It’s a bit gauche to invite guests for lunch and then ask them to cook it. But that breach of etiquette did not disturb French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. After all, his guest list at the Elysée Palace included 13 of France’s finest cooks led by the most brilliant of them all, Paul Bocuse. Giscard and Bocuse actually had business other than enjoying un bon déjeuner, the President bestowed the coveted Legion of Honor on the chef for the renown his culinary exploits have brought the nation.
Bocuse, 49, the “Lion of Lyon,” and the others proved to be a gratifying exception to the maxim that too many cooks spoil the broth. That broth turned out to be a truffle-and-foie-gras soup followed by a 44-pound salmon with sorrel sauce, duck in Bordeaux wine, wild strawberries and cake decorated with shaved chocolate and laced with liqueurs. To wash down this meal prepared by Bocuse and four other chefs, there were a Château Margaux and a Roederer champagne, both 1926—the year Giscard and Bocuse were born—a 1966 Montrachet, a 1969 Morey-Saint-Denis and, for postprandial sipping, an 1893 Armagnac. “Delicious,” Giscard was heard to murmur contentedly.
The meal, estimated to have cost more than $60 a guest, clearly attested to Bocuse’s leadership. To many of his compatriots, his legendary green bean and duck liver salad, stuffed sea bass and poached country ham have done as much for the soul and reputation of France as two decades of Gaullist grandiloquence.
Bocuse, a maverick in his stiffly competitive field, is the leading advocate of “the new cooking,” which stresses relatively simple, unadorned dishes. There is no such thing as a Bocuse secret. When at Chez Bocuse, his three-star restaurant just outside Lyon (the family have been restaurateurs on the same site since 1765), he eagerly reveals to guests what goes into his dishes.
To Bocuse, the key to great cuisine is great “raw materials,” and to ensure that he gets the best he goes on predawn shopping raids at local markets. He likes to wander around Chez Bocuse rather than stay in the kitchen, mixing and often flirting with the guests. Bocuse also has earned a reputation as a notorious practical joker: once he slipped a chemical into a fellow chef’s meal that turned his urine bright blue.
Bocuse earned his fame in the classic way, beginning as a dishwasher at age 15 and ultimately apprenticing under the legendary Fernand Point. Only six years after Bocuse took over as head chef, Chez Bocuse won its precious third star, the highest rating from the imperious Guide Michelin.
Like many in his profession, Bocuse believes women will never rank among the world’s top chefs. “Cooking is like war,” he claims. “You have to take risks. Women cooks don’t take risks.”
Unsurprisingly, Bocuse also draws analogies between his “new cooking” and women. “They have evolved the same ways. Women have stripped themselves down, not wearing corsets and bras. In the old days when you undressed a woman you never knew what you were going to find. Today you know exactly what’s going to be there. Same with cooking. You know exactly what you have on your plate.”