Chefs discuss Paul Bocuse’s impact on the culinary world

Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud and Jerome Bocuse share thoughts on CIA’s ‘chef of the century’

Paul Bocuse “unshackled” the chefs of his generation, ushering in a new era of innovation and prestige for back-of-the-house workers, said Culinary Institute of America president Tim Ryan.

Bocuse, whom the CIA declared as “chef of the century,” is receiving an Augie Award at the culinary school’s annual Leadership Awards gala Wednesday night.

The award is named after renowned chef Auguste Escoffier, who developed the brigade hierarchy in kitchens and codified French cuisine at the end of the 19th century.

In a panel discussion Wednesday afternoon, Ryan explained that, although Escoffier made tremendous contributions to the culinary world, he also shackled several generations of chefs who felt obligated to adhere to the rules he promulgated.

Bocuse, arguably the modern era’s first celebrity chef, changed that with the introduction in the late 1960s and early 1970s of what came to be known as Nouvelle Cuisine.

During the Wednesday’s discussion, chefs Thomas Keller and Daniel Boulud, along with Bocuse’s son, Jerome, discussed how the “chef of the century” inspired them personally. Paul Bocuse himself also participated in the discussion, with his son acting as interpreter.

Jerome Bocuse and Boulud also are being honored by the CIA on Wednesday night as alumnus of the year and chef of the year, respectively.

Keller, chef-owner of The French Laundry in Yountville, Calif., Per Se in New York and other restaurants, said Bocuse “brought chefs out of the kitchen” and into the spotlight.

He said the chefs who established Nouvelle Cuisine helped to define the modern chef by allowing them to express their own culinary perspective rather than only reproducing established classic recipes.

Both Keller, from afar, and Boulud, who worked as an apprentice in Bocuse’s hometown of Lyon during the birth of Nouvelle Cuisine, said Bocuse’s creation of camaraderie and a sense of fraternity among chefs had a strong influence on them.

Keller said he was attracted to Bocuse’s lifestyle portrayed in the book “Great Chefs of France.”

“That resonated with me, and it was one of the reasons I pursued a career as a chef,” he said.

Boulud said he was inspired by Bocuse’s continued devotion to his friends and family, even after he was established as the greatest chef in the world 40 years ago.

“He has been one of the greatest educators in that sense,” Boulud said.

He also said that the annual New Year’s cards that Bocuse sent out were always funny and lighthearted. “There’s also something very smart and very simple and also optimistic that always brings people back to the ground,” he added.

Boulud also pointed out that Bocuse very early on opened casual restaurants as well as fine-dining ones, including eight brasseries and two fast-food restaurants, Ouest Express, in Lyon.

“Sometimes we feel very modest because of everything that Paul has done and continues to do,” he said.

“He’s a really good father,” Jerome Bocuse said. Echoing Boulud and Keller, he said that his globe-trotting dad “didn’t forget his family life, and he made sure I was well taken care of.”

For his part, Paul Bocuse said the biggest changes in kitchens since he began his career have been in equipment.

“We used to add coal to the ovens and judge the temperature by touch,” he said, noting that now the humidity in ovens can be adjusted and the temperature can be adjusted by the half degree.

Regardless of those changes, he said, you still have to start with great ingredients.

“For me there’s no high or low cuisine. There is just good cuisine,” he said.

Bocuse said that, whatever a chef cooks, if the restaurant is full, if it endures, and if the owners make money, then the chef is doing his job.

He added that, although he and his band of chefs in Lyon are credited with revolutionizing cuisine “in each generation there is a nouvelle cuisine, and that continues today.”

Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected]