WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – How do you persuade a sweaty tourist wearing a Mickey Mouse T-shirt to sit down at a fine French restaurant and pay $29 for a bowl of soup?
Sure, that pricey soup has black truffle in it – but how many Mickey fans know what black truffle is anyway?
This is chef Jerome Bocuse’s particular challenge: Selling delicacies such as “soupe aux truffes V.G.E.” – the soup his father, Paul, created in 1975 for a palace dinner honoring then-President of France Valery Giscard d’Estaing – to folks who are more into french fries than French fungus.
Bocuse runs the restaurants in the France pavilion at Epcot, continuing the Disney partnership started by his father in 1982, when the 20th century’s most famous French chef shook hands with the world’s most famous mouse.
Then as now, most of the guests at faux France have never been to real France.
“Dining here is an adventure for them,” said Jerome, who owns Epcot’s popular Chefs de France brasserie, the newly expanded bakery and ice cream parlor, and the fine-dining restaurant named for his father, Monsieur Paul.
Bocuse is a celebrated chef himself, but at Disney World, he is ever-mindful of Mickey.
“We’re still at a theme park,” Bocuse said. “If you go to Daniel in New York, or if you go to Per Se (chef Thomas Keller’s restaurant) in New York, you make that restaurant your destination. Here, Epcot is the destination.”
And Epcot’s restaurants? They’re often an afterthought for Disney visitors, a fuel stop after they fly across California on the ride Soarin’ or zip around a speedway in Test Track.
So, Bocuse must make his dishes accessible and fabulous enough for Americans who are mainly along for the ride.
It’s a challenge his good friend and fellow celebrity chef Daniel Boulud – of Daniel in Manhattan and Cafe Boulud in Palm Beach – understands.
Boulud comes from Lyon, France, like the Bocuse family. He met Paul Bocuse when he was 14 and just a week into a cooking apprenticeship with one of Bocuse’s friends.
Bocuse, now 88, took Boulud under his wing, mentoring him as he also brought up son Jerome in the world of haute cuisine.
“Jerome was born the year I met Paul ,” Boulud recalled.
Today, Daniel and Jerome are so close, Boulud served as Jerome’s best man at his 2008 wedding to wife, Robin, and the celebration was held at Cafe Boulud in Palm Beach.
When Jerome opened the intimate, 120-seat Monsieur Paul a little over a year ago, after a renovation to update what had been Bistro de Paris, he invited Boulud.
The soft tones and white tablecloths of Monsieur Paul reminded Boulud of Paul Bocuse’s brasseries in Lyon – mixed with the luxury touches of Bocuse’s famous Michelin three-star restaurant, L’Auberge du Pont de Collonges.
“For me, it has a real family feeling,” Boulud said. “The restaurant is not intimidating, not imposing, but not casual either. And the food is fantastic.
“Being there, I really felt like I was back in Lyon.”
An American in Lyon
How does it feel to dine in this Disney version of Lyon?
I’ve enjoyed meals at Jerome Bocuse’s restaurants two times in the past few months – a multicourse feast that cost around $125 at Monsieur Paul and a $39.99 three-course prix fixe dinner at Chefs de France.
At Monsieur Paul, I was up for adventure, trying dishes I normally would shy away from, including a marvelous tuna tartare appetizer. I don’t usually eat raw food – but this tartare was so light and delicately seasoned, I suspended my fear of raw fish.
I doubled up on the appetizers with the iconic “soupe aux truffes V.G.E.” – which is so identified with Paul Bocuse, it is a must if you want to brag that you’ve dined at a Bocuse restaurant.
The soup itself is a delicious beef broth, with vegetables and chunks of oxtail and shaved truffles. But before you get to the soup, you must break the delicate puff pastry that crowns the bowl.
In my frenzy of trying to act classy while freaking out over the fabulousness of this pastry, I managed to get flakes of buttery heaven all over the table. Yes, that soup was $29 worth of deliciousness.
I should have stopped eating right there, but the food kept coming.
We tried seared sea scallops with black truffle spaghettini … and lobster in a creamy black truffle sauce … and herb-encrusted lamb chops, which my boyfriend, a world traveler, declared were the best lamb chops he has ever eaten.
Thank goodness dessert was light, and the most wonderful sorbet I have ever tried: green apple sorbet. Tangy and perfect.
Monsieur Paul is truly a romantic, gourmet and expensive experience. The four-course prix fixe dinner is $89.
As for the price, look at it this way: Lots of people wait two hours or more to go on the four-minute Soarin’ ride. If you value your time, and time is money, you can justify spending $200 per couple on a memorable meal here.
And if you’re lucky, you might be seated at the windows that overlook World Showcase and see Epcot’s nightly Illuminations fireworks from your window.
What if you’re not sure you’ll like French food enough to spend big bucks? Try Chefs de France, where the top seller is the French onion soup (“a comfort food,” Jerome Bocuse says).
The three-course prix fixe lunch here is a deal at $26 (it’s $39.99 for dinner).
Bocuse suggests “gratin de macaroni,” a French version of the classic American mac and cheese. His chef uses “an old recipe from Lyon – macaroni baked with cream and Gruyere cheese.”
My daughter described the rich and creamy macaroni casserole ($18.99) as “a fettuccine mac and cheese.” She devoured half at dinner and half as a late-night snack.
I loved the experience of sitting and taking time for a three-course meal with my daughters. We dined for 90 minutes at Chefs de France – and got up only because we had Fast Passes to ride Soarin’.
If you find yourself in a rush at Epcot – let’s say you have just a half-hour to eat before you race off to meet the princesses from “Frozen” at the Norway pavilion – then head to the recently expanded bakery in France, Les Halles Boulangerie Patisserie. Try a “brie aux pommes” – brie cheese and apples on a fresh baguette.
Everything is baked on the premises, and the bread is so good that Eric Weistroffer, who manages the Bocuse restaurants, takes a baguette home to enjoy with his wife every night.
Enjoy food like French do
And that is my favorite part of dining in France at Epcot: The chance to enjoy food like the French do.
Even when you’re in a Disney frenzy, the food begs you to stay present – to enjoy every flake of the croissant, every sweet drop of the sorbet. The food begs you to share and savor a new and authentic experience with your family.
“That’s what Epcot is all about,” Jerome Bocuse said. “To bring the culture and food of France to our guests.”