Today marks the 90th birthday of the Father of Culinary Art in France, Paul Bocuse. Bon anniversaire, Chef Bocuse!
Ten generations of Bocuses had been chefs in the small village of Collonges-au-Mont-d’Or before Paul was born in 1926. His father had been apprenticed in the same kitchen as Fernand Point. Bocuse would be apprenticed to him. His destiny was almost assured.
The war interrupted his training. Still a teenager, he fought with the Free French Army until he was wounded by German machine gun fire. Then, in 1948, he found himself in the kitchen of La Pyramide, learning from the master.
Instead of taking steps to curb Bocuse’s natural exuberance—as would normally be the case between a master-chef and a spirited apprentice—Point gave it every encouragement. But we might imagine the scenes, knowing that a young Bocuse had once revenged himself on a bullying chef by sneaking a human skull into the stockpot. Still, it is clear that along with spirit there was talent and application, for there are no shortcuts to stardom in haute cuisine. And stardom, it seems, was inevitable. Though not without further trial.
His father’s tiny hotel had been damaged in the war and only roughly restored. Worse, his impecunious grandfather had sold not only the family restaurant but also the rights to the family name. But from such difficult circumstances a man might still become the greatest chef in France, if he so willed.
Bocuse maintained the habit of personally going around the markets of Lyon long after he became famous. His mission was always to encourage a return to the intrinsic taste of produce, enhanced by ingenuity and subtle skill. He did not claim novelty, and felt that a great chef is one who finds maybe two new dishes in a lifetime. He knew that a truly great chef is one who, like Point, inspires a generation of pupils. And with all his soul he believed in the integrity of French cuisine.
Excerpt from ‘Great, Grand & Famous Chefs and their Signature Dishes’. Read the full chapter here.
Bocused claimed “it is our duty to give meaning to the life of future generations by sharing our knowledge and experience; by teaching an appreciation of work well done and a respect for nature, the source of all life; by encouraging the young to venture off the beaten path and avoid complacency by challenging their emotions.”
In fact, in the 1970s, when nouvelle cuisine was formalised by Bocuse, Henri Gault published the ‘ten commandments of nouvelle cuisine’ and the formula remains in place today. It proscribes overcooking and unnecessary sauces and seasonings, and prescribes high-quality ingredients, expert and innovative techniques and the scientific principles of good nutrition.
Many chefs, including Tony Bilson, list Paul Bocuse as an inspiration. José Silva, ex-Head Chef of Guillaume at Bennelong, spoke fondly of Bocuse, noting “he was a big influence for me and I had the pleasure to meet him, cook for him and take a photo with him.”
More recently, Bocuse was named the top chef of the 20th century by the Culinary Institute of America. Tim Ryan, president of the Institute cited a legendary career in which he transformed both food on plates and the lives of the people who cooked. Ryan stated, “he is one of the greatest, most significant chefs of all time.”
Chef Bocuse, Happy 90th Birthday and thank you for your contribution to cuisine.