Until 1985 or thereabouts, Paul Bocuse was a very famous chef. He was a
household name, with an image so widely disseminated that just about
everyone could tell you what he looked like—the big lips, the toque, and
holding a live poulet de Bresse in his arms, say, and petting its
head—even if few people had any idea what his food might be like. Then,
around 1985 or so, Bocuse turned into an icon. One moment: famous guy at
stove. Then: Pope of restaurant people. He became the undisputed
emissary of the kitchen mission. He became Frenchness.
It is not entirely clear how this happened, because (and Bocuse would
have agreed) there were, and are, more talented and savvy chefs around.
He never hosted a food show. Although a master of the photo op (hamming
it up in drag, stripping down to show off his tattoo of a Bresse
chicken, straddling his Harley Davidson), he rarely appeared on
television. He published cookbooks. None was a game-changer. Apart from
two forays abroad—one in Japan (which failed) and another at Walt Disney
World, in Florida (which thrives, run by his son Jérôme)—he never really
franchised his name. And yet, in the mysterious, ineffable way of these
things, Bocuse, who died on Saturday, at the age of ninety-one, had
something that no other chef has in the same abundance: an undeniably
infectious culinary charisma. Bocuse is what people want a grand French
chef to be.
In 2009, I moved to Lyon with my family, to train to be a French chef
(not the “grand” kind, but more like a garden variety kitchen Frenchie).
We stayed five years. Bocuse was everywhere and nowhere. I enrolled in a
cooking school—the cooking school, l’Institut Paul Bocuse—where just
about every day there was a rumor that “Monsieur Paul” (as he is
referred to locally) was going to make an appearance. He never did,
although he regularly interrupted the instructors, calling them on their
cell phones during class. I was given hundreds of recipes and expected
to memorize them; they were mainly his recipes, I would eventually
learn. Around the city there were three murals devoted to his image,
including one that was directly across the street from our apartment on
the Saone river: he was what I looked at drinking my morning coffee.
Bridges were named after him. Les Halles, the indoor market, was
officially Les Halles Paul Bocuse. And so, too, was the world’s biggest
and most hysterical cooking competition, the biennial Bocuse d’Or.
The event is organized like a World Cup (forty-eight nations competing,
each represented by a team of two, a chef and a deputy) and run like a
dog show, with dishes paraded through a stadium in front of twenty-six
judges. It culminates in an awards ceremony that manages to use the
iconography of the Olympics (with a podium for gold, silver, and
bronze), the Oscars (the “Bocuse d’Or” is a gold statuette in the image
of Paul Bocuse), and a New York City bar mitzvah (strobe lights, loud
oom-pah-pah music, and a ceiling drop of gold confetti). It is “tacky”
meets “technique,” but, despite the tackiness, the “technique” is real:
on display is the flashiest, most accomplished food on the planet.
I attended my first Bocuse d’Or during our first year in France. I
showed up at 9 A.M. The chefs had been there since five. Each two-member
team, plus a local commis, a slave-helper provided by l’Institut Paul
Bocuse, was crushed bumpingly into a mini-kitchen cubicle the size of a
changing room at a bad beach resort. The cubicles, side by side, were
spread out in a row, from left to right. They represented the “event.”
It was more rodeo arena than theatre. Facing the action were bleachers.
The mood in the mini-kitchen cubicles was of adrenaline and stress and
sweat. Every cook was intensely aware of a clock ticking. They were
focussed and very quiet. The bleachers were very not. There were
thousands of seats. At 9 A.M., they were already filled. Many spectators
were in regional costume (the Japanese as samurais, the Mexicans in
sombreros) or draped in national flags (the Swedes, the Americans).
There was a very loud mariachi band, a very loud drum-and-bugle corps,
a very loud pit percussion team, some guys banging cymbals, and many
morons with stadium air horns. There wasn’t anything obvious to be
thundering about: no eviscerating of live goats, no fist pumping, no
chef standing up and saying, “Bam!” But the cheering and the chanting
I felt uninformed and naïve—how could I have not known that this kind of
cooking (hunched-over, tortured people manipulating little things in
little ways) was a nationalist sport?—when, lo and behold, Bocuse
He had turned up backstage and taken it upon himself—the toque, the
whites, in a collar that looked like a French flag—to walk across the
floor. He padded by me, softly and stiffly, imposingly tall in his chef
posture, doing small papal waves, and seemed not to notice that a queue
of competitors was forming behind him. They were Japanese, Korean,
Indian, Brazilian, Norwegian . . . actually, I have no idea where they
were from, except that there were lots of them, and they seemed not to
be speaking either French or English. Only a moment before, they were
locked down in their panicky prep, when one of them noticed that Bocuse
was in the house and abandoned his station. He seemed to realize, Hey,
it’s O.K. to follow the great man around—or at least he registered that
no one was making him stop—and called to the others in their
mini-cubicle kitchens, and urged them to join in. The line quickly
became much longer, conga-style.
No one really knew what to do next—you can only get away with doing the
conga behind Bocuse for so long—when someone touched the great man
and dropped out of the queue, satisfied by the contact. The next person
in the queue touched a sleeve. Then it was a shoulder, the back of
Bocuse’s hand. An Asian chef was next up, and he seized Bocuse’s apron
by the hem, released it, and held the hand that had done the seizing by
its wrist, staring at it, shaking it, and screamed with wide-eyed
insanity as though his skin were burning. A cook fell to his knees, and
kissed the ground where the chef had tread (which, I don’t know, call me
prudish, seemed a little excessive).
It got grabby. The line lost its linear definition, and, just as it was
seeming outright dangerous, Bocuse was gone. Fearing a mob moment,
handlers had emerged and ushered him through a backstage door.
