Here are a few other reminiscences of Paul Bocuse, the legendary chef who died Saturday at the age of 91:
- I don’t recall the date, but I was invited to join Bocuse and his fellow celebrated chefs Roger Verge and Gaston Lenotre for lunch at Les Chefs de France, the restaurant named for the three of them at Epcot’s France pavilion.
There were about 10 of us at the table, and as far as I can remember, Verge was the only one of the three chefs who spoke even passable English. So they did a lot of conversing in French.
At one point the three chefs started to speak more animatedly, bordering on arguing. It went on for several minutes, each one pooh-poohing what the other had just said. I couldn’t follow any of it, so at one point I leaned over to a French-speaking woman next to me and asked what they were talking about. “They’re arguing about the best way to peel the skin from a bell pepper,” she explained.
- Jérôme, Bocuse’s son, attended the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park with the intention of following in the footsteps of his father. But he discovered he had a more natural acumen for the business side of restaurants and that’s where he placed his focus. I once asked Bocuse if he was disappointed that his son wouldn’t follow him in the kitchen. He just shrugged and said, “Picasso didn’t have a son who could paint.”
- Although he is credited with the rise of Nouvelle Cuisine, Bocuse preferred simple foods. “Sometimes the cook comes to the table and removes the silver cover and [has to explain] what’s on the plate. That’s not cooking,” he told me once in an interview. “I identify what’s on the plate with the bones.”
He also wasn’t impressed with wine stewards who go too deeply into a vintage’s provenance. “The sommelier talks about the wine, the winemaker’s grandmother, even the dog who peed on the vine.”
- Knowing that Bocuse loved steak, I asked him in 2002 if he would show me the best way to grill a fine piece of meat. We met at The Butcher Shop, a now defunct restaurant that was in the equally defunct Mercado, a Mediterranean style shopping complex on International Drive in approximately the same location that now holds the giant Ferris wheel.
The conceit of The Butcher Shop was that it had large grills in the dining rooms that allowed guests to cook their own steaks. (Men loved the concept; women hated it.) Bocuse took command of the grill, cooking his steak and mine, explaining his process through his translators, Jérôme and Bruno Vrignon, his longtime executive chef at the Epcot restaurants. (Salt the steak before; pepper it at the end; don’t oil the steaks or you’ll cause the fire to flare up and harden the meat.)
When the steaks were finished, we sat back down at the table. I concentrated on the conversation and making notes of what he was saying rather than eating. At the end of the meal, I asked the server to have my steak boxed up so I could take it with me. He took it away, but it never came back. He explained that it had accidentally been thrown out, but he cheerfully offered to have another steak cooked for me to take home. I explained that unless it was cooked by the most famous chef in the world it really wouldn’t matter.
- But the disappointment of the lost steak was nothing compared to the dinner that never happened.
The Association of Food Journalists was having its annual conference in Orlando, at Walt Disney World Resorts. Bocuse, Lenotre and Verge were in town for the occasion, so was Marcella Hazan, who had recently moved to Longboat Key from Venice. And Julia Child was scheduled to arrive in a few days. I had an idea: What if I could get them all at the same table for dinner?
I contacted Scott Hunnel at Victoria & Albert’s, who agreed to host the party at the chef’s table. All of them agreed to attend. And I would be the only journalist in attendance, the only one to capture what five of the most famous cooks in the world said to each other when they got together for the first time ever.
And then a hurricane blew by close enough to close the airport. Child had to cancel her trip. The dinner fell apart.
With Bocuse’s death on Saturday, all of them are now gone.