‘Behind you, it’s not done yet, but it’s going to be a cafe.’ I’m standing in Lyon’s Hôtel-Dieu, mid-renovation, as builders rush about with just five weeks to go until the scheduled opening (19 October 2019) of the city’s long-awaited Cité Internationale de la Gastronomie. Opening manager Damien Blanchard looks nervous. ‘Will it be ready? I hope so.’
What is the Cité Internationale de la Gastronomie?
In 2010, UNESCO granted the French gastronomic meal ‘world intangible heritage’ status. France was encouraged by this to establish four international cities of gastronomy around the country. ‘It was a big thing to French people. In Lyon, we are the first.’ The other three will open in 2024 and each will have a theme: the one in Tours will revolve around human sciences, in Paris-Rungis it will be markets, in Dijon the focus is on wine. Here in Lyon, the theme is health. Fittingly, the Hôtel-Dieu, founded in 1443, was a hospital until 2010.
What can we expect?
As we tour the 4000 square metres across four levels of this historical building, it becomes increasingly clear its transformation into a kind of gastronomic world is going to enthral not just die-hard gourmands, but nutritionists, French film buffs, young children, wannabe chefs, historians, Francophiles… 'We won’t call it a museum,’ says Blanchard, ‘But there will be permanent exhibitions, activities and events. It’s more like a cultural centre.’ Here are some of the delights:
Miam Miam: the interactive children’s section
The dedicated children’s section called Miam Miam has six knowledge islands where kids (and the young at heart) will be able to play games revolving around themes of nutrition, gastronomy and health. All instructions are in both English and French, and most striking is the fully equipped pastel-coloured kitchen that has a video screen of a cartoon chef above the cooking station to act as a guide. ‘Everything is connected,’ says Blanchard ‘there’s a touch table, you can cook a recipe by following the numbers. I did a mayonnaise last time, it was fun.’
Apart from a giant picnic basket and a talking cow called Lillie, there’s also a model of a French landscape sitting atop half an egg, where children will be able to use virtual reality to follow a bee and see where their produce comes from.
‘You can also sit on the teeth or on the tongue of a giant mouth’ says Blanchard, doing just that, as he displays another educational game about what happens to the body when healthy food is eaten.
Paul Bocuse’s original kitchen stove
On the first floor of the permanent exhibition in the Bon Appétit section, as well as learning of the historical importance of the Lyon Mothers and the Michelin Guide, you’ll find – amid a display dedicated to the life and times of renowned chef Paul Bocuse – his original stove. ‘It is like a piece of art, but it has been renewed,’ says Blanchard. ‘And we don’t have any gas but it could work if we would like. It’s 700kg so is really hard to carry.’
The chef extravaganza in the events space
On the second floor is the events and activities space where people can come and see chef demonstrations. Visitors can also, for an additional €12, purchase tastings plates here and glasses of wine (or non-alcoholic drink pairings) from signature set menus from visiting chefs. And we’re not just talking about French chefs. As part of the ‘Welcome Country’ programme, there’ll be a roster of international guests, starting with chefs from Japan in October 2020.
As we’ve rushed from room to room at a cracking pace and my head spins with the real and the imaginary of this phenomenal work-in-progress, it’s almost emotional to finish in a space that’s a tribute to Hôtel-Dieu’s former function as a hospital. In a dark room that once held the building’s archives, you can stand transfixed as video installations of colourful plants and Latin names whirl above your head in representation of a cinematic apothecary, feeling like the old and new are meeting here in a truly extraordinary way.
Cost: €12/8/3 adults/children under 16/unemployed people; annual membership €51
Karyn Noble visited Lyon with the support of Lyon Tourism.