Paul Bocuse, one of the most celebrated chefs in the world, named Chef of the Century in 2011 by the Culinary Institute of America, and one of the trio of famous cooks who opened Les Chefs de France at Epcot, died Saturday, Jan. 20 in France. He would have turned 92 on Feb. 11.
Because of his restaurants at Epcot, Bocuse maintained a home in Central Florida, but had not visited for several years because of Parkinson’s disease. His son, Jérôme, is a resident of Central Florida and operates the Bocuse brand from here. His name was on a statement from the family posted on Paul Bocuse’s Facebook page announcing the death.
(Translated from French): “It is with great sorrow that we inform you of the death of Paul Bocuse. Our ‘Captain’ died on January 20th, at the dawn of his 92th birthday.
“Much more than a father and a husband, he is a man of heart, a spiritual father, an emblematic figure of world gastronomy, and a tricolore porte.
“Mr. Paul loved life, sharing, transmission, and his crew. These same values will continue to inspire us forever.” It was signed Mrs. Raymonde Bocuse, Mrs. Françoise Bocuse-Bernachon, Mr. Jérôme Bocuse.
The significance of Bocuse’s contribution to the culinary culture and especially to the awareness of chefs today can’t be overstated. If it weren’t for Bocuse, there very likely would be no such thing as “Top Chef.” He was the first celebrity chef.
That’s because, in 1965, he did something no chef had ever done: He put his own name on his restaurant in Collonges-au-Mont-d’Or just outside Lyon. Before that, Bocuse told me in 1996, chefs were no more than hired kitchen help. The restaurants were owned by the maitre d’ or the hotels where they were located. It’s hard to imagine in a world proliferated by show kitchens that the cooks were almost always relegated to the basements and were never seen by the diners.
The restaurant in Epcot was started by Bocuse along with Roger Verge and Gaston Lenotre, two other well-known French chefs. Lenotre died in 2009 at 88 and Verge was 85 when he died nearly three years ago.
A second restaurant, upstairs at the pavilion, Bistro de Paris, was rebranded Monsieur Paul in 2012 to honor Bocuse.
Although his classic pose had him in starched whites, a tall toque, and arms folded across his chest — a stance shown on the menu of his restaurant (above) that he signed for me when I dined there and immortalized in butter molds used there and at other properties — Bocuse had a playful side. He loved to ride his Harley Davidson motorcycle, and before his health began to fail, neighbors of his lakefront home in Windermere might have seen him on his jet ski.
He also had a wry sense of humor. He famously spoke only French, telling people through a translator that his head is filled with too many recipes that there was no room to learn a new language. (Marcella Hazan, another world-famous cook who died last year, once whispered to me, “I think he knows more English than he says.”)
When I was doing a profile of Bocuse for the Orlando Sentinel in 1996, I was also working on another story about corkage fees for people who bring wine to a restaurant. So I asked him what he says when people ask if they can bring their own wine to his three-starred restaurant in Collonges-au-Mont-d’Or. “I tell then ‘sure,'” he said, “why don’t you bring your own chairs, too?”
But there’s one thing he once told me that I think about often. I asked him what his most memorable meal was. Here was a man with restaurants in France, Japan and the United States. The person responsible for nouvelle cuisine, and who had created a a dish called Truffle Soup V.G.E., named for French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, loaded with truffles and foie gras and covered with puff pastry.
His answer to my question was that his most memorable meal was a potato he found in a field in France during World War II. He was hungry and he ate the potato raw.