Paul Bocuse Dies At 91: How Chefs Are Remembering The Revered French Chef

Posted: Jan 21, 2018

Paul Bocuse's influence has spanned generations of chefs, from all over the world.

Paul Bocuse, the most celebrated French chef of the postwar era and a leading figure in the pathbreaking culinary movement known as nouvelle cuisine, died on Saturday, his family said in a statement. He was 91.

Mr. Bocuse emerged as the first among a brilliant band of chefs who developed a modernized version of classic French cooking in the late 1960s and early ’70s, cheered on by Henri Gault and Christian Millau, the publishers of the influential Gault-Millau Guide. Following the lead of Fernand Point, the spiritual father of nouvelle cuisine and a mentor to many of its pioneers, Mr. Bocuse shaped a style of cooking at the Auberge du Pont de Collonges, his three-star restaurant near Lyon, that stressed fresh ingredients, lighter sauces, unusual flavor combinations and relentless innovation that, in his case, rested on a solid mastery of classic technique.

His signature dishes not only pleased the palate; they also seduced the eye and piqued the imagination. He stuffed sea bass with lobster mousse and encased it in pastry scales and fins. He poached a truffled Bresse chicken inside a pig’s bladder.

His most famous dish was truffle soup V.G.E., a heady mixture of truffles and foie gras in chicken broth, baked in a single-serving bowl covered in puff pastry. First served at a dinner at the Élysée Palace in 1975, the soup was named for the French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, who had just awarded Mr. Bocuse the French Legion of Honor.

Mr. Bocuse, a tireless self-promoter, was a constant presence in the news media and on television. “You’ve got to beat the drum in life,” he told People magazine in 1976. “God is already famous, but that doesn’t stop the preacher from ringing the church bells every morning.”

He parlayed celebrity into a restaurant empire that extended beyond France to embrace the United States and Japan, and in so doing he became a role model for the chef-entrepreneurs of the present day, like Jacques Pépin.

“Certainly he did more than any other chef in the world that I can think of to bring the chefs in the dining room and to make the profession respectable and to make us who we are now,” Mr. Pépin said in 2011, when Mr. Bocuse was named “chef of the century” by the Culinary Institute of America. “Now the chefs are stars and it’s because of Paul Bocuse. We are indebted to him for them.”

Paul Bocuse was born on Feb. 11, 1926, in Collonges-au-Mont-d’Or, where his forebears had been cooking and serving food for seven generations. At the age of 8, he made his first serious dish, veal kidneys with puréed potatoes, and as a teenager he began an apprenticeship at a local restaurant. The training was interrupted by World War II, however, when he was assigned to a Vichy government youth camp and put to work in its canteen and slaughterhouse. In 1944, he joined the 1st Free French Division and was wounded in combat in Alsace. He received the Croix de Guerre.

After the war, he resumed his apprenticeship at the restaurant, La Mère Brazier in Le Col de la Luère, outside Lyon. Like its twin in Lyon, it was owned by the legendary Eugénie Brazier and had achieved three Michelin stars by serving impeccable renditions of regional classics.

After a brief stint at the three-star Lucas Carton in Paris, where he worked alongside the brothers Pierre and Jean Troisgros, Mr. Bocuse spent eight years under Point at La Pyramide in Vienne, near Lyon. “Back then a lot of restaurants were doing the same kind of old-fashioned Escoffier-style cooking, with lots of sauces hiding the ingredients, and the same dishes night after night,” Mr. Bocuse told The New York Times in 2007. “Point was a perfectionist who gave value and credibility to the finest ingredients.”

In 1956, Mr. Bocuse returned to the family restaurant, the Auberge du Pont de Collonges, which earned its first Michelin star two years later. Despite the paper tablecloths and stainless-steel cutlery, a second star was awarded in 1960.

