Like other French three-star chefs who have opened glitzy restaurants in faraway cities, Georges Blanc could have tried to conquer Tokyo, Paris or New York. But the fourth-generation restaurateur is creating a mini-empire of bistros, hotels and gourmet shops by sticking close to home in Burgundy.
This past year, he took Lyon by storm when he opened a new bistro, Le Splendid-Chez Nos Mères ("at our mothers"), which packs in crowds hungry for some of France's most famous regional dishes. Many were created by legendary female cooks -- les mères Giselle Crouzier, Marie Bourgeois, Eugènie Brazier, Annette Poulard and Paulette Blanc -- who ruled the kitchens of some of the country's best restaurants decades ago. The women are portrayed in large black-and-white pictures that decorate the room like frescoes.
Since its opening a year ago today, 110-seat Le Splendid has worked almost at full capacity every day. It is a bright and spacious bistro, with yellow-washed walls, bay windows, high ceilings and red benches. An open, glass-enclosed kitchen area bustles with an all-male crew of cooks in tall, white toques.
Blanc is from Bresse, which has its own appellation d'origine contrôlée for its well-known poultry, and he has presided over the trade organization that promotes Bresse poultry since 1986. Blanc's symbolic trademark, the rooster, is everywhere: as a red-and-white drawing on the menus and as statues atop steel poles in the dining room.
Blanc opened Le Splendid in Lyon because it fit his distance criteria: The city is about a 30-minute drive from Vonnas, the location of his self-named three-star restaurant, which he wants to oversee on a daily basis. "I won't go more than one hour away," said Blanc, 59. He said he wasn't like some other three-star chefs who have opened restaurants on other continents.
"[Alain] Ducasse is an excellent symphony director and knows how to delegate well," he commented. "But I am in Vonnas every day it's open. I believe a chef must be in his restaurant to give it soul." He works on his other projects during the two and a half days each week that the three-star is closed.
Staying local has worked for Blanc, who started cooking next to his mother in the mid-1960s. From 10 employees in 1968, the family business has grown to 230 people today. Last year, it reported $20 million in gross income and $2 million in pre-tax profits, he said.
Le Splendid is worth a visit on any trip to Burgundy. Unctuous and moist frog legs in rich butter and garlic sauce replicate the recipe of la Mère Blanc, a.k.a. Paulette Blanc, the chef-owner's mother. The recipe for the chunky but tender paté chaud en croûte is a specialty of Marie Bourgeois, who ran a restaurant north of Lyon.
"Many people who ate in these women's restaurants have said we replicate their dishes gram by gram," said Le Splendid's chef, Stéphane Carbone, 27.
These specialties have attracted 60,000 diners to Le Splendid over the last 12 months. This makes the bistro the most popular of Blanc's five restaurants in Burgundy, including the flagship Georges Blanc, which has held three Michelin stars since 1981. That restaurant, which earned a Wine Spectator Grand Award for its 3,000-selection wine list, served 30,000 diners during the past year.
Blanc's hold on the town has made him known as the "King of Vonnas." He owns two specialty shops, two hotels and L'Ancienne Auberge, a restaurant that replicates the 1900-era restaurant operated by Blanc's great-grandparents. It served 25,000 diners last year. He also opened a museum in a former bakery. Several years ago, he even convinced authorities to build a special Vonnas freeway exit.
In 1998, Blanc began expanding outside Vonnas when he opened a cozy bistro, Le Saint Laurent, in the old harbor area of Mâcon, about a 30-minute drive from his hometown. The restaurant is beautifully situated on the shore of the Saône River, and specializes in Val de Saône regional food. Le Saint Laurent served 20,000 diners last year.
In 1999, he took over a Michelin one-star restaurant in Bourg-en-Bresse, near Vonnas, and turned it into another bistro, named Chez Blanc. Like all of Blanc's bistros, its wine list is eclectic and filled with good values (about 60 whites and 60 reds, mostly from Burgundy and the Rhône Valley) and is open for lunch and dinner daily. Chez Blanc served 25,000 people in 2001.
In December, Blanc opened a gourmet store next door to Le Splendid. Named Pain Blanc, it sells bread made according to a secret recipe, sausages, other specialty foods and wines from Domaine d'Azenay, Blanc's 42-acre estate in the Mâconnais region.
This latest addition in the chef's growing business will probably not be his last, according to the chef. Blanc is considering opening more restaurants in cities near the Swiss border, such as Geneva or Annecy, which are both no more than one hour's drive from Vonnas.
Place Jules Ferry
Tel: (011) 33-04-37-24-85-85
Fax: (011) 33-04-37-24-85-86
Hours: Lunch and dinner, daily
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