For the rest of the year, it became my mission to meet the great man
properly. I was told that I could reach him through his people. A wife,
a daughter, a son. I wrote them. I phoned. It was the daughter who
finally got back to me, and there was disdain in her reply: How dare you
think that you, a lowly writer guy, would have anything to say to
Monsieur Bocuse that is even remotely worth his time?
Then I got lucky. I happened to be describing my frustrations in the bar
of La Mère Brazier, which is among the restaurants where Bocuse
trained. Mathieu Viannay is the chef, and he was standing nearby. What I
didn’t know is that Viannay was also a member of an “inner circle.” Its
members—basically, kick-ass chefs who understand the soul and suffering
of Lyonnais cooking—were awarded permanent access to the great man.
Viannay interrupted my conversation. “You want to meet Monsieur Paul?”
“Yes,” I said, “very much.”
“Come by tomorrow morning at seven. Do not be late.”
Viannay was waiting for me in his car. We crossed the Rhône River and
into the Third Arrondissement and in the direction of Les Halles de Lyon
Paul Bocuse. I then spotted the great chef’s vehicle, a massive black
Jeep Wrangler (American), with all the doo-dahs, spotlights on the roof,
a winch on the front bumper, and wide off-road tires (Michelin, of
course). It was parked slapdash across a sidewalk, in front of the
market-hall entrance. The sight confirmed two Lyonnais rumors: one, that
Bocuse always had his early-morning coffee at Les Halles; and, two, that
the police knew his vehicle and never ticketed it.
For our part, we used a conventional parking lot, paid for it, entered
the hall, and stopped by a shellfish vendor named Leon, who gave us a
platter of oysters. (“Leon is the one you buy your oysters from,”
Viannay told me. “D’accord?”)
We made our way to Le Boulanger, an informal café opposite the stand of
La Mère Richard, the city’s famous cheese lady, where Viannay paused to
point out the quality of what was on display. (“This is where you will
buy your cheese. D’accord?”)
I looked across the aisle. There he was: Paul Bocuse, sitting by
himself, finishing a coffee.
He was slumped slightly in his chair, and, wearing a black Pringle
cotton shirt, a worker’s cotton jacket, black trousers, and sneakers, he
looked like a regional train conductor at the end of his shift. On
spotting us, he stood up. He had shrunk considerably since I’d seen him
at the Bocuse d’Or. Then again, that last time, he had been in a
towering toque and heavy-heeled clogs, and doing that erect-chef-posture
routine. Without the gear, he was, frankly, a little naked. He seemed,
to me at least—and it is startling for me even to utter the thought—to
be almost normal. He was a man.
There was a lot about him that I didn’t know, I realized. Actually, on
reflection, I knew nothing. Or, at least now—alone, suddenly, with the
deity himself—I was feeling that I knew nothing. I hadn’t yet eaten at
his main restaurant, L’Auberge—which has been awarded three Michelin
stars every year since 1965, making it the longest-running three-star
establishment in the Guide Michelin’s history—and was now angry with
myself that I hadn’t. I felt foolish, and with the great man shaking my
hand—among the greatest meetings in my life—I went instantly and
uncharacteristically shy. He told me to follow. “Viens,” he said gently.
“Merci, chef,” I said weakly.
He wanted to give me a tour.
“Viens,” he repeated.
Since Bocuse knew everyone at Les Halles, and since it was an early hour
and very few shoppers had shown up yet, our slow passage through its
aisles was surprisingly intimate.
“Here the charcuterie is very good,” he said, not unlike an owner of a
large estate showing off roses that were having a good year. “This is
Viannay, standing nearby, whispered, “You will buy your charcuterie
nowhere else. D’accord?”
“Oui, chef,” I whispered back.
Bocuse and Sibilia, an imposing, no-nonsense woman, did kiss-kissy
bonjours and produced slices of rosette, the dried local sausage that
historians believe originated with mortadella and which the Lyonnais
crave whenever they leave town. They both stood around me while I tasted
it, studying my mouth, waiting for a verdict, as if such a tasting were
a matter of great importance. It was a shtick, of course, their journo
P.R. routine. I knew that. They knew that I knew that. But, meanwhile,
the overwhelming fact was this: Bocuse, the Paul Bocuse, was
hand-feeding me a saucisson, and I was remarkably O.K. with that.
Across the aisle was Les Volailles Clugnet, a bird vender. The
proprietor (“Bonjour, Pierre”), on seeing Bocuse handed over a white
bird, unsolicited. Bocuse seized the carcass between his two very large
hands and slapped it around, firmly but with affection, as though
handling the puppy of a favorite hunting dog.
“The best chicken is the white breed from Bresse,” Bocuse said. “Tout
le monde sait ça.” Everyone knows this.
He handed the bird to me. It was heavy. Full. (Unlike the United States,
France doesn’t gut birds until they are about to be cooked.) I held on
to the chicken and looked at it with polite curiosity. I didn’t feel
confident enough to slap it around. Bocuse then did a riff on its
features, the red waddle draped across my thumb, the white feathers, the
dangling blue feet, and the many qualities that make the poulet de
Bresse a rare and scrumptious creature.
Viannay whispered, “Les Volailles Clugnet. Do you understand? The only
“Oui, chef,” I whispered back.
Then, like that, bang: Bocuse said goodbye.
Leaving already? It was—I can’t deny it—a moment of shocking
disappointment. So soon? After such a long wait? I hadn’t even asked a
“À la prochaine fois,” he said.
“Merci, chef,” I said sadly, but then brightened. À la prochaine
fois—until next time? Was he telling me he’d see me again?