Obsessed with the sharing and transmission of food, culture, and knowledge, Monsieur Paul Bocuse, 1926-2018, was the first champion of gastronomy recognizable on every continent.
Monsieur Paul was the original celebrity chef. Jacques Pepin remarked, “Now the chefs are stars and it’s because of Paul Bocuse.”
When studying the forefathers of gastronomy, we are taught about Auguste Escoffier, who created the brigade de cuisine, establishing military style hierarchy within the culinary profession. There had certainly been prodigious French chefs before him, but it was Escoffier who codified the recipes for the five “mother” sauces and organized cooking by its fundamentals in a way that could be universally taught and understood. Young chefs are still tied to his temperament and texts.
We subsequently learn about Fernand Point, who instructed us to respect the principles outlined by Escoffier but not be tethered to them. Instead, he instructed us to evolve with changing times. “Before Fernand, the cuisinier never left the kitchen. Monsieur Point came into the dining room to speak to his clients. He sounded out their likes and dislikes and composed their dinner with them, creating dishes to their tastes.” (Source: Escoffier.com.)
To our detriment, we don’t learn of La Mere Eugenie Brazier, the first French chef to attain six Michelin stars. It requires deep research to undercover her signature –connection to the soil to cook in harmony with the seasons of Lyon. Like many women left out of the history books, though, her lack of celebrity belies her profound impact. But I digress…
The Bocuse family has been in the restaurant business since 1765. Similar to these French culinary legends, Bocuse was groomed in gastronomy. His father, Georges Bocuse, apprenticed alongside Point in his youth. Paul did the same, studying under both Point and Brazier. He credits Point with teaching him to “guard the integrity of the raw product.” Bocuse learned about loyalty to his environment from Brazier.
Eventually joining his father at the small hotel he was managing, Bocuse secured one, two and then three Michelin starts for L’Auberge du Pont de Collonges, cooking ‘nouvelle cuisine’ which “stressed fresh ingredients, lighter sauces, unusual flavor combinations and relentless innovation that, in his case, rested on a solid mastery of classic technique,” according to William Grimes of the New York Times. Paul Bocuse Restaurant has retained these stars for over 50 years and, in fact, they survive him.
The government of Lyon approached celebrated local personality Paul Bocuse over three decades ago, in an effort to gain popularity for their professional tradeshow, now known as Sirha. As the first chef to travel the world preaching the gospel of gastronomy, he had battalions of loyal followers and therefore was uniquely positioned to draw the world’s culinary elite to his homeland. What had begun as a desperate publicity stunt would soon become the world’s greatest culinary competition.
As recounted in the official program, “his idea: to bring together 24 young chefs from all over the world, among the most promising talents of their generation, and have them prepare superb dishes within 5 hours 35 minutes, live before an enthusiastic audience. To decide between them: a jury composed of the most illustrious chefs of the planet.” The competitors would be evaluated on excellence, audacity, and team spirit – pillars on which the ‘Lion of Lyon’ had built his empire.
America’s disappointing performance for most of the competition’s tenure had been a sore spot for Bocuse, but this would change. The organization created by Bocuse’s son, Jerome, along with Daniel Boulud and Thomas Keller, is now known as Ment’or. A note from Chef Keller explains Monsieur Paul’s request to form a foundation to support Team USA’s efforts just one decade ago. “Having fought for the French resistance in World War II, he always had a deep appreciation for America, especially after receiving a blood transfusion from an American field hospital when he was wounded.” To this day, the American flag flies alongside a French flag at L’Auberge du Pont des Collognes.
Exactly one year ago, I ventured to Lyon to witness the greatest in sport as part of Steelite’s generous donations to the Ment’or foundation. In this column, I highlighted the Bocuse D’Or 2017 as the most influential moment of American culinary history, when the United States claimed its first gold.
Three years ago, I visited the Institut Paul Bocuse while on a factory trip with Revol. A proud partner and donor of the school, full production of their porcelain is located about an hour south. “A showcase for French culinary expertise and savoir-faire, Paul Bocuse Institut is the first innovative school in the world of Hospitality, Foodservice, and Culinary Arts” formed to ensure that the trade is poised for the future. Monsieur Paul’s presence is felt everywhere; his quotes line the corridors. The one I recall most often reads, “I work as if I will live a hundred years and I enjoy life as if each day was the last.”
As memorials continue to pour in from all around the world, I’m haunted by another quote. When The Culinary Institute of America honored Monsieur Paul as the Chef of the Century in 2011, Bocuse offered this piece of wisdom. “In life, you have never succeeded. When you think you have succeeded, it means you have really failed.”
Bonsoir, Monsieur Paul Bocuse. You have succeeded beyond all others in the pantheon of modern cuisine.