Start with the artistry of an Escoffier. Sprinkle lightly with the prankish ebullience of Graham Kerr, grate in the self-promotional panache of Craig Claiborne. Season with the whimsical good sense of Julia Child. Finally, glaze with the macho style of Yves Montand. That, roughly, is the recipe for a Paul Bocuse, France’s “Lion of Lyons” and arguably the world’s greatest living chef.
In his native land, where eating is regarded not so much a necessity as a sacrament, Bocuse is lionized and prattled about in the columns and on TV like a soccer or movie star. This year he was elevated to a Counselor of the Republic (among the perks: permanent pardon from parking tickets). But this 10th-generation cook should not be mistaken for an Establishment figure. At the age of 50, Bocuse has gone to the barricades in two culinary conflicts—and prevailed in each.
He was among the first, as a chef, to thrust his eagle bee out of the kitchen and into the dining room, mingling with the professionals, industrialists and clued-in tourists who are the patrons of his restaurant, “Paul Bocuse,” on the River Saône in the Lyonnais suburb of Collonges-au-Mont-d’Or. “In my father’s day,” he notes, “the chef was a slave. He lived in a stinking, hot kitchen underground while the owners walked around the dining rooms. The cooks,” he continues, “usually ended up cretins and drunks by the time their careers were over. Now the cooks own the restaurants.”
It isn’t that Bocuse doesn’t still revel in traditional duties like scouting out the most perfect produce in the market at dawn. Or that he’s too grand to get up to his elbow in a pig’s bladder (to prepare his renowned poulet de Bresse en vessie—which is not to be confused with chicken-in-the-basket). “I can do everything I ask the staff to do—and twice as fast.” There’s no way that he could have scanted such personal supervision and kept his hallowed three stars in the Michelin Guide. In sum, it wasn’t the heat that Bocuse couldn’t stand in the kitchen—it was the anonymity.
Paul’s other storming of the gastronomic Bastille was his helping create the so-called la nouvelle cuisine. In fairness, it was an extension of his famed mentor Fernand Point’s preference for the crisply undercooked. But Bocuse and several colleagues developed it beyond the crunch of vegetables into the kingdom of entrées to leave meats and even fish “pink at the bone” and create a cuisine which was simpler, lighter and less extravagant. (His celebrated sea bass, loup de mer en croûte, is broiled under superheat for a radically brief period.) What’s more, in his new style was a little less—less fat and flour in the savory sauces that otherwise can cloak a master chef’s inevitable mistakes. Bocuse’s innovations, which also are in line with the contemporary concern over calories and cholesterol, were a blow against the culinary excesses of the 19th century.
This is not to suggest that he is a total radical. “As for the health food business,” he notes, for example, “I would rather eat an apple that has been treated than a rotten one that was grown organically. I’m also against what people are calling cuisine minceur these days. Michel Guérard is a good friend of mine, but there is no way you can make a good blanquette de veau with cottage cheese instead of cream.”
Bocuse has been able to ring his changes because of his commanding, yet unprecedentedly uncompetitive, relationship with his colleagues. He broke centuries-old habits of secretiveness and spite among chefs and, magnanimously, is starting a new tradition of sharing recipes and technical breakthroughs with such eminent contemporaries as Guérard, René Lassere, Charles Barrier and the Troisgros brothers. In fact, Paul phones them most mornings after returning from the market. In deference to the master, they one and all refer to themselves as La Bande à Bocuse.
The bande leader, who bears the tattoo of a coq gaulois (crowing rooster) on his left arm, is indeed the coq-of-the-walk overseas as well as domestically. Julia Child describes Paul as “very macho, fun to be with and very amusing. He has been tremendously important.” She continues, “Most of the great chefs are grateful to him for all the publicity he gets, because they feel it has helped all of them.”
Bocuse’s international impact (and commercialization) includes a Beaujolais label bearing his name, his consultancy to Air France, international teaching tours and even a piece of a restaurant in Tokyo (Renga-Ya). There is, naturellement, a Bocuse cookbook—a household staple in France—that will finally hit the States next year.
“The Americans are smarter than the French think,” he observes. “The days of them drinking Coca-Cola in great restaurants are over. I don’t like hamburgers,” he points out, “because they are full of too much grease. But it is always striking to see the abundance of food in America. Even in Denver, where you have nothing but cowboys,” according to his perception, “the supermarkets are filled with good foodstuffs.”
