Bocuse: The chef who made cooking a great art
Following the death of Paul Bocuse, ‘Mr Paul’ to the culinary world, Connexion speaks to his friend and former restaurateur Jacotte Brazier, food critic Périco Légasse and Michelin starred chef Pierre Caillet about how Bocuse brought French haute cuisine to a wider public and his unique legacy
Legendary chef Paul Bocuse worked right up to the end, having died aged 91 in his flagship restaurant L’Auberge du Pont de Collonges near Lyon, where he was born in 1926.
He built up the family auberge to achieve three Michelin stars, which it has held for more than 50 years and he was hailed by the Gault et Millau guide as ‘chef of the century’ and ‘the pope of gastronomy’.
Bocuse went on to own restaurants across the world, founded international competition les Bocuses d’Or and elite hospitality school Institut Paul Bocuse. He was the first chef to receive the légion d’honneur since Auguste Escoffier (the only 20th century French chef of comparable reputation) and was elevated to commandeur.
While still a teenager Bocuse fought under De Gaulle to liberate France during which time he was cared for by American soliders after being injured – and had a French cockerel tatooed on his arm by them. He won the Croix de Guerre.
Yet despite all his achievements, Bocuse considered his proudest title to be Meilleur Ouvrier de France (MOF) – which honours those, whether chefs or plumbers, who have achieved the finest traditional know-how in their craft.
After the war Bocuse was apprenticed to three-star chef Eugénie Brazier, one of the renowned mères lyonnaises women chefs. Her granddaughter Jacotte, a former restaurateur who runs the association Les Amis d’Eugénie Brazier, said: “I lost my father early, before my grandmother and I turned to Paul for advice in my joys and sorrows.
“The only thing that reassures us now is that he wasn’t well, suffering from Parkinson’s, although he was all there mentally, and he saw himself as an old man. Perhaps it had to end because he felt very tired. I will remember him for his generosity, which came across in his cooking, generous with quality products, the butter, the cream… And he way he helped us all – all Lyon restaurants were helped by Paul.
“He was our ambassador. The fact that Lyon cooking is legendary today is thanks to Paul. I hope his legacy will not be in vain and will not disappear, that this Bocusian cuisine will go on.”
She added: “Paul Bocuse gave us absolutely everything. It’s him who got chefs out of their kitchens – which used to be a kind of black hole. Whether Lyonnaise or otherwise, it’s thanks to Paul that French cuisine is so honoured, him and no one else. We’ve lost our emperor.
“The new generation will never be the same. They’ve been brought up more in cotton wool.”
Ms Brazier said Bocuse went to work at an early age out of necessity and worked his way up, and did not have the same advantages as the earlier master Escoffier, who quickly moved in high society circles and prestigious venues, having met Ritz hotels founder César Ritz.
Food critic Périco Légasse, who is the wine and food editor of Marianne magazine, said: “Bocuse was the embodiment of la grande cuisine – traditional French cooking, especially in the Lyonnaise trandition, the inheritance of his masters, such as la mère Brazier and la mère Fillioux and Fernand Point. He was not an innovator, he was a wonderful preserver of culinary heritage and his struggle was to maintain and to transmit this savoir-faire to future generations.
“It’s that cooking which made France renowned, not the cooking of today.”
He added: “He also made chefs recognised not just as employees preparing meals in their kitchen but as important people on the same level as a great musician, writer, scientist or captain of industry; he got cooking recognised among the great arts.
“It made a splash when he was invited to cook a special meal at the Elysée [on the occasion of receiving his légion d’honneur] and people realised that now cooking could be a national political event.” It was on this occasion that Bocuse created his soupe aux truffes noires VGE – a soup of truffle, foie gras and vegetables covered by a pastry crust – named in honour of then president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing.
The occasion is also remembered for his remark to the president, who asked him how to eat the soup: “Maintenant, monsieur le président, on va casser la croûte” – a pun meaning literally ‘we’re going to break the crust’ but also a slang expression meaning ‘it’s time to tuck in’.
Mr Légasse added: “Paul Bocuse’s cooking was a cuisine of the fundamentals, not a cuisine of improvisation and innovation such as we see today with chefs like Heston Blumenthal – it was about basics and strict rules. He passed on the authentic recipes he had received from his masters. He also improved on them of course, but he was the guardian of authenticity.”
Chef Pierre Caillet of Le Bec au Cauchois, at Valmont in Normandy, who also holds the MOF, award, said Bocuse was an icon to his generation. “He was our spiritual father, the guardian of gastronomy and our reference point for what French cuisine is. He represented the best in French cooking.
“He showed us the true value of work which our modern society is losing. We learnt that you could only achieve perfection if you put the hours in. Discipline and precision are often seen as the big bad wolf nowadays, but for him this was the way forward.”
Bocuse has been described as one of the first chefs who “came out of the kitchen” to meet his customers and who loved to be in the media.
“This was before the internet age and so he was one of the first to introduce haute cuisine to the general public via television and one of the first to take French cuisine abroad and we, chefs of today, have benefited from the image he gave us around the world.”
Mr Caillet said Bocuse also helped promote the MOF as a mark of excellence. “More people know about it, because of him,” he said.
He added: “Bocuse showed us that the best ingredients give the best results.
“Though styles of cooking have perhaps moved on, we learnt the basics of French traditional cuisine from him and chefs like him, and you need this knowledge and the basic skills to progress and do what we do now.”