Paul Bocuse is an icon of French gastronomy. In a career spanning almost half a century, he was not only an ambassador for the cuisine of his home nation, but he represented and promoted his craft on a world stage. The father of Nouvelle Cuisine, he created the Bocuse d’Or, which is widely regarded as the most prestigious cooking competitions in the world. And he was named Cook of the Century by Gault et Millau in 1989, and Chef of the Century by the Culinary Institute of America in 2011. But as one of the very first chefs to harness the power of the media, he was able to shine a spotlight on the world of professional kitchens and restaurants, changing the public perception of chefs irreversibly.
Cooking was in Paul Bocuse’s blood. He was born in 1926, in Collognes-au-Mont-d’Or near Lyon, to a family of chefs dating back to 1765. His first mentor was Eugénie ‘Mother’ Brazier, who became the first woman to earn three Michelin stars, and later he worked in Paris under the father of modern French cuisine, Fernand Point. He learned the formalities of Parisian haute cuisine before returning to the place of his birth to join the family-run L’Auberge du Pont de Collonges. It wasn’t long before it was awarded its first Michelin star, and the legend of Paul Bocuse had begun.
He was to stay with L’Auberge du Pont de Collonges for the rest of his life, and the restaurant has become an integral part of Paul Bocuse folklore. Famously, he was born and died in the same room above restaurant, which has retained three Michelin stars since 1965 - one of the longest continuous runs in the guide’s history. But Bocuse’s influence spread far beyond the little town near Lyon, and it is still spreading.
As an ambassador of French cuisine, he was awarded the title of Meilleur Ouvrier de France in 1961, and was made a chevalier of the Légion d’honneur in 1975. But to mention the long list of titles bestowed upon the chef might detract from his lasting impact as an innovator. Henri Gault coined the term ‘nouvelle cuisine’ to describe the simple, unpretentious yet elegant food Bocuse cooked for the maiden flight of Concorde in 1969. Bocuse went on to become the father of the Nouvelle Cuisine movement, breaking away from the stuffy conventions of haute cuisine and arguably changing the course of fine dining forever.
Bocuse’s signature dishes still provide inspiration for new generations of ambitious chefs. His ‘Black Truffle Soup VGE (Valéry d’Estaing)’ was a chicken broth with foie gras, topped with a majestic crown of puff pastry. Then there was his famous filet of red mullet, which was meticulously encrusted with flakes of potato as scales. And his Bresse chicken truffled and cooked in a bladder ‘à la Mére Fillioux’ was a tribute to his first mentor, Mother Brazier. The chicken had truffles placed under its skin and was cooked in a pig’s bladder, which was inflated like a football. The intense cooking fragrances filled the air when the bladder was carved open at the table.
Perhaps Bocuse’s greatest legacy has been to nurture and inspire talent. He founded the Institut Paul Bocuse in 1990 with the aim of providing students with the best possible culinary training. And in 1987, the first Bocuse d’Or cooking contest was held in Lyon. In what has become known as the Olympic games for food, the biennial contest remains the ultimate challenge to the world’s best up and coming chefs to win the coveted first prize, a golden effigy of Paul Bocuse standing proudly in his chef whites and toque.
It’s difficult to overstate the impact of Paul Bocuse on culinary culture. The Musée Grévin in Paris has a waxwork of him, and in Japan he is regarded as a ‘god’ among chefs. One thing is certain: he was a towering talent who changed the way people think about restaurants, fine dining and the role of chefs in the world.