges is very classic, we do not follow trends," says Chef Muller, through an interpreter. He was in Singapore for the recent World Gourmet Summit where, together with Jaan's chef de cuisine Julien Royer, he presented a sold-out four hands, nine-course dinner menu, to mark Martell's 300th anniversary, and to commemorate Singapore's 50th birthday.
A quick check online reveals that while some diners rave about their experiences at the restaurant located near Lyon, others have accused it of being dated. On those who give it a less than stellar review, Chef Muller says: "It is likely that they have never been to the restaurant, but are just hearing from others."
He has a "take it or leave it" approach to diners. "I don't follow trends," he emphasises again. "If diners want something new, they can go somewhere else." He adds that "Bocuse is like a base, and you don't change the base in cooking".
Ask him why he thinks the restaurant has managed to retain its three Michelin stars, he says that it is because the restaurant has stuck with tradition. "Paul Bocuse is like the Louis Vuitton of the gastronomy world," says Chef Muller, referring to his boss, who is considered to be an ambassador of modern French Cuisine. This means that when diners ask for dishes which they had some 40 years ago, they are still able to have it. "We've had people come in to celebrate their wedding anniversaries, with the same menu they had when they got married," he says. He adds that when tourists think of France, they think of the Eiffel Tower, and Paul Bocuse.
The restaurant has several menus, one of which is the Menu Grand Tradition Classique, that includes Scallop of foie gras, pan-cooked and served with passion fruit sauce, the filet of sole with fresh pasta, and Bresse chicken cooked in bladder. The highlight of this menu is the legendary Truffle soup VGE, named after the French president Valery Giscard d'Estaing. Chef Bocuse created the dish in 1975, which he served to the president.
Incidentally, the truffle soup is also one of Chef Muller's favourite dishes to make, and this was served at the four hands dinner at Jaan. The soup comes crowned with a pastry dome. Break open the pastry, and the intense aroma of the truffle comes through. While the pastry can be eaten on its own, the best way to savour it is to soak it in the clear soup, which comes with sliced truffles, and diced foie gras, duck meat and carrots. At the four hands dinner, the soup was paired with the Martell XO 300 years Limited Edition.
Chef Muller, 42, is not only the executive chef for the restaurant, where he has worked for the last 23 years, but is also Chef Bocuse's personal chef. He says the two have a close relationship, much like father and son. "Chef Bocuse comes to many of my family celebrations, and I would do anything for him."
Chef Muller is very likely to take over the restaurant in the future.
The 89-year-old still lives upstairs of the restaurant, sleeping in the same bed that he was born in, reveals Chef Muller. "Each morning, he still comes down at 6am to the kitchen to wait for the other chefs to come in. His favourite dish is roasted chicken with salad," he adds.
He says that Chef Bocuse is a tough boss but "at this level, he has to be". Chef Muller himself is also strict with his team, admitting that he will scream at them when he needs to. "But once that is done, it is done. I'm alright again the next minute."
While his name may not yet be as well known as the Bocuse name, Chef Muller comes with his own set of accolades. As a child, he was interested in art and judo, but in the end, decided to follow in the footsteps of his grandfather, who was also a chef de cuisine.
At 27, he was the youngest to receive the Meilleur Ouvrier de France (MOF), which is awarded to chefs after a gruelling test, which sometimes take years to prepare, to recognise them for their skills. A MOF chef is recognised by his jacket collar, which comes in blue, white and red, representing the French flag.
His favourite ingredient is truffle, and he says the best way to eat it, is either in risotto or in an omelette. He likes storing his eggs in a jar with truffle, so that the aroma from the truffle will find its way into the egg.
His favourite dish however, is Caesar salad. "It is simple, but sometimes a simple dish can be difficult to make." He never fails to order the salad when he is dining out. "If the restaurant can get their Caesar salad dressing right, then I feel confident about their other dishes," he says.
At the four hands dinner, besides the truffle soup, Chef Muller served a blue lobster appetiser with cauliflower cream, seared duck foie gras with creamed polenta and artichoke chips, and Bresse chicken with vegetables. The flavours are very much what you'd expect at a classic French restaurant.
"Julien and I decided that instead of creating something together, we would each do our own dishes to our own styles. You get very traditional dishes, and very modern ones on the same menu," says Chef Muller.
Meanwhile, Chef Royer presented dishes from his Artisanal menu including a beetroot dish with burrata artigiana, asparagus with morels, wild Atlantic cod with Thai voloute, and two desserts, one made of apple, celery and kaffir lime, and strawberry "feuilles a feuille".
As he heads back to the kitchen, Chef Muller asks if we like sole, and if we like chocolate. "Do you think sole and chocolate would go well together," he asks. Sensing our hesitation, he quips: "Don't worry, that is not a combination that I would try."