along with so many others, remembering Paul Bocuse. I met him a few times, got to know more about him through Philippe Mouchel, because he wrote the foreword to the book I wrote with Philippe Mouchel, More than French (Slattery Media). Philippe had been the chef at the Paul Bocuse restaurant that had a glorious run from 1991 to 1997 in Melbourne, and M. Bocuse came for the opening and/or the closing of the restaurant. I went to the restaurant in France only once, and it was one of those meals that was an education in itself. (There aren’t many of them.) For a start, it changed my mind about the cost of high-end restaurants. OF COURSE they are expensive – for a start, they provide enormous employment. The staffing level was extraordinary to Australian habits: someone at the gate (a young man in a uniform) who showed us to the door, where we were met by another man, who showed us through to someone else who took us to our table. It was all so deftly done that I had no sense of being crowded or unnecessarily fussed over. The next striking thing was the attention to detail, from the wonderfully gaudy building to the dining room, each table with a vase of three perfect roses. The roses would be replaced every two days, at most, I guessed, perhaps every day because they were all open to the same point. The food? Oh yes, wonderful. What I remember most clearly was the sea bass en croute for the two of us (the barramundi version is in the book, so I had to order it). What struck me was the sense of absolute confidence in everything that was done, the sense of “this is how it should be done, this is how we do it”. The dessert trolley was pure folly, with so much to choose from – and I chose raspberries, in perfect condition. No cream, no ice-cream, nothing more. The waiter’s eyebrows went up a couple of millimetres in surprise. What I say about that visit in retrospect is that I’m very glad I went, and I was sorry that I hadn’t been before, when I had the chance years earlier.
What Paul Bocuse did was to change the game. He was the first chef superstar, and the first to profit from it. Escoffier was a gamechanger in his own way, but neither of them was able to command centre-stage in the way Bocuse did, or for so long. He developed an empire of marketing and restaurants, of books, of the grandest cooking competition of all, the Bocuse d’Or, which is held bi-ennially in Lyon.
Was he criticised for his efforts? Of course. Anthony Blake’s book Great Chefs of France (Mitchell Beazley 1978) tells of Bocuse facing a kind of inquisition on television, charges laid by five hostile critics who were displeased by his commercialism, his showmanship, his gastronomic empire. Afterwards he received a letter from a man who wrote: “I hated you before I saw you on that programme. Now I quite like you, but I think you make too much money.”
Bocuse’s legacy could be seen in the crowd at his funeral – so many chefs, all their white jackets. He trained more chefs that anyone else, I think. That is the other thing I value about the best expensive restaurants – they provide training in a way no other institution can. They ensure the future of the industry.
That’s what Paul Bocuse did, really. Over the decades, he ensured that generations of chefs were trained, along with who knows how many waiters and sommeliers, that French cuisine was valued (through the Bouse d’Or, among other enterprises), and that thousands of diners were delighted.