Food Arts presents the January/February 1995 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Paul Bocuse, the talented, ambitious visionary who redefined a successful chef's career.
Bocuse has been called the best chef in the world, the king of the kitchen, but ultimately he may be remembered as the dynamo who took chefs far beyond the kitchen.
"Blame it on Bocuse," says New York magazine restaurant critic Gael Greene. "He was an irresistible force of nature. At 40, he decided he wasn't going to die on his feet in the kitchen, poor and anonymous. So he rousted a rowdy band of whisks to his call, and, for better or worse, the chef as VIP, movie star, and matinee idol was born."
Whirlwind publicist Yanou Collart, the first to market chefs as international celebrities, claims that "without Bocuse, there wouldn't be any other renowned chefs. He is the one who gave the chefs pride, who took all those drunken men out of the basement kitchens."
As Bocuse himself told Newsweek magazine when he became the first chef to grace its cover August 11, 1975: "In my father's day, the chef was a slave. He lived in a stinking hot kitchen underground. He never saw customers. He became a cretin. And, invariably, he began to drink."
Bocuse, however, was no overnight success. He had acquired three Michelin stars before he saw his name is lights. Had he not been a genius in the kitchen, his flair for showmanship would not have carried him to superstar status.
Bocuse was born in 1926 to a family active in the restaurant business for two centuries in the village of Collonges-au-Mont-d'Or, just outside Lyons. A lycée dropout, Bocuse began his apprenticeship early, worked briefly in a Vichy youth camp, and then joined the Free French in 1944. He was seriously injured in Alsace and received numerous blood transfusions in an American field hospital, which may explain some of the affinity he feels for the United States.
After the war, he learned classical French cuisine at the feet of the reigning master as apprentice to the legendary Fernand Point of La Pyramide in Vienne.
He renovated his father's auberge and by the 1961 had won his first Michelin star as well as the coveted Meilleur Ouvrier de France. In 1962, he received his second star and in 1965, the third. Ten years later, he was decorated with the Legion of Honor by then French president Valéry Giscard d'Estaing at the Elysée Palace. For the occasion he created his wildly luxurious truffle soup crowned with a golden pastry crust, which still plays a prominent role in his repertoire.
Along the way, Bocuse gathered a band of other celebrated young chefs around him, and together they revolutionized both tradition-bound cuisine into the latter 20th century by lightening sauces and modernizing presentations. They owned their own restaurants and mingled with clients in their dining rooms. They shared recipes and gossip with one another. And they reaped the rewards of a life far beyond the confines of those basement kitchens.
Soon Bocuse would begin his assault on America as well. "France is not enough," says Collart. "You have to be famous in America to make the world."
He began by cooking highly publicized dinners in New York City for the wealthy and celebrated. In 1982, along with colleagues Roger Vergé and Gaston Lenótre, he opened Le Pavillon de France at Disney World's Epcot Center. He sent his son Jérôme to school at the Culinary Institute of America and his granddaughter Candace Bernachon (his daughter, Françoise, is married to Lyons chocolate meister Maurice Bernachon's son) to work at The Ritz-Carlton Chicago.
His mission as ambassador of French cuisine extends to the Far East as well, with a restaurant in Tokyo and a cooking school in Osaka.
Back home in Lyons, he serves as president of the four-year-old Ecole des Arts Culinaires et de l'Hôtellerie. This past year, he opened a brasserie called Le Nord in downtown Lyons, and also maintains L'Abbaye, a showy catering hall that houses his 18-foot-tall Victorian barrel organ. He also established a prestigious global cooking competition called Le Bocuse d'Or, held biannually in Lyons.
Bocuse's presence looms large in culinary circles worldwide and certainly in his hometown, where today his name towers four feet high atop his striking red-shuttered restaurant. Say good-bye to any basements.