It isn’t just a restaurant – it’s an entire gourmet village.
Chefs with tall white toques hustle across the narrow streets of Vonnas, a tiny French town famous for one thing only: the empire of world-renowned Chef Georges Blanc.
They carry hot trays and fresh produce from one kitchen to another because Chef Blanc has not one, but two restaurants in town.
The first, an elegant old-worldly place, is a quiet, almost cavernous room of hushed whispers, tinkling crystal and spacious, round tables.
The second, the Ancienne Auberge, is the original Blanc restaurant. It was started by Georges’ grandmother, known as Mère Blanc, in 1902. She quickly became famous for her local dishes – frogs’ legs from the nearby Dombes ponds and Bresse chicken, the only chicken in the world with an appellation contrôlée (a guarantee of quality and provenance). The so-called ‘Prince of Gastronomy’ Curnonsky called her “nothing less than the finest cook in the world”, her food so impeccable Madame Blanc garnered a Michelin star in 1929 and a second one a few years later. Her grandson will close the circle by winning the third star, Michelin’s highest distinction, in 1981.
My Sunday lunch at the Auberge was very French, very traditional, simple, but with products of such freshness I felt I was tasting ancient, familiar foods for the first time. There were plenty of small touches – homemade lemonade, sweets with coffee, large tables with room to relax. In the end though, it’s about the deep satisfaction of eating superbly and still being able to get up afterwards.
A deep voice jolted me out of my foie gras. “I hope you’re enjoying your meal and your visit here,” said Georges Blanc, smiling down at me. “Of course please tell me if anything is the matter.” As if.
It’s not unusual for a chef to walk around the room and greet his guests but keep in mind there are two large restaurants, with a capacity of 250 people, and he does this every day.
The Heart of the Blanc Empire
The restaurants are just two of the 17 buildings Blanc owns in Vonnas, among which I discovered a spa, two hotels, a gourmet shop, a souvenir shop, parks – and a heliport. I couldn’t resist asking.
“We recently had a South American family on the way to ski in the Alps. They ran out of wine and stopped to get a few cases,” I was told by a member of the hotel management.
With 130,000 bottles of vintage wine in what is considered one of the world’s top wine cellars, perhaps dropping by to pick up a few bottles isn’t so surprising after all.
Blanc is a well-known businessman in the Ain, the ‘département’ or district where Vonnas is located (and in which I happen to live). He is an ardent promoter of the entire region and its produce, and clearly the support is mutual – a motorway exit delivers customers straight into the village.
With charming shops and branded items for sale all around, you might expect the village to have a Disneyesque feel about it but no, it is tastefully done and even if it does encourage some consumption, the Blanc empire will be quickly forgiven once you experience the melting poulet de Bresse and air-like cream running across your tongue.
And in any case, who can argue with a bread display like this?
Things every Woman on the Road should know
- To visit Georges Blanc, you’ll have to drive, either 1hr from Lyon or 1h30m from Geneva.
- To get directions, visit Google Maps.
- On your way you can visit the Dombes, a beautiful region called ‘1000 ponds’ (or 1000 mirrors), delightful for walking and cycling (and more eating).
- Feeling flush or celebrating? You can fly to Vonnas by helicopter from Lyon, lunch included.