Since the passing of Paul Bocuse this past week there have been many tributes and acknowledgements of his contributions over a lengthy career. I thought deeply about this remarkable chef and how to pay homage to not just his contributions, but more importantly to his significance.
Cooking seems to be given a level of respect that is new and refreshing in the United States, but when all things are considered this respect pales in comparison to what exists in other parts of the world – in this case – France. Paul Bocuse was much more than a prominent and influential chef, he was a representative of a country, a lifestyle, and an appreciation for something that was an integral part of a culture. Beyond his appreciation for food and solid cooking – Bocuse was a representative of the country of France and its influence worldwide.
Certainly there are important cuisines throughout the world, and in some cases they are even older and more established than French, but none that have worked their way into our kitchen language, structure, and methods like French. This is well known and revered by the French resulting in government ministry positions dedicated to protecting the integrity of its culinary heritage. Paul Bocuse was the poster child, the ambassador, and the physical manifestation of what French cooking is and how it connects throughout the world.
Think about it: the United States with all of our incredible culinary talent and more than 1 million restaurants does not have a common thread to its cooking. In fact, we are a significantly diverse culinary nation with different cuisines based on regions and in some cases even states and cities. France with its own nuances of cooking is still a nation characterized by a fairly unified approach towards food and cooking. In fact, the entire nation is defined, to a large degree by food. Its geopolitical lines of demarcation (equivalent to our states, counties and towns) is defined by the grape varietal that marks the farmlands within those borders and the wines that are produced as a result. Those same areas are easily referred to in the context of the indigenous food ingredients that grow or are extracted from the land and sea. Leading the image of a food nation has always been the figure of Paul Bocuse who filled the shoes of Escoffier who came before him.
Here are my thoughts on really why Bocuse was so important and why he will surely be missed:
Paul Bocuse was a class act. He exemplified professionalism in how he looked and acted as a representative of France’s cultural heritage. His restaurant with its somewhat ornate appearance and appointments was (is) a symbol of high cuisine. Even with this aura – Bocuse represented the cuisine of France that came from its poor agricultural roots that evolved from the indigenous ingredients and (initially) home methods of preparation. He certainly refined those ingredients, recipes and methods, but Bocuse restaurant was and remains a representative of the people – a c lass act.
Bocuse may be known for his portrayal of nouvelle cuisine, or a fresh, natural way of cooking, but even those representations were drawn from the long-standing traditions of this European nation. He felt a real responsibility for protecting these cherished recipes and methods.
In any trade, to be a master is to define and perfect the techniques of a craftsman. Bocuse and the members of his team were charged with the task of mastering the skills necessary to consistently replicate a cadre of dishes at the highest level.
Technique is the key that unlocks the ability to follow the steps necessary to produce both simple and highly complex dishes that were part of the French gastronomic culture. Examples of how exact these methods and the technique necessary to use these methods can be found in Chef Daniel Boulud’s wonderful book: Daniel, My French Cuisine – where he demonstrates his interpretations of French cooking and the classic dishes that set the stage for his abilities. These classic dishes have always been personified in Paul Bocuse restaurant in Lyon, France. Bocuse, unlike some, was the enemy of mediocrity – he did it correctly and expected the same of others.
“If an architect makes a mistake, he grows ivy to cover it. If a doctor makes a mistake, he covers it with soil. If a cook makes a mistake, he covers it with a sauce and says it is a new recipe.”
 FATHER FIGURE
In every discipline there sits a person who others hold above all as the definitive representative of what they believe in and how they practice their craft. In the computer world it might be Steve Jobs or Bill Gates; in physics it was Einstein; in Impressionist art it was Monet and Van Gogh; in architecture it might very well be Pei or Frank Lloyd Wright; and in cooking it was Bocuse – the father figure of chefs worldwide.
Bocuse exuded respect. Just to look at him in starched whites and chef toque made every cook and chef feel the respect that he was worthy of. The way his kitchen operated, the manner with which his staff approached their duties, and the sense of awe that guests felt when they managed to secure that dinner reservation was a reflection of the respect that they had for the chef. Concurrently, the way that he respected others in the profession, the ingredients that he worked with, and the established ways of cooking demonstrated his personal respect for everything and everyone connected to food.
Bocuse portrayed the honor that he felt in his role as an ambassador of French culture and a member of the cooking community at large. He took this role very seriously and through his kitchen and his culinary academy sought to train the next generation of proud and honored representatives of the restaurant business.
Those restaurants that truly stand out, regardless of where they are or even the style of food preparation that they take to task, are filled with individuals who are proud of what they do and the business that they represent – this pride was always exemplified by Bocuse.
Standing tall, wearing the proud uniform of the cook and the colors of France, Paul Bocuse was not just a symbol of French food; he was a symbol of everything that is great about the restaurant business throughout the world. He was a symbol for us all, a beacon of professionalism and dedication that said very clearly: “This is an honorable and very important business. The craftsmanship necessary to be a good cook is substantial – requiring dedication and passion and a desire to create wonderful food that fills the belly and warms the soul. “ Bocuse was our symbol and he will be greatly missed, but his work is now part of who we are – for this we will be eternally grateful.
Rest in Peace Chef.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Keep the flame of professionalism alive
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