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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- I believe the Ardèche is best visited by car but if you don’t have one or don’t want to to brave curvy roads (the region is quite mountainous) then a few public transportation options combine train and bus to get you there from major hubs in France.
- 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.