Paul Bocuse has died, aged 91. It seems that a life of hard work, butter, eggs, cheese and wine suited him well. He was certainly the most important chef of the 20th C, much decorated, awarded the medal of Meilleur Ouvrier (Best Artisan of France) and up until recently the only chef to receive the Légion d'Honneur. His restaurant held onto its three Michelin stars for fifty consecutive years.
He was a striking man, tall, robust with a fine gallic nose. He was personable and amusing. He does not seem to have aroused much snide dislike. English language headlines are happy to tell us, nonetheless, that he had concurrently, a wife and two mistresses. It would be hypocritical of me to comment on this, having seen "big men" at work. (As an aside, Escoffier was dismissed in disgrace from the Savoy in London for "gross negligence and mismanagement", i.e. embezzlement.)
There is much that can be said about Paul Bocuse (trust me, all cooks will revere him in some way) but I want to emphasise two things. Firstly he brought respect to the profession. Chefs worked in terrible conditions, stifling heat, underground, rarely seeing the light of day. They had varicose veins and flat feet. Their lifestyle drew them often to alcoholism and gambling. Bocuse changed the image of the chef, dragged them into the light (even the limelight) not just through his personal self promotion but through the promotion of the profession. We have benefited from that.
Secondly he was a strong proponent of Nouvelle Cuisine. Groan, groan I hear. How often do we hear people laughing derisably at the expression. Certainly it was lead astray by chefs of little substance - the white plate, growing ever larger and the pretty arrangements that were inspired by the colour of the ingredient rather than flavour. Think kiwifruit purée next to a beetroot coulis.
Like the committed purist that he was, he became disenchanted with the empty frivolity he could see happening in his industry and instead championed fine dishes based on la Cuisine Bourgoise and la Cuisine Traditionelle, particularly from his native Lyon.
If you have any snide opinions or reservations about the movement called la Nouvelle Cuisine, hold onto your hat. I will show in my next post how what we eat at home and in restaurants would not be the same without it. (If it hadn't happened, we would have had to invent it.)
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