For 30 years the small, family-owned restaurant in Talloires, France enjoyed the top three-star rating in the Michelin guide, the “bible” of French gastronomy. Then two years ago the famed Auberge du Père Bise was summarily reduced in rank when Michelin dropped one star from its listing. The reason: disorganization caused by the absence of its patron-chef, Francois Bise, who at the age of 55 was dying of cancer.
Madame Bise says those years when her husband was ill were indeed psychologically difficult. But she insists, “Inside us we always had three stars. Nothing was changed. Our clients always stayed faithful.” Her daughter, Sophie, viewed the reduced rating—and the timing—less philosophically. “I thought it was inadmissible that they took the star away from a sick man,” she says firmly. “It was a great shock for him.”
This spring, in the only change of status in Michelin’s three-star category, the Auberge was reinstated as one of only 19 top establishments in France—just 14 months after Bise’s death and after the installation this year of his daughter, Sophie, as chef. At 21 she is probably the youngest patron-chef and certainly the only woman commanding a three-star kitchen. Says Chef Paul Bocuse, the father of nouvelle cuisine, “Sophie is taking over with brio.”
Her mother, Charlyne, 46, oversees the three-room restaurant, 34 guest rooms in surrounding chalets and a staff of 48, while the Auberge continues a tradition of four generations. And thanks to the dedication of the Bise women, dinner reservations are still booked months in advance, with customers from around Europe, as well as the U.S., South America and Japan, arriving to dine on a classic cuisine that might include crayfish salad, lobster with baby white asparagus or chicken with fresh truffles baked under the skin—all served in an elegant setting of linen, Limoges, Christofle and Baccarat.
The Auberge was begun as a one-room restaurant by Francois Bise in 1901 serving home cooked meals prepared by his wife. Their son, Marius, and his wife, Marguerite, took over in 1928 when the Lake Annecy area had become a gathering spot for European nobility and celebrities who dined at the restaurant. Charlyne met her future husband, Francois Bise, on her 13th birthday at the Auberge. Seven years later they married, and she joined the family business.
In 1969 Charlyne and Francois bought the business from his siblings, even putting up her wedding band as the collateral for a loan. Now she greets guests and is the administrator, accountant, decorator and last word on everything.
But it is Sophie who rules the kitchen. At 16 she decided to become a chef and began a five-year apprenticeship. Since her return she has introduced culinary creations of her own, including salads with sweetbreads and lamb ribs with basil sauce and beef marrow. She has also mastered the family cooking secrets, such as how to keep truffles fresh for three months. She points out that the restaurant, which prides itself on the freshness of its fare, still does not have a freezer. First Chef Gilles Furtin, 31, who was trained by Francois and ran the kitchen during his illness, is delighted to work with Sophie, saying, “She’s young but has all the qualities of her father. When Sophie entered the kitchen, the Bise tradition returned.”
Mme. Bise admits, “I wouldn’t have continued without Sophie. It wasn’t worth it. But now I feel I have something good to leave my daughter, and I’ll stay as long as she wants me.” Sophie’s devotion is just as firm. “I’m here for another 50 years,” she says. “My goal is to keep the third star.” These Bise women mean business.