On January 20 this year, the world lost one of the greatest pioneers of modern French cooking. Paul Bocuse was perhaps the most celebrated French chef of his generation, renowned across the world for his role in developing the groundbreaking culture of nouvelle cuisine, and more besides.
He died at the age of 91 in Collonges-au-Mont-d’Or, near Lyon, his birthplace and home of his Michelin three-star restaurant, l’Auberge du Pont de Collonges, and at the end of a life in which he had transformed the way the Western world cooks and looks at cooks. Even those who would claim to eschew ‘nouvelle cuisine’ (often thereby demonstrating their failure to understand it) could not claim to be untouched by his influence. He was perhaps the first ‘celebrity chef’, never afraid to ring his own bell, and paving the way for the many celebrity chefs to come, who in their own times altered our relationship with food, both at home and while dining out.
Bocuse was at the head of an inchoate group of chefs that spearheaded a whole new approach to cooking. Not enamoured with the old school habit of cloaking uninspiring meats with muscular, liver-killing sauces, these chefs set out to celebrate the elements at the heart of each meal, namely the ingredients themselves. They cut cooking times and hit markets at dawn to root out fresh ingredients rich in their own natural flavours. They banished brown and white sauces, replacing them with lighter, more refined ones that sought to complement rather than conceal. They cut down menus to preserve the freshness of ingredients and to create space for their relentless innovation. They applied science and absorbed technology while abandoning nonsensical traditions that brought nothing to the food itself. They avoided deceitful presentation and the vanity of overwrought nomenclature, though embraced ornament so long as it was kept simple. Nouvelle cuisine was rootless and open to the world, while also retaining an unreservedly French edge.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before their approach was corrupted by others, becoming a near-sadistic way of showing off with little regard for the principles that lay at its heart. Speaking in England in 1995, Henri Gault (whose guide was a champion of nouvelle cuisine, while Michelin favoured classical cooking), bemoaned the way in which this restless, endlessly curious philosophy had been corrupted by a crowd of “mountebanks, antiquarians, society women, fantasists and tricksters”.
He railed against the “fashions, mannerisms and trickery” that had attached themselves to it, through “minuscule portions, systematic undercooking, abuses of techniques in themselves, inopportune marriages of sugar, salt and exotic spices, excessive homage to the decoration of dishes.. and ridiculous or dishonest naming of dishes.”
Later on, Bocuse himself sought to disown it. “It is not true that Paul Bocuse invented Nouvelle Cuisine,” he told The Wall Street Journal in 2011. “There were a few dishes that were developed lighter, but that is normal in cooking. The term Nouvelle Cuisine as it came to be known was nothing to do with what was on the plate, but what was on the bill.”
Perhaps chefs had become dizzy and overly concerned with expressing themselves, rather than the food. In an interview with GQ in 2015, Jacques Pépin, America’s leading chef, was exasperated at the pious lengths they were going to. And for what? "I've been in restaurants where they bring over a carrot and say ‘This carrot was born the ninth of September. His name is Jean-Marie…' Just give me the goddamned carrot!’” he exclaimed.
According to Pépin, of all the precepts behind nouvelle cuisine, the only ones modern chefs (at least in America) seemed to be hearing were those focused on creativity and innovation. “This is how you end up with a slice of rock salt in a bowl of raspberry ice cream”, he sighed. It is little wonder that Bocuse would seek to disassociate himself from such a legacy, as corrupted as it has become. Yet its essential message still holds true for chefs all over the world, every time they talk about respecting the ingredients, and seasonality, and giving pride of place to flavour rather than ostentation.
Bocuse was all about turning the simple necessity of eating and drinking into the art of dining. It was a mission that brought him unreserved fame and a huge tally of medals and Michelin stars. In Japan he is virtually venerated as a god. America crowned him the Chef of the Century. In France, he is the Pope of Gastronomy. He won his first Michelin star in 1958 and last year, l’Auberge du Pont de Collonges was awarded its three stars for the 53rd year in a row. In addition to l’Auberge, Bocuse left behind a group of revered restaurants around Lyon, Japan, the US and Switzerland.
But for all his internationalism, Bocuse was unreservedly a Frenchman. “If I spend the night in another bed [than his own], to find my bearings I have to sleep with the Saône [river] to my left”, he told Le Point magazine in 2011.
On the day that Bocuse died in the same room in which he was born, the French interior minister, Gérard Colomb, tweeted, “Mr Paul was France. Simplicity and generosity. Excellence and the art of living. The Pope of gastronomes leaves us. May our chefs, in Lyon, as in the four corners of the world, long cultivate the fruits of his passion”.
At Topaz, we do our part to cultivate the fruits of Paul Bocuse’s passions in many ways. But you can enjoy them in particular by savouring one of his signature dishes, the Soupe Élysée aux Truffes — a double beef consommé with black winter truffles, foie gras and spring vegetables, topped with a puff pastry lid. It’s sometimes known as the VGE, named after Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, the former president of France for whom Bocuse had invented the soup for a dinner at the Élysée Palace.
May he rest in peace.