By Ludivine Corporal
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Monument of French cuisine, Pierre Orsi welcomes us to his chic establishment in the 6th arrondissement of Lyon, place Kléber. It is with this restaurant, created in 1975, that the chef has definitively established his reputation.
Now 83 years old, this great cooking enthusiast confides in his youth, his rise and his current life, still punctuated by work.
One of the first apprentices of Georges Bocuse
It must be said that Pierre Orsi did not choose the restaurant industry by chance. It even rather imposed itself on him. “I’ve never known anything else and I wanted to do like my father,” he admits. His parents, who ran an inn in Poleymieux-au-Mont-d’Or, introduced him very quickly. From the age of 10, he “picks up the dead leaves on the terrace, draws the wine, clears the table, sorts the beans”.
At first, Pierre Orsi sees himself more in the dining room than in the kitchen. But his father places him on an apprenticeship contract at the age of 15 in Collonges-au-Mont-d’Or with, as teacher, Georges Bocuse, who is none other than the father of Paul Bocuse.
This time, the cook speaks of it with great nostalgia. He was also one of Father Bocuse’s first apprentices.
“There were four of us, staying on site. Paul was employed by his father and already had a certain bearing. We prepared about ten recipes, it was very simple, many things were done on a spit. He also remembers sneaking out at night on the little Vespas they had to get around.
120 cooks under his command in the United States
Pierre Orsi closes his eyes. Concentrated, he tries to remember the slightest detail so that we don’t miss a beat. It was in 1958 that he obtained his CAP de Cuisinier, at the age of 19. He then left to work in England, then he was offered a job as a chef in Chicago, at the age of 26. “I didn’t feel capable of it. But after a week, I realized that I could do it,” he recalls.
He sets off for Los Angeles and manages 120 cooks before returning to Chicago, where he will work on the 98th floor of a building, in a large restaurant. Some time after relocating to Lyon, the cook opened his restaurant in his name in 1975. The place quickly became a great success.
“We were full all the time”
“We were full all the time. At the beginning there was only one room, so we loaded a lot of people on the same table. The mayonnaise took. Pierre Orsi remembers seeing all the top Lyonnais pass by, and “a lot of pretty girls. »
With his wife, Geneviève, they work tirelessly to rise to the top. This earned them two stars from the Michelin Guide in 1980. The chef was also crowned Meilleur Ouvrier de France. “I got up at 4 a.m., I did my sport at the Vendôme center, the afternoon siesta. »
Everyone rushes to the door of the establishment to work there. “We had a waiting list for staff,” continues Pierre Orsi. In 48 years, the chef, who describes himself at times as quite “demanding and authoritarian”, has seen around 500 employees pass through, including three apprentices who have become Best Workers in France.
Pierre Orsi continues to rise to “give an example” to his team
In 2019, he lost a Michelin star then, in 2020, it was the pandemic that undermined the operation of the restaurant. “We had lost our indoor team and we are going through a somewhat difficult period in terms of recruitment,” he confides.
The best years are behind him. Pierre Orsi knows it. “There is a whole young generation coming up behind. There comes a day when you stop going up the hill and you gently come down the other side. That’s how it is, you have to be ready. »
But the octogenarian has not lost the taste for work so far. “What gets me up in the morning is being able to set an example for my team. By being present, we solve many problems. »
He supervises, sometimes goes behind the stoves and sometimes even lends a hand with the dishwashing. But he gently tries to slow down. “In the evening, I try to get up before 11 p.m., once the last hot dish has been served. I greet the customers and I leave. »
“For the moment, we continue! »
But his age will not allow him to continue like this for another ten years. And he dreads it. “When I can no longer work, it will be complicated. But we already have applicants for resale…”, he says. “For the moment, we continue! »
The conversation logically ends around the kitchen. The most important thing on a plate? “The sauce and the juice”. What does he prefer to concoct? “Dishes cooked in a casserole dish because it retains the taste,” he replies tit for tat. A little tour of the kitchens and here is the chef already back on the front line, ready to continue yet another day of work…
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