The glittering lights of the gastronomic world will gather in Lyon on Friday to bid adieu to Paul Bocuse, the brightest star of French cuisine, who died at the weekend aged 91.
The most influential chef of the past century – and, arguably, in history – Paul Bocuse dominates his hometown of Lyon just has he did the world of cooking. France’s capital of gastronomy boasts no fewer than eight restaurants bearing the Bocuse name, and that’s not including Les Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse, an indoor food market, or L’Auberge du Pont de Collonges, the famous restaurant just north of the city that has held on to three Michelin stars since 1965, longer than any other restaurant.
More than a chef, or indeed a celebrity chef, Bocuse was an icon and a brand. He started restaurants all over the world, including in the France Pavilion at Walt Disney World’s Epcot Center in Orlando, Florida. There are Bocuse cookbooks, Bocuse paraphernalia, and a Bocuse wax figure in the Grévin Museum in Paris. He is famed the world over and was named the Chef of the Century, both by the Gault-Millau guide in 1989 and by the Culinary Institute of America in 2011.
“He was a global superstar of unbound scale,” said Tim Ryan, President of the Culinary Institute of America. “He is the big bang of the culinary era. He is where the modern chef really begins.”
Bocuse’s influence wasn’t just about proliferation. At the base of his fame lay skill. Born into a family that had been in the cooking profession since 1765, Bocuse was 35 when he won the Meilleur Ouvrier de France (Best Craftsman in France) award, which recognizes exceptional savoir-faire. Throughout a career rich in distinctions, he would treasure that accolade above all others.
Perhaps his biggest strength, though, was his ability to innovate. He was instrumental in launching the Nouvelle Cuisine craze, which emphasized fresh ingredients and reinterpreted lighter versions of French classics, using less cream and butter (not that Bocuse had anything against butter. He once called it a “magical product” and said that “nothing replaces butter”).
And he continued to revere tradition, leaving several of the signature dishes served at the Auberge unchanged for decades, the most famous being the black truffle soup he created for French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, who named him a Commander of the Legion of Honour in 1975.
Inspiring chefs the world over
Bocuse changed the way restaurants work. Before him, French kitchens were staunchly hierarchal places and, while chefs may have been at the top of the pecking order in the kitchen, they were relegated to staying behind the scenes, mere employees of the restaurant owners. Bocuse changed that.
“He stepped out of the kitchen and into the dining room,” Ryan said, explaining that it was Bocuse who began the practice of greeting diners and becoming a known quantity to customers.
In addition to being a skilled chef, Bocuse had business acumen and a knack for promotion.
“He was always coming up with interesting photos and doing interesting things,” Ryan said, recalling a picture of Bocuse wearing a wetsuit and standing in the Mediterranean Sea holding a sea bass. One of his signature dishes was a pastry-encrusted sea bass.
His influence on the generations of chefs that came after him cannot be overstated.
“When I was a kid, 13, 14, I was inspired by his cookbooks,” said Eric Ripert, a French celebrity chef whose flagship New York restaurant, Le Bernardin, is ranked among the best in the world. “I wanted to be a chef because of him… He had a huge influence on me, without knowing it.”
For Ripert, as for many Bocuse fans, the attraction was as much Bocuse’s persona as his cooking. With his ever-present chef toque and white coat, he was very much the iconic image of the French chef.
Daniel Boulud, a New York-based celebrity chef with his own empire of restaurants, hails from outside Lyon and did stints in Bocuse’s kitchen when he was a teenager learning the craft. The two became close friends, and did many fundraising events together across the United States.
Boulud said Bocuse was always eager to learn from chefs in other parts of the world, and, even more important to him, to share the principles of French cuisine. “He always cared about education, he cared about mentoring,” Boulud said.
It was that openness of spirit that earned him a place in the hearts of his fellow Lyonnais. No matter how big he got, to them he was always their beloved “Monsier Paul.” He was a regular fixture at Les Halles, and even when he was no longer heading there on a daily basis to buy supplies for his restaurant, he would visit the same café every Sunday for coffee.
Thousands of Bocuse fans are expected to show up to bid him a final farewell on Friday. While only friends, family, chefs and officials will be allowed into the Cathedral Saint-Jean, where the service is to be held, giant screens will allow his admirers to take part. When he turned 81 in 2007, more than 80 chefs from around the world flew to France to celebrate with him. Local media report that more than 600 are expected to attend his funeral.