Chef of the Century Paul Bocuse being interviewed
BY SANDY STRASSER
Nobody transformed the culinary world in the 20th century more than Paul Bocuse. His light and delicate cuisine has always caused a furore. As early as 1965, the Michelin Guide awarded him three stars – the youngest chef to achieve this distinction in France. He is the only chef who has been able to retain this top award uninterrupted for 51 years. Like no other master chef, he has perfected the art of attending to customers. He gave us an insight into his busy day.
Monsieur Bocuse, how did young Paul discover his passion for cooking? How old were you at the time?
Paul Bocuse: I come from a family in which being a professional chef has a tradition stretching back to the 17th century. My parents owned a small restaurant on the banks of the River Saône, which today is the ‘Auberge Paul Bocuse’. So, I pretty much had to become a chef.
What was the first dish that you made yourself?
P. B.: I made my first dish at the age of fourteen: calves’ kidneys with mashed potatoes.
You have always described the gastronomy of the Lyon region as the origin of grande cuisine. Name a few traditional Lyonnaise dishes that still continue to make your heart beat that little bit faster.
P. B.: In terms of Lyonnaise specialities, these are poultry liver tart, hake dumplings, poularde with sliced truffle and truffle sauce, truffled and pistachio-infused Lyonnaise sausage on brioche and many other dishes besides.
What else makes this small part of the world so special?
P. B.: Many people regard the region around Lyon as France’s pantry, with Bresse famous for its poultry, Charolais renowned for its cattle farming, the Rhône Valley for its fruit and grapes, Beaujolais and the Côtes du Rhône for their wines, Savoy for cheese, butter and cream and the fish from its lakes and rivers.
Like no other person, you have also shaped France as a gastronomic country over the past decades. How hard was it for you to get to the very top? What emotional moments do you associate with this period?
P. B.: The fact that I have travelled the world extensively has taught me a lot and the constant growth of the ‘Auberge’ has encouraged me to further develop the concept and to create the ‘Bocuse d’Or’ competition, which has been internationally successful. This makes me very happy. And it is of course important that we pass our knowledge onto the next generations.
Cooking at the very highest level – what does this mean to you?
P. B.: I have been able to count myself among the best because I am fortunately in good health and have been able to invest lots of energy into my chosen vocation, but naturally also because I surround myself with young people whom I have taught the profession and who have just as much passion for it as I have.
Within this context, what significance do you attribute to fresh, regionally-grown and harvested produce?
P. B.: Local, really fresh produce is absolutely essential.
What makes a successful dish so magical? What importance do you attribute to the presentation of a dish?
P. B.: Without a doubt, good chefs must have completed stringent training, in which discipline and hygiene are hugely important. However, they must also have excellent taste buds; in other words, they have to be able to accurately or sensitively taste the food they prepare.
How much imagination and daring does one need to create, and establish, new dishes?P. B.: You have to have good powers of observation. I believe that I was lucky to begin as a chef after World War II and following years of rationing and deprivation in France. People were hungry.
Whether you are a hobby chef or a professional: what is absolutely essential for all kitchens?
P. B.: You must have a sense of order, be open to others and be interested in your surroundings.
Apart from haute cuisine, what else makes Monsieur Bocuse happy?
P. B.: In view of my great age, I have to say that I am very content with my life. What makes me happy today is the knowledge that there are highly-qualified chefs who will be following in my footsteps.
Paul Bocuse was born in Collonges-au-Mont-d’Or, a small community in France, on 11 February 1926. His family has been involved in gastronomy there since 1765. At the time, his father owned a restaurant in the small town close to Lyon. Paul Bocuse did not find school particularly inspiring, leaving the local grammar school without any qualifications in the early 1940s. He wanted to follow in the footsteps of his father, very much in line with a long tradition in his family, and began an apprenticeship to become a chef at ‘Restaurant de la Soierie’ in Lyon in 1942. In 1961, he was presented with his first award as ‘Best Worker in France’ and shortly thereafter received his first star from the world-famous Michelin Guide. But Bocuse also counts 1975 as a highlight of his exemplary career, when he was elevated to the rank of ‘Knight of the Legion of Honour’ by the then President of France, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. Over the course of his life, he has expanded his operation into a medium-sized enterprise comprising restaurants, boutiques and baker’s shops in the USA, Japan and Australia.
This article was published in The Produktkulturmagazin issue Q2 2016. Picture credit © Stéphane de Bourgies