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Christiane Brioude, the Chef Who Wouldn’t Quit

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When Christiane Brioude was told she was seriously ill and no longer be able to work, she became so angry she started a new restaurant and wrote a cookbook. This may have saved her life.

“After generations of restaurateurs in the family, I wasn’t about to quit.”

It all started with her great-great-grandmother Adeline, back in the late 19th century, in a kitchen that still exists today. Generations later, Christiane is still a chef, with a reputation as long as her ancestry.

Christiane Brioude in her Aubenas restaurant kitchen

Christiane Brioude, one of the Ardèche’s best-loved chefs and a true ambassador for the region’s world-renowned chestnuts. Photo Anne Sterck

In the Ardèche region of France she is famous as the former chef of Le Vivarais, a well-known local gastronomic restaurant with a loyal following.

“When I bought that restaurant 40 years ago it was like a mouse buying a mountain,” she laughs. “The old generation of chefs always felt they had to innovate, so they brought in new things. I did the opposite and went back to the roots. Back then, chestnuts were fed to pigs. I started using them and now everyone swears by them.”

As do I, chestnuts being one of my favorite food groups. After tasting her chestnut soup, I’ll never be the same.

It’s no wonder she has been called Mrs Chestnut or even Madame Ardèche, especially since this region grows the best chestnuts. She has headed culinary associations, is friends with top French chef Paul Bocuse, and in her own way a feminist, buying and captaining a restaurant kitchen after being turned down by hotel schools for being a woman.

And she has done marvelously well on her own.

Le Salon d'Anne-Sophie

From left to right: pork with fresh mushrooms, salmon pastry with ratatouille, chestnut cream soup, foie gras, and a fresh cheese called faisselle

Christiane’s tiny new restaurant is called Le Salon d’Anne-Sophie, her daughter’s name, and it sits in the center of medieval Aubenas on a crowded corner that catches the sunshine. I visited on a cold autumn day, and her cooking made me want to curl up by the kitchen and purr.

The diminutive venue is always full of customers seeking not only good home cooking but the freshest of the Ardèche’s products. The province is now known for its organic produce and prides itself on low prices, no pesticides and a wide bouquet of local herbs. A generation ago, few people wanted to till the land anymore, until the 1960s, when the hippies came. Many of them are still here, supplying the markets in which Christiane shops.

Christiane Brioud's Le Salon d'Anne-Sophie

The lovely Salon d’Anne-Sophie is named after Christiane’s daughter and sits in the center of the town of Aubenas. 

Main square in Aubenas, Ardeche

Market day in Aubenas. Can you imagine a more evocative setting?

Fresh chestnuts of the Ardeche

The Ardèche is known for its chestnuts and in autumn they are used in just about everything. 

Medieval town of Aubenas

Medieval town of Aubenas in the heart of the Ardèche region. Above four photographs by Anne Sterck

These days she is still writing, teaching, cooking, a whirlwind of energy. Her cookbook should be out any day, and finding a seat at Anne-Sophie’s is a daily challenge.

She doesn’t quite come out and say it, but for Christiane Brioude, a major illness paved the way to a new phase in her life, one still very much in the limelight.

Chestnut Recipe by Christiane Brioude

Things every Woman on the Road should know

  • The Ardèche is extremely popular with visitors from the rest of France and northern Europe so the hotel infrastructure is better than good. I stayed at the lovely Villa Aimée just outside nearby Vals-les-Bains.
  • If you love chestnuts, you must taste Lou Pisadou, the region’s sort-of-almost-traditional chestnut cake.
  • Since you’ll be eating your way through the Ardèche, why not shed some of those pounds in one the famed spas (website in French only) at Vals-les-Bains? It’s only a few minutes away and you can get there by local bus.

This article is part of My Rhône-Alpes, a series in which I explore my own backyard in Eastern France. Thanks to the Ardèche and Rhône-Alpes Tourist Offices for organizing this visit and hosting Women on the Road. Opinions are my own: I’m opinionated and plan to stay that way.

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