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The Complicated Legacy of Paul Bocuse

Anne E. McBride

July 20, 2018

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Paul Bocuse Restaurant Sébastien Veronese
Photo: Sébastien Veronese

Reflecting on the legacy of the major figures of any field is always an interesting exercise: how will they live up to the scrutiny of history, and evolving minds and manners? How do we distinguish personal memories and emotions from what will remain in the collective memory? In the 2018 culinary world in particular, reflecting also means interrogating legacies in the light of full gender and racial equality—have our heroes always behaved well and served as role models to all? 

Last month, a panel at the New School took on this challenge, discussing the legacy of Paul Bocuse, the giant from Lyon, France, who forever transformed the profession of the chef and opened a new path for aspiring culinarians that is still directly reflected in the ever-expanding possibilities of their careers today. Moderated by the New School’s Andrew Smith, the panel featured the James Beard Foundation’s chief strategy officer Mitchell Davis, Yale professor Paul Freedman, journalist Raymond Sokolov, and myself. 

Bocuse was one of the godfathers of nouvelle cuisine in France, earning three Michelin stars for his restaurant in Lyon in 1965—the youngest chef to do so at the time, and the first chef post–World War II. He became the fiercest contemporary promoter of French cuisine around the world, creating the Bocuse d’Or competition in 1987, and continuing his campaign to highlight his country’s food until he died on January 20, 2018, at the age of 91.

Much of the panel’s discussion focused on two particular points of Bocuse’s legacy: his efforts to take the chef “out of the kitchen” and achieve a global brand (being the first chef to do so); and simultaneously, his lack of interest in mentoring and hiring non-white men. Bocuse famously said about women: “I’d rather have them in my bed than in my kitchen.” 

Praise for Bocuse often centered on his creativity and grandeur, and his deep sense of promotion. Putting his name on the door was essential to him—perhaps because his grandfather had once sold the family restaurant and the associated naming rights, preventing a Bocuse restaurant from existing for several decades within the family itself. Being a chef and an owner was essential to Bocuse; before him, chefs largely worked anonymously for restaurateurs who owned and dominated the public face of their establishments. He transformed the chef into a celebrity diners wanted to see—in the restaurant, and around the world, as he expanded to places like Japan and the United States. Bocuse traveled so much that he instructed his staff to never reveal if he was in-house—confident in the power of his team to execute his food, much as top chefs do today.

Food in its material state plays little role in the legacy of Bocuse. La soupe VGE, named for former French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing because Bocuse had served him this lavish truffle/foie gras/puff pastry preparation, was the only dish anyone could name as a typical Bocuse preparation. And even then, it is a dish remembered more for its media power than because of gastronomic exquisiteness. 

Bocuse used little of his stature to empower women, who are critically missing from the long lineage of chefs who spent time in his kitchens. He appointed his first female executive chef in 2013—at one of his more casual restaurants, not the flagship—nearly 60 years after he had returned to Lyon to helm his own kitchen. Bocuse saw women as guardians of traditional cuisine, cooking best with rusticity and simplicity rather than with creativity and sophistication. His most notable remarks about women focused on their role as dispensaries of pleasure and their physicality, not their brainpower and skills. Bocuse upheld a strict hierarchy in the kitchen, where the name “chef” is always at the top and controls the creative process that is then executed by the line. This lack of diversity of perspectives and opinions is partially to blame for classic French haute cuisine’s existential crisis, as young chefs (with more and more women among their ranks) now turn to more personal expressions of heritage rather than exacting applications of rules and codes. 

The panel concluded on a note of nuance: Bocuse’s name is forever inscribed in the great gastronomic timeline, and his contributions, which allowed chefs to leave the shadows of the kitchen and become entrepreneurs with marketing power, will forever matter. But it is crucial, when discussing his legacy, particularly to younger cooks, to also recognize the areas where he failed to be a leader, and identify the ways in which we can all do better.  

A video of the panel is available on YouTube

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Anne E. McBride, PhD is a food scholar, author, food studies professor, and organizer of culinary conferences. Find her on Instagram and Twitter

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