The Taste with Vir Sanghvi: Remembering the first great celebrity chef, Paul Bocuse
The death of Paul Bocuse some weeks ago led to hundreds of obituaries and tributes from other chefs. He was the king of chefs, we were told. His cuisine was outstanding. His passing left a void that can never be filled. And so on.
Well, may be.
I am not of the generation that grew up when Bocuse was at his peak so perhaps I lack the context to fully understand the great man’s contributions to global cuisine. From my slightly cynical perspective, Bocuse was of great importance in the world of chefs but I was never convinced that his influence on modern cuisine will be regarded as hugely significant once our judgements cease to be clouded by sentiment or nostalgia.
For me, the importance of Bocuse lay less in the food and more in the personality. A natural leader and self-publicist, he was the world’s first great celebrity chef. And he will be remembered for the path he showed other chefs all around the world.
The French have always venerated chefs. When I was at school in England in the 1970s, chefs were not household names and British writers would always comment on how strange it was that the French regarded chefs as celebrities, profiled them in magazines and even gave them TV shows.
Even in those days, the one French chef whose fame transcended national boundaries was Paul Bocuse. Not only had the Brits heard of him, the Americans gave him their highest honour: they invited him to open a restaurant at Disneyworld so he could share prominence with Mickey Mouse.
The French, I suspect, were so grateful for what he had done for their cuisine that his restaurant in Lyon, which steadily got worse and worse, maintained its Michelin three star rating long after its standards had collapsed.
I went there only once, just over a decade ago, as a guest of the Guigals, the famous Rhone valley wine producers. (I didn’t know the Guigals: they took me along because I went with Aman Dhall who represents them in India.)
The Guigals were old friends of Bocuse and he came out of the restaurant to greet us when we arrived. A photographer magically appeared and we posed for photos with the great man.
Bocuse sat with us for part of the meal, sent over a bottle of Dom Perignon champagne and said he would order the food, which meant that we got the tasting menu, a collection of his most famous dishes.
I still remember the food because we ate many iconic dishes that I had heard a great deal about. There was a crayfish gratin, a tribute to Fernand Point, the inventor of nouvelle cuisine at whose restaurant, La Pyramide, Bocuse once worked. Point laid down many of the principles of nouvelle cuisine: no flour-thickened sauces, all fish to be slightly undercooked, all vegetables to be crunchy etc. And the Crayfish Gratin was probably important in its own era. But on that night, it seemed curiously heavy with its mixture of cream and Hollandaise.
We also had a very famous dish that seems to me to sum up the fripperies and foolishness of haute cuisine. A whole fish (rouget) had been covered with little bits of potato made to look like fish scales. It is a classic dish but these days, nobody outside of, say, a Cordon Bleu school would waste time on it. Nor did I think that it was tasty enough to justify the vast effort that must have gone into shaping each bit of potato and sticking it on to the fish.
Then came another signature dish: a whole chicken cooked inside a pig’s bladder. The chicken had black truffles inserted under its skin and the bladder had been poached in stock. But the point of the dish was the presentation. The bladder, which had swollen up so that it looked like a football ,was brought whole to the table. It was ceremonially sliced open, the chicken extracted and then carved for the entire table.
How was it? Well, like poached chicken, really. It wasn’t as special as I had expected. It was only the piggy bladder sous-vide technique and the presentation that made the dish notable.
The only dish I remember loving was the signature truffle soup. Truffles were cut into tiny cubes along with foie gras and simmered in a consommé. Then, the soup was covered with puff pastry. (Like a purdah biryani.) When you cut through the pastry, a delicious aroma of truffles greeted you and the soup was terrific, one of those dishes you never quite forget.
Did I react badly to the food because it was old fashioned? I don’t think so. I am the sort of chap who reveres Point and other great French chefs of the nouvelle revolution. Within a few months of going to Bocuse, I ate at Michel Guerard’s restaurant, and though Guerard’s food is from the same era, I loved it. (Guerard is the greater chef but he is quiet and self-effacing.)
