“Classic or modern, there is only one cuisine … the good.” — Paul Bocuse, 1926-2018
A great man has passed. The French chef Paul Bocuse died today at 91. From the NYT obit:
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.”
Only a Frenchman could say that. God, I love the French. What magnificent bastards, and guess what? It ain’t bragging if you can do it. In the kitchen, they can do it. More:
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.
He never looked back. Read the whole thing.
Anybody who knows anything about French cuisine knows of Paul Bocuse. Me, I fell in love with him a few years back after watching the Lyon episode of Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown” show (Season 3, Episode 3). I have watched it numerous times since first being captivated by it in 2014. Here’s a clip:
I strongly encourage you to rent the episode from Amazon or YouTube (click here; if you like to eat, it’s the best $1.99 you’ll spend all year). It’s not only about Bocuse, but about cooking and eating in France’s gastronomic capital, Lyon. The episode is so powerful that I actually diverted a return trip from a conference in Italy in 2015 to go to Lyon with friends to eat. One of those friends was the legendary James C., with whom I ate one of the most memorable meals of my life: quenelles of pike at the Café Comptoir Abel, where Buford took Bourdain to eat exactly that classic Lyonnaise dish. In this piece, Buford describes them, and Abel:
Neither a café nor a comptoir but a bouchon with an excess of atmosphere so precious that even Daniel Boulud has admitted to a scheme to steal it. Abel’s chef, Alain Vigneron, is the only person still standing behind a stove who knows how to make a quenelle as it was done 76 years ago. A quenelle is less a recipe than a clever invention that, in Vigneron’s preparation, renders a bony, virtually inedible Rhone lake fish into a creamy soufflé-like poem irritatingly evocative of sex. In fact, it’s not Vigneron’s preparation; he stole it from the grave of Eugenie Brazier, aka Mère Brazier, France’s first woman to get three Michelin stars. Today you still see (on the wall of restaurants where she never worked, at the tabac, on a bus), not just her picture, but the picture, the now-iconic image that was taken in 1935 by Theo Blanc and Antoine Demilly, the Lyonnais celebrity photo team, that depicts a tough, rotund, no-nonsense woman in a too-tight chef’s garb, stirring a steamy, unexplained pot with demonic intensity. I learned these things working at Abel, trying to master the quenelle. I failed. I can’t do the pointy egg-shape operation with two spoons, although rarely a day passes when I don’t try: with my children’s ice cream, the morning yoghurt, once with my toothpaste.
James C. captured on his camera the moment the first taste of an Abel’s quenelle passed by vulgar lips:
That, my friends, is a look of burgeoning rapture. And that, for me, was Lyon.
I did not go eat chez Bocuse that trip. I lacked the courage, and more importantly, I lacked the money. I really regret it now, but that just gives me a reason to return. One of my 2015 party, the lawyer Sordello, went back to Lyon with his wife to celebrate their 20th wedding anniversary in 2016. They at chez Bocuse. It was glorious. It’s good to have a lawyer’s income, though. But hey, you only live once, and there is only one Paul Bocuse.
The life and work of Paul Bocuse shows what kind of artistry a man in a kitchen, working with heat, knives, and ingenuity, can produce from the gifts of the earth. That is part of the greatness of man, and in particular part of the greatness of France. In his honor, I offer these lines from W.H. Auden:
A cook a pure artist
Who moves everyman
At a deeper level than
Mozart, for the subject of the verg
To-hunger is never a name…
… Then surely those in whose creed
God is edible may call a fine
Omelette a Christian deed.
… and no wonder chefs mature into
Choleric types, doomed to observe
Beauty peck at a master-dish, their one reward
To behold the mutually hostile
Mouth and eyes of a sinner married
At the first bite by a smile.