By Scott Mechura EBS Food Columnist
Just one of the many quotes made famous by French chef, Paul Bocuse.
For me, the word iconic has lost much of its meaning due to rampant overuse. However, there is no more fitting word to describe the man the Culinary Institute of America declared Chef of the Century in 2011.
Chef Bocuse passed away on Jan. 20, at the age of 91. He died in Lyon, France—in the home he was raised in, and the very bed he was born in.
About 20 years ago, I was having a conversation with my friend and co-worker Tom about his last job. He had spent two grueling years with Chef Jean Banchet at Le Francais in Wheeling, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago.
Banchet was old friends with Bocuse—they came up together in many of the same kitchens throughout France. Bocuse and Banchet were two of the prized apprentices of Chef Fernand Point, who trained directly under Auguste Escoffier. Point first uttered the well-known quote, “Never trust a skinny chef.” And Escoffier, as he is simply referred to, was quite literally the chef that created modern cuisine as we know it today. It occurred to us that Tom could not have come from a more “noble” culinary-training family tree.
Bocuse was one of the original architects of what became a decades-long push from France known as nouvelle cuisine, or the new cuisine. At its core, this meant “cutting edge” presentations of the day that could be as simple as serving fish with the sauce underneath to showcase its beauty and quality.
Bocuse earned his first Michelin star in 1958, his second in 1962, and a third and final Michelin star in 1965. In 1966, he reclaimed Auberge du Pont de Collonges from the man who had purchased it from his father in his home town of Lyon. In 2015, he received the Grand Officer of the National Order of Merit for maintaining three Michelin stars for over 50 years. As of the 2017 guide, his restaurant still had three stars.
Currently, France has 27 restaurants with three Michelin stars. There is no precise number of restaurants in all of France, but it is in the tens of thousands. Many restaurants that achieve the coveted third star have difficulty retaining them for more than a few years. There is truly no comparison that would put Bocuse’s achievement in perspective.
Bocuse went on to create the Bocuse d’Or, a global cooking competition held every two years in Lyon. It is so prestigious, it is regarded as the Olympics of culinary competition, and teams have been known to prepare and train years in advance.
I remember, as a young cook, visiting my French chef’s home. There on his wall was a picture of the ever-stoic Bocuse with his signature stare and folded arms. I remember thinking it hung as proudly as my grandfather, and many of his generation, had hung pictures of John Wayne on their wall.
Contemporary celebrity chefs like Jean George Vongerichten and Daniel Boulud both spoke of Bocuse’s intimidating stare. They said if you made a mistake as a young apprentice, it could fall upon you like death itself.
But not without a sense of humor, Bocuse once said that “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 some sauce and says it is a new recipe.”
I can’t recall a male country artist who hasn’t said he was influenced by the late Johnny Cash. Concurrently, I can’t imagine a chef out there who hasn’t, directly or in some degree of separation, been influenced by Chef Paul Bocuse.
Scott Mechura has spent a life in the hospitality industry. He is a former certified beer judge and currently the executive Chef at Buck’s T-4 Lodge in Big Sky.