I think I responded badly because none of it was especially well-made. The entire Tasting Menu seemed to consist of a half-hearted, cook-by-rote rendition of famous dishes. There was no passion and no finesse to the cooking. And this was when Bocuse was at the table!
What struck me most about the restaurant though, was how much of a commercial shrine to the cult of Bocuse it had become. There were portraits of the great man everywhere and the gift shop, where you could buy Bocuse-branded food, brandy plates, aprons etc., was as big as the restaurant itself. And when we left, Bocuse handed us individual prints of the photos he had taken with us when we arrived and signed each one.
A decade or so ago, the selfie craze had yet to take off (camera phones were not ubiquitous) but every single guest at the restaurant had brought a camera along and wanted to be photographed with Bocuse. It was almost as though the quality of the food was incidental; people wanted to tell their friends that they had been to Paul Bocuse’s restaurant.
In that sense, much of what Bocuse began laid the foundations for today’s celebrity chef craze. Unlike his contemporaries (say Alain Chapel who was a much greater chef or the Troisgros brothers whose food has proved to be more influential), Bocuse focused on the brand, not just the kitchen. He missed no opportunity to be photographed, sought publicity for himself around the world, created his own franchised products and put his name on everything from chocolates to aprons.
He also invented the idea of the travelling celebrity chef. Because he was away from his restaurant on some promotional trips so often, he was asked the obvious question: “Who cooks at your restaurant when you are away?”
His response has become a classic: “The same people who cook when I am there.”
Most people who understand restaurants know that the chef invents the dishes (or standardises the recipes) and then ensures that the quality of the food that goes out of the kitchen is upto scratch. Normally, a chef does not cook each night. But for years, the myth had been perpetuated that when you went to a great restaurant, the chef himself would cook for you. Bocuse broke that pretence and made it clear that a great chef did not need to hang around his kitchen every night. In fact, the true test of a kitchen was how good the food was when the chef was not there to personally check that his standards had been maintained.
Once the truth was out, chefs were freed from the need to pretend that they cooked every dish themselves. Many famous chefs used this freedom to open second, third or even fourth restaurants. Others became TV stars leaving their kitchens to their assistants. Without Bocuse’s brave assertion that chefs need not be tied down to their kitchens, there would be no chains of high quality restaurants of the kind that Alain Ducasse and Joel Robuchon run, because people now understand that Ducasse or Robuchon can guarantee the quality of the food even if they are not physically present.
Bocuse also opened up other income streams for chefs. These days, even in India, you see chefs advertising some product or the other each time you turn on your TV set. In nearly every case, the chef is somebody whose food you have never eaten but whose opinion you respect anyway because of his celebrity status. That’s another part of Bocuse’s legacy: the creation of the chef as a recognised and respected figure even if the food he cooks is not part of your experience.
Given all this, I am not surprised that so many chefs mourned his passing. But I often wonder about the food.
Of the dishes I tried that night, the truffle soup was the most recent - Bocuse had invented it in 1975 when he was honoured by the French President. The others were older and some were riffs on dishes that Bocuse’s mentors had created. The rouget in potato scales was a variation on one of Fernand Point’s classics as was the crayfish.
Could it be that, in the early days, when Bocuse was still creating and re-inventing dishes, the food was really great? And that later, as he grew old and rich, with nothing left to prove, he just got lazy and let his restaurant become a tourist trap? Had Bocuse become so hung up on his legend that he allowed his kitchen to get sloppy?
My guess is that I probably went to his restaurant too late. Had I gone in say, the 1980s, perhaps the food would really have been worthy of the three stars that Michelin gave him (and never dared take away).
My loss, I imagine. But ultimately, even if I acknowledge how much Bocuse did for chefs, I must go by my own experience at his restaurant.
And it was not great.
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