Age of Aquarius
My Love-Hate Relationship With Chef Paul Bocuse
Our columnist’s tumultuous experience with the famed French chef.
If astrological predictions are at all accurate, few people in the world could have been as similar in style and substance as Paul Bocuse and me. The most famous of all modern French chefs, and the acknowledged father of nouvelle cuisine, Bocuse who died on Saturday at the age of 91, was born on Feb. 11, 1926. I was born on Feb. 10 in the same year.
But even if our Aquarian moons were in the seventh house, and Jupiter aligned with Mars, semi-critical reviews that I wrote for The New York Times about his famed Michelin three-starred restaurant, L’Auberge du Pont de Collonges on the outskirts of Lyon, set us at odds forevermore.
Part of my round-up of all of the then trois étoiles in France, in which many received some negative criticism, incited stunned indignation throughout France, and the press went berserk about this unrecognized critic who gave a thumbs down to many of their most hallowed eateries. Some chefs responded to my story. Michel Guérard swore, “she was never here. I would have known it.” It was a claim also made by Alain Chapel of La Mere Charles. But the most memorable comment came from Bocuse, “she must have a very unsatisfactory sex life.”
So viral was the story, that I was invited to be on a lengthy TV talk show, Les Dossiers de L'écran, (Notebook of the Screen), set as a dinner party with a panel of “diners.” I insisted on being incognito and so was provided with a blond wig and a black satin eye mask and was wired for simultaneous translation. My fellow diners included André Daguin, one of the Troisgros brothers, Christian Millau and, if I recall correctly, an editor from the Michelin Guide, and of course, the king himself, Paul Bocuse.
Along with critiques about specific dishes and service flaws, I questioned the whole nouvelle cuisine invasion which was being celebrated by the Gault-Millau guide. I felt it was a huge mistake to denigrate classic French cuisine, for no country ever had more to lose gastronomically and I thought they were throwing out the baby with the bath water.
My biggest gripe regarding Bocuse, that I mentioned on the show, was that he was almost never in his restaurant. I felt (and feel) that when a chef is a big media star and the public is paying huge tabs they expect to see him or her—even if the chef isn’t stirring the pot or flipping the crepes. I suggested that Bocuse fly a flag over his restaurant when he was there, just as Buckingham Palace does when the queen is in residence.
When the show ended and we were milling around, Bocuse approached me and tried to pull off my mask, happily to no avail.
But returning to his restaurant several times years later I much appreciated many of his famed dishes, among them the black truffle soup created for former French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, an ethereal mussel soup, the inspired salmon en croute, and many more.
About five or six years after I left the Times, I was having lunch at Balthazar in New York and Bocuse walked in with friends and was seated in the booth next to mine. I asked the captain to give him my card; my anonymity was no longer required. He came over in a flash, shaking my hands, talking a bit about the downturn in France’s culinary reputation, and saying he too thought they had gone too overboard with nouvelle cuisine. He said that he was going to open (or had opened) a series of Brasseries: Nord, Sud, l’Ouest and more, which all exist not only in France but in many other countries as well.
It was André Soltner, the great chef at his late lamented Lutèce, who pointed out to me Bocuse’s greatest contribution. “He took chefs out of the servant category. He made it an honorable, glamorous and respected profession. And so, attracted a new generation of bright, dedicated, educated young men... and women.”
Given those past associations, I find that I already miss this brilliant, self-promoting culinary master. We may not always have agreed but only because we both cared so much about the same glorious subject.