31st August 2023

He would be 98 years old if he were alive today. And if passion alone stirred the veins, he still would.

At the age of 14, he left school and his father left home, conscription being another tumult of family life in 1940 France. He was a boy shaped by war, determined to find the joy in life beyond winners, losers and conflict. He would find his mission in food, though his choices suggest he never forgot the glory of winning.

Paul Bocuse was born in Lyon in 1926. The room in which he was born, was the room in which he slept throughout his adult life, despite having the means to live in palaces and the connections to commune with kings. He would die in that same room, at the age of 91.

A person who enters and departs the world within the same four walls is a person deserving of attention. One does not die in one’s maternity suite by chance.

‘What should I do in Lyon?’ , I asked Chloé, a young Parisienne, born with light in her eyes. We were hiking the same route in south central France, walking through the same fields growing delectable ingredients, and now around the same table, sharing the simple homemade cooking of our ‘gîte d’étape’ hostess.

‘Bocuse’, she said immediately. ‘You must dine at a Bocuse restaurant. Each one has its own cuisine, so you can choose, and you’ll have more than one experience if you wish’.

At the age of 18, Paul Bocuse was drafted to the army, spending time in Germany and Italy, before being injured in Alsace, and finally demobilised in Paris in 1945.

This was a key moment in his life – in which a man can go to seed, reinvent himself, or dig into his essence.

«Truant ou honnête », as he said. Them be the choices.

The end of war became the beginning of self – and he chose learning, stimulus and innovation, within the family domain of food.

Reading the word ‘Bocuse’, my anglophone eyes autocorrect to ‘Because’.

And this is the theme in my head as I arrive to L’Est, a Bocuse Brasserie in Lyon’s 6th District, set in an old train station with the theme of gastronomic exploration. What is it about this man that makes him so revered by generations in France?

Bocuse is famous for elevating the status of the chef, for venerating the role of ingredients (whether procured by farming or poaching), and for his essential insight that the dining experience is way more than what’s on the plate. Pleasure is derived from the detail, he believed, including how clean your waiter’s shirt might be, and how fresh your table’s flower.

Although my food in L’Est was simply wonderful – fresh, in season, sensorial, generous, beautiful – it is something beyond that which strikes me most.

I began to notice that every waiter looked me straight in the eye. Every person I interacted with, and there were perhaps five or six, not just found my eyes, but smiled from the eyes.

Paul Bocuse, a natural storyteller, recounts meeting a German diner in his Lyon restaurant in the 80s. Part of the establishment’s decor featured a photo of a destroyed bridge, one of the city’s remnants of war.

His guest timidly called him over to share an act of contrition, pointing to the wall-hanging… ‘When I was 18 years old, Monsieur Bocuse, I was part of the bombing raid which destroyed your bridge’.

They smiled, shook hands and took a photo together, in full bonhomie. Indeed, Bocuse invited the German to return for a second mission, on the basis that the bridge had been gloriously reconstructed, and was back doing an outrageously good job.

Every nation nurtures characters who, forged through its sorrows, embody its essential joy.

In 2011, Bocuse was awarded the title of ‘Chef of the Century’ by his peers, and is considered the father of gastronomy by the French people.

Perhaps the ‘because’ in ‘Bocuse’ is more philosophical than gastronomical. Stripped to the core, his big idea was this: serving people lies at the centre of dining, because great food flows in the presence of high intent.

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