Remembering Paul Bocuse

From our January 2018 newsletter:

Legendary French chef Paul Bocuse passed away in January this year. He was known as one of the first chefs to move away from traditional French “cuisine classique” to the lighter, more modernised “nouvelle cuisine” (a term supposedly first used by a journalist to describe the meal Bocuse and others prepared for the maiden flight of the Concorde airliner in 1969). He also founded the Bocuse d’Or (often described as the culinary version of the Olympics) in 1987, which remains the most prestigious gastronomic contest in the world. (His private life famously included one wife, two long-term mistresses, and a tattoo of a rooster on his left arm.)

 More than 1500 of the world’s top chefs attended Bocuse’s funeral in Lyon (image courtesy of The Telegraph)
Although he was a pioneer in many ways, Bocuse was also deeply committed to tradition (for the last years of his life he slept – and eventually died – in the room in which he was born), which in the kitchen meant insisting on the importance of classic technique.

As one writer pointed out in the wake of Bocuse’s passing, such focus on culinary technique has largely been sidelined in this era of “YouTube chefs” and “ingredient-driven” cooking, which aims to let ingredients (ideally from local, organic markets) “basically assemble themselves—the product of good agriculture, needing just a little coaxing, some confidence, and maybe a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil to display their complexity on a gleaming white plate”.

It’s of course not true to say that the culinary scene is neatly divided between the simplicity of a YouTube cooking show or serving a single peach on a plate for dessert (as Alice Waters famously didat her California restaurant Chez Panisse) and the complexities of a meal at a Michelin-starred restaurant. Some chefs become famous for rejecting classical trimmings, like Argentinian Francis Mallman (featured in one episode of the Netflix series Chef’s Table), who focuses “on a primal style of hospitality whose core comes down to one-syllable words: smoke, fire, air, stone, salt, rain, meat, wine, while others choose to move from a life of cooking in fine-dining restaurants to making “ordinary food that many people can afford”.

However the gastronomic landscape unfolds, let us hope that there will continue to be masters of the trade who can inspire the kind of honour and respect that Bocuse did, and who will hopefully have a more enduring impact than a million views on YouTube.