He regards Texas beef, for example, as comparable to any anywhere, though he rates French string beans the greatest on earth and fears that Maine lobsters don’t match the faultless catch from Brittany. When really pressed, Bocuse forgets his PR facade and confesses that “Americans are too fat. They don’t eat right. They would be much less fat if they didn’t drink dry martinis and eat those pancakes for breakfast.”
Women. This is another topic on which Bocuse is outspoken, practiced and, to modern sensibilities, outrageous. Referring to a previous storm he has cooked up, he explains, “I was making generalities—I was speaking only for myself when I said that I would rather have a pretty woman in my bed than behind a stove in a restaurant. I prefer my women to smell of Dior and Chanel than of cooking fat.” Besides, he adds, “women are good cooks, but they are not good chefs. Women who systematically want to do what men do just end by losing their femininity, and what I adore most of all is a feminine woman.”
“Bocuse wouldn’t be Bocuse without his women,” he says, employing the imperious third person. By that he is mostly referring to his 70ish mother, still the dowager queen of accounts at his restaurant, and his blond wife, Raymonde, who like a field marshal attends to details like the fresh flowers at every table. Paul and Raymonde live in a comfortable apartment above the establishment. So, until recently, did his daughter Françoise, 29. She is now the wife of France’s most celebrated chocolate-maker, Jean Jacques Bernachon, but still is her mom’s assistant in the family business.
The restaurant Bocuse has a huge electrified sign that unabashedly proclaims the proprietor from the rooftop. It was Paul, after all, who reclaimed the proud patronym 16 years ago and three years later repurchased the inn, L’Abbaye (now used only for special banquets), that had been run by the Bocuses since 1765. His grandfather, a careless man with the books, had been forced to sell it—and even the use of the family name—in 1921. Paul’s father ran only a small bistro and apprenticed him out at 16 to work at a higher-grade restaurant. During World War II, Bocuse was conscripted to work in a Vichy youth camp where he graduated to butchering black-market calves and pigs. “Excellent training,” he has called that work, but he fled to join the Free French forces and caught machine-gun fire in the chest. When peace came, he was to become protégé and almost surrogate son of Monsieur Point at his famed La Pyramide in Vienne, 20 miles from Lyons. But Bocuse was not born to be an employee only. Once, as a prankster apprentice, he slipped a human skull into a pot of kitchen stock to get even with an overbearing head cook.
So by 1960 Paul had bought his own restaurant and reacquired rights to use his own name. The next year, in the curious but prestigious Meilleur Ouvrier de France competition, he was named “best worker of the year,” and had earned his first star in the Michelin Guide.
In 1962 his “good restaurant” had been elevated to two-star magnitude, indicating it was “worth a detour.” Then, a mere three years later, faster than any other restaurant in Michelin history, Bocuse’s establishment entered the three-star Valhalla certifying it as “worth a journey.” “Those were the days when I made the most money,” Bocuse recalls. “The staff was small, and we worked almost round the clock.” If someone’s killing the great chefs of Europe, as the title of a new mystery suggests, it’s themselves. Bocuse works as demoniacally now (on only four to five hours’ sleep) as ever, though he has a staff of 48 for the 60 to 70 patrons he seats at a time.
As in most three-star restaurants, there are no prices on the menu—not necessarily an entrapment but a refinement. Actually, Bocuse offers three different prix fixe alternatives, adding up roughly to $34, $38 and $42.50. Thus, with a modest wine, the minimum tab for dinner for two is about $80. Each menu includes a choice of hors d’oeuvre, a fish dish, the entrée, cheese and the pick of 21 desserts. His famous sea-bass-with-lobster concoction is available on the cut-rate $34 list.
When he was selected for the Legion of Honor in 1975, Bocuse suggested facetiously, “Who could pin it on me but the president?” Valéry Giscard d’Estaing heard the crack and invited Bocuse to the Elysée Palace. Then Bocuse and his bande decided to whip up a celebration banquet for the president. Naturally, they arrived right with the truffle soup to sit down and partake of it personally with Valéry. It was all, of course, another promotional coup for the family name which Paul Bocuse had personally restored. “You’ve got to beat the drum in life,” he says, and in no way defensively. “God is already famous,” Bocuse notes, “but that doesn’t stop the preacher from ringing the church bells every morning.”