One man above all came to embody the notion of what it is to be a French chef—so I went to his restaurantby Wendell Steavenson / April 18, 2018 / Leave a comment
Published in May 2018 issue of Prospect Magazine
Paul Bocuse died in January at the age of 91 above his family’s restaurant, L’Auberge du Pont de Collonges, outside Lyon, in the same room in which he had been born.
“I am lost when I leave,” he once said, “when I spend a night in another bed, to find my bearings, I have to fall asleep with the river Saône situated on my left.” Because Bocuse; the chef who held three Michelin stars for more than 50 years and was for decades the embodiment of French cuisine: tradition and terroir.
As a teenager, Bocuse was wounded fighting for the Free French against the Germans in 1944. After the war he began his training under Eugénie Brazier, the first female chef to achieve three Michelin stars. Brazier grew up poor on a farm in Bresse. In her book La Mère Brazier: The Mother of Modern French Cooking, she recalls a soup that her mother brought to her while she was tending pigs in the field—leeks and vegetables cooked in milk and water, enriched with eggs and poured over stale bread for substance—saying she had “never eaten better.” From Brazier, Bocuse learned la cuisine familiale; the simple brilliance of fresh ingredients carefully rendered.
After his stint with Brazier, Bocuse spent eight years at La Pyramide in Vienne, under the legendary chef Fernand Point. In Point, Bocuse had the example of a celebrated chef and the rigour of perfection. Point was enormously fat—“regard the chef,” he said, “if he is thin I will probably dine poorly.” Point also held that you had not mastered a dish until you had cooked it 100 times.
In the pantheon, Point was the original, Bocuse the apotheosis, the epitome, even the cartoon. Tall white toque hat, the tricolor collar of his chef’s white jacket denoting the award of meillure ouvrier de France, arms folded across his chest, a burnished battery of copper pans as backdrop: Bocuse was a self-publicist nonpareil.
When he earned his third Michelin star in 1966 he bought back the original restaurant that his grandfather had been forced to sell in 1921, and erected a giant neon sign reading “PAUL BOCUSE” on the roof. More than anyone, said the chef Jacques Pépin when Bocuse was named chef of the century by the Culinary Institute of America in 2013, Bocuse had brought chefs out of the kitchen and into the dining room.