President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing awarded Mr. Bocuse with the French Legion of Honor in Paris in 1975. Credit Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
In 1966, a year after the restaurant earned its third star, Mr. Bocuse bought back the old family restaurant that his grandfather, in straitened circumstances, had sold in 1921 along with the rights to the Bocuse name. He renamed the building, which once belonged to an order of monks, the Abbaye de Collonges and converted it into a banquet hall. He also hoisted a four-foot neon “Paul Bocuse” sign atop his restaurant.

The groundswell for nouvelle cuisine transformed Mr. Bocuse into the international face of French cooking. He appeared on the cover of The New York Times Magazine in 1972. In 1975, resplendent in chef whites and toque, he looked out from the cover of Newsweek under the banner headline “Food: The New Wave.” An apprenticeship at his restaurant became a rite of passage for ambitious chefs, including Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Daniel Boulud.

In time, as a backlash against nouvelle cuisine developed, Mr. Bocuse put some distance between himself and the movement. He referred snidely to “mini-portions on maxi-plates” and at one point dismissed the movement as “a joke.”

“It is not true that Paul Bocuse invented Nouvelle Cuisine,” he told The Wall Street Journal in 2011. “There were a few dishes that were developed lighter, but that is normal in cooking. The term Nouvelle Cuisine as it came to be known was nothing to do with what was on the plate, but what was on the bill.”

Nouvelle cuisine lost momentum, but Mr. Bocuse did not. In the early 1980s, the Walt Disney Company invited him to create restaurants for the French pavilion at Epcot Center (now Walt Disney World) in Orlando, Fla. With Gaston Lenôtre and Roger Vergé, he developed Les Chefs de France restaurant, which is now operated by his son, Jérôme, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America. It serves 2,000 meals a day and generates about $30 million a year.

When the organizers of Eurexpo, a culinary trade fair in Lyon, approached Mr. Bocuse for ideas on how to promote the event, he proposed a cooking contest in which chefs would prepare two elaborate dishes, one fish and one meat, before a live audience and then submit them to a panel of expert judges for scoring. The Bocuse d’Or, held every two years, made its debut in 1987 and is now regarded as the culinary equivalent of the Olympics, attracting teams from all over the world.

In addition to his restaurant in Collonges-au-Mont-d’Or, Mr. Bocuse operated brasseries in France, Switzerland and Japan, and a culinary school at Écully, near Lyon.

His cookbooks include “Paul Bocuse’s French Cooking (1977), “Paul Bocuse in Your Kitchen: An Introduction to Classic French Cooking” (1982), “Bocuse à la Carte” (1989) and “Paul Bocuse: The Complete Recipes” (2011).

For many years, Mr. Bocuse resisted writing the story of his life, but he eventually worked with Eve-Marie Zizza-Lalu to produce an as-told-to memoir, “Paul Bocuse: The Sacred Fire,” published in 2005. Even in France, eyebrows lifted a little when Mr. Bocuse revealed that for more than 30 years, he had enjoyed the company of not only his wife, Raymonde, the mother of his daughter, Françoise Bernachon, but also of two mistresses, one of them the mother of Jérôme. His wife survives him, as do his two children.

“It would not be everyone’s idea of married life, but everyone gets on,” he told The Daily Telegraph of London at the time. “They are all happy, with me and each other, and if I add up the time we have spent together as couples, it comes to 145 years.”

Despite his international status, Mr. Bocuse remained a chef deeply rooted in his native soil. He loved the traditional dishes of Lyon. He slept in the same bedroom where he had been born.

“When the time comes, I too will end up in the oven,” he told L’Express in 2005, musing over the multiple meanings of his memoir’s title. “I want my ashes to be scattered in the Saône, which flows right past my house. It is the river of my life.”

By William Grimes
January 20, 2018


A group photo at the 2009 Bocuse d’Or culinary contest included Mr. Bocuse, third from left; Daniel Boulud, fourth from left; and Thomas Keller, third from right. Created by Mr. Bocuse, the competition has become known as the Olympics of Food. Credit Owen Franken for The New York Times

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