Chef and the father of nouvelle cuisine

Born: February 11, 1926;

Died: January 20, 2018

PAUL Bocuse, who has died aged 91, was probably the most important chef of the 20th century and widely regarded as the father of nouvelle cuisine, the movement which stressed lighter stocks, quality ingredients and innovation, and rejected the heavy sauces favoured in classical French cookery.

Bocuse’s restaurant near Lyon, L’Auberge du Pont du Collonges, received its first Michelin star 70 years ago; it has held three stars – the highest rating – since 1965, an unprecedented achievement. On the back of its success Bocuse, who was as shameless a self-promoter as he was gifted as a cook, created the model which has since been followed by many other successful chefs.

He turned himself into a brand: launching a chain of bistros; opening a restaurant at the Epcot centre; creating a cookery school and an award (the Bocuse d’Or) which is regarded as the most prestigious in French cuisine; writing cookbooks and appearing constantly on television; lending his name to wine, packaged food and kitchen equipment, and developing the menu for the maiden flight of Concorde.

There had previously been distinguished names in gastronomy: Auguste Escoffier, against whose traditional heavy sauces the nouvelle cuisine movement reacted; Fernand Point, who founded La Pyramide, and Eugénie Bazier, the first woman to hold three Michelin stars (under both of whom Bocuse studied), but Bocuse was perhaps the first example of the celebrity chef.

He cultivated the notion of the restaurateur as star, appearing on the cover of The New York Times magazine and Newsweek. He defended his immodesty to People magazine in characteristically immodest terms: “God is already famous,” he declared. “But it doesn’t stop the preacher from ringing the bells on Sunday morning.” And he practised what he preached, placing his name (in four-foot high gold letters) across the roof of his restaurant, and – like Caesar – habitually referring to himself in the third person.

Paul François Pierre Bocuse was born on February 11 1926 at Collonges-au-Mont-d’Or, near Lyons, in a room above the inn which his family ran. He was the eighth generation in a family of restaurateurs, though his grandfather had had to sell their main restaurant five years before Paul was born (he subsequently bought it back). At the age of eight, he prepared his first ambitious meal: a dish of sautéed veal kidneys with potato purée.

During the war, he worked in the canteen and slaughterhouse of a youth camp run by the Vichy regime before joining the 1st Division of the Free French forces towards the end of the war. He saw action and received the Croix de Guerre, and was wounded by gunfire in Alsace. He was treated in an American army hospital camp, and for years afterwards flew an American flag outside his restaurants to express his gratitude.

After the war, he returned to the apprenticeship he had started as a teenager at La Mère Brazier at La Col de la Luère near Lyon, a three-star restaurant owned by Eugénie Brazier. He then moved to work for a while at the Lucas Carton in Paris, where his colleagues included the brothers Pierre and Jean Troisgros, whose restaurant near Roanne is now regarded as one of the world’s greatest.

Bocuse then spent eight years working as a sous-chef for Fernand Point, one of the great pioneers of modern French cuisine, at his restaurant La Pyramide, in Vienne, about 20 miles south of Lyon. From Point (a perfectionist whose cookbook Ma Gastronomie is regarded as one of the most influential ever written), Bocuse learnt the importance of “the integrity of the raw product”.

“Back then a lot of restaurants were doing the same kind of old-fashioned Escoffier-style cooking, with lots of sauces hiding the ingredients,” Bocuse later said. “Point… gave value and credibility to the finest ingredients.”

In 1956 Bocuse returned to the Auberge du Pont de Collonges, his family’s restaurant; within two years it had its first Michelin star and a year later – though it still had paper tablecloths – added a second. By the early 1960s, it had acquired a formidable reputation. Bocuse’s emphasis on lighter stocks, shorter cooking times and fresh seasonal ingredients was not unique (it was shared by many of the great chefs who trained under Point), but his popularity was in part due to the way in which he synthesized that approach with the best of cuisine classique.

He avoided what were later to be ridiculed as the worst excesses of nouvelle cuisine – the presentation of his dishes was attractive, but not absurd, while he never subscribed to the notion of tiny portions or ridiculous combinations of bizarre ingredients for the sake of novelty alone.

His menu at the time – shrimp soup, sea bass in pastry, stuffed with lobster mousse, wild duck in green pepper sauce, saddle of lamb with aubergine – was a lighter reimagining of French classics, rather than a culinary revolution. In 1966, after he had received his third star, he bought back the family’s main restaurant, renaming it the Abbaye de Collonges. There, he trained many of the greatest cooks now working.

At the end of the 1960s, the term nouvelle cuisine reached a wider audience after Bocuse and other pioneers of the movement, such as Roger Vergé and Michel Guérard, were invited to contribute to the menu for Concorde’s maiden flight. By the 1970s, the backlash had begun, and Bocuse began to distance himself from the term. “It is not true that Paul Bocuse invented nouvelle cuisine,” he later said. “There were a few dishes that were developed lighter, but that is normal in cooking. The term nouvelle cuisine as it came to be known was nothing to do with what was on the plate, but what was on the bill.”

In 1975, Bocuse received the Legion d’Honneur – the first chef to be given the award – from President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. In honour of the occasion, he devised what was to become one of his most celebrated dishes, a soup of truffles and foie gras in a light chicken stock, topped with a puff pastry, which he named VGE.

In the late 1970s and 1980s, Bocuse expanded his empire, opening a string of brasseries, producing cookbooks and (with Vergé and Gaston Lenôtre) founding Les Chefs de France restaurant at the Epcot Centre in Orlando, which is now operated by his son, Jérôme.

His restaurant became a place of pilgrimage for foodies, who would often break down in tears when he toured the dining room after service, clad in chef’s whites, a gigantic toque, and as many medals as a North Korean general.

In 2005, Bocuse produced a frank memoir (with Eve-Marie Zizza-Lulu) in which he disclosed that, in addition to his wife of 70 years, Raymonde Duvert, he had had a long-standing relationship with not one but two mistresses, Raymone Carlut and Patricia Zizza.

“It would not be everyone’s idea of married life,” he told The Daily Telegraph. “But everyone gets on… if I add up the time we have spent together as couples, it comes to 145 years.” Bocuse attributed his success to trying to “work as if I will live to be 100, and I enjoy life as if the next day will be my last.”

He died in the bedroom in which he was born, and is survived by his wife and their daughter Françoise and by Jérôme, his son by Raymone Carlut.