The Daily Meal Hall of Fame: Paul Bocuse

Contributor
Nouvelle cuisine sparked a food frenzy around the world, and Paul Bocuse was its poster boy
Alain Elorza

Like most chefs, Bocuse was a blue-collar worker in whites, pushing through the system. In that tough and painstaking world, he shot to the top. 

With the help of The Daily Meal Council, we have selected ten key figures in the history of food to honor this year in our Hall of Fame. Here, Council member Dorothy Hamilton, Founder and CEO of New York's International Culinary Center, explains why French chef Paul Bocuse belongs on the roster.

Years ago, I had dinner in a New York City restaurant that had recently been written up for its excellent food (I recall seeing couple-of-the-moment Madonna and Sean Penn there). The rave review had scarcely a mention of the chef. Indeed, even serious food lovers would have been hard-pressed to name who helmed the kitchens at their favorite places. That was 1985.

Aside from those with multiple Michelin stars, very few chefs in that era had fame beyond their kitchens. Paul Bocuse (1926—) helped to change all that. A change agent for French food, Bocuse was a godfather of "nouvelle cuisine" in the '70s, when traditional haute cuisine gave way to seasonal, lightly cooked vegetables, sauces lower in fats, and stunning presentations.

A "chef’s chef," Bocuse came up through the ranks, hailing from a restaurant family in Lyon. He apprenticed with the legendary Fernand Point of La Pyramide in Vienne and Eugénie Brazier at her La Mère Brazier in Lyon. He was a teenaged commis in Paris at the Plaza Athénée, working side by side with a fledgling Roger Vergé (whose Moulin de Mougins in the French Riviera village of Mougins was one of the great restaurants of the latter twentieth century) and a shy Italian immigrant named Sirio Maccioni.  

I first met Bocuse when he and Vergé visited the French Culinary Institute in 1985, the year after we'd opened. They arrived enthused to meet our students and give lectures — not on haute cuisine, but on respect for the kitchen. Bocuse's lack of pretension, and the way he treated our chef-instructors as part of an extended family, left me awestruck.

Like most chefs, Bocuse was a blue-collar worker in whites, pushing through the system. In that tough and painstaking world, he shot to the top. As a Meilleur Ouvrier de France and Commandeur de Legion d’Honneur, he rose to heights beyond his three Michelin stars.

His success captured the eye of the press. His face graced magazine covers. He was courted by Disney to open the French restaurant at Epcot in Florida. A change agent for French food, Bocuse was a godfather of "nouvelle cuisine" in the '70s, when traditional haute cuisine gave way to seasonal, lightly cooked vegetables, sauces lower in fats, and stunning presentations. This new style of cooking sparked a food frenzy around the world, and Paul Bocuse was its poster boy.

His list of achievements is long; among other things, he created the menu for the inaugural flight of the Concorde airliner in 1969 (food writer Henri Gault may have first used the term "nouvelle cuisine" to describe the meal he cooked for the occasion), and conceived the iconic '‘soupe aux truffes" — truffle soup — for Valéry Giscard-d'Estaing at the Élysée Palace. Beyond that, every young chef wanted to work for him. His generosity and openness extended beyond his kitchen. He took stagiaires from Japan to the U.S. He created a school, Institut Paul Bocuse, and the great chef competition the Bocuse d’Or, supported to this day by culinary superstars on the order of Daniel Boulud and Thomas Keller. 

It doesn’t hurt that, at first glance, Bocuse reminds one of Charles de Gaulle. That seems fitting, as he walks among the greats of French culture.

Click here for The Daily Meal Hall of Fame.

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