PARIS — He was modest about his accomplishments in the kitchen but grandiose in his dreams. Paul Bocuse credited his long reign as France’s master chef to everything but himself: good produce fresh from the garden, a superb kitchen staff and happy diners.
But the three-star Michelin rating held since 1965 by his restaurant outside the French city of Lyon wasn’t enough. Bocuse parlayed his business and cooking skills into a globe-spanning empire, along the way transforming chefs from kitchen artists toiling in the shadows into international celebrities.
Bocuse died at 91 on Saturday at Collonges-au-Mont-d’or, the place where he was born and had his restaurant, French President Emmanuel Macron said in a statement. He had undergone a triple heart bypass in 2005 and also suffered from Parkinson’s disease.
“French gastronomy loses a mythical figure,” Macron said. “The chefs cry in their kitchens, at the Elysee (presidential palace) and everywhere in France.”
Interior Minister Gerard Collomb tweeted that “Mister Paul was France. Simplicity and generosity. Excellence and art de vivre.”
“He has been a leader. He took the cook out of the kitchen,” said celebrity French chef Alain Ducasse, speaking at a 2013 gathering to honor Bocuse, one of more than 100 chefs from around the world who traveled to Lyon for the occasion.
“Monsieur Paul” — as he was affectionately known — cultivated a larger-than-life image. The public Bocuse was all white starch, most often portrayed in his tall chef’s hat, or “toque,” arms folded over his crisp apron.
He was a tireless pioneer, the first chef to blend the art of cooking with savvy business tactics — branding his cuisine and his image to create an empire of restaurants around the globe whose offerings range from haute cuisine to fast food.
But the man dubbed by critics as the “pope of French cuisine” never forgot his humble beginnings learning the ropes in his family kitchen along the Saone River in southeast France. He turned that family house into a temple of gastronomy — L’Auberge du Pont de Collonges — and still lived upstairs, sleeping in the same room where he was born, he told The Associated Press in a 2011 interview.
“One must never forget how one reached the top of the pedestal,” he is quoted as saying in a 2005 biography.
The restaurant has held three stars — without interruption — since 1965 in the Michelin guide, the bible of gastronomes. Bocuse greets arriving guests in a “tromp l’oeuil” painting on an outside wall and peers at them from a large portrait inside the cozy but elegant Auberge. Renowned chefs, some of whom he worked with, are portrayed in a giant mural.
Bocuse’s cuisine was simple yet his personality complex. Three women, his wife Raymonde and two other female companions, accompanied his ascension, playing pivotal roles while remaining mostly behind the scenes.
In 1982, Bocuse opened a restaurant in the France Pavilion in Walt Disney World’s Epcot Center in Orlando, Florida, headed by his son Jerome, also a chef.
But while excelling in the business of cooking, Bocuse never flagged in his devotion to his first love, creating a top class, quintessentially French meal. He eschewed the fads and experiments that have captivated many other top chefs.
“In cooking, there are those who are rap and those who are concerto,” he told the French newsmagazine L’Express — adding that he tended toward the concerto — a solo artist backed by an orchestra of talented kitchen staff.
In traditional cooking, there is no room for guesswork he said, declaring “one must be immutable, unattackable, monumental.”
Born on Feb. 11, 1926, to a family of cooks that he dates to the 1700s, Bocuse entered his first apprenticeship at 16. He worked at the famed La Mere Brazier in Lyon, then spent eight years with one of his culinary idols, Fernand Point, whose cooking was a precursor to France’s nouvelle cuisine movement with lighter sauces and lightly cooked fresh vegetables.
Bocuse’s career in the kitchen traversed the ages. He went from apprenticeships and cooking “brigades” at a time when stoves were coal-fired and chefs also served as scullery workers to the ultra-modern kitchen of his Auberge.
“There was rigor,” Bocuse told the AP. “(At La Mere Brazier) you had to wake up early and milk the cows, feed the pigs, do the laundry and cook …. It was a very tough school of hard knocks.”
“Today, the profession has changed enormously. There’s no more coal. You push a button and you have heat,” he said.
Bocuse adapted seamlessly to the changing times, making his mark with a first coveted Michelin star in 1958, a second in 1960 and a third in 1965. In 1989, he was named Cook of the Century by Gault & Millau, a noted guidebook. In 2011, the Culinary Institute of America named him Chef of the Century, opening a restaurant for students in his name.
Despite the accolades, he maintained a special pride in the blue, white and red stripes on his chef’s collar holding a large medal, attesting to his selection in 1961 as a “Meilleur Ouvrier de France,” a sought-after distinction for chefs and other artisans.
The gastronomic offerings at Bocuse’s L’Auberge du Pont de Collonges are rooted in the French culinary tradition: simple, authentic food that was “identifiable” in its nature.
Emblematic of that is the crock of truffle soup he created in 1975 for then-French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing — a soup that is still served to this day. Another Bocuse classic is fricassee of Bresse chicken — from France’s Bresse region, which is famed for its poultry — served in cream with morilles, a type of spring mushroom.
And his favorite ingredient? Butter.
“(It’s a) magical product,” he said during a visit to the Culinary Institute of America. “Nothing replaces butter.”
Three other cooking must-haves, according to the chef, are fresh produce (his from his own garden), a solid, trusted kitchen staff and happy diners.
“It’s the client who runs the house,” Bocuse told the AP.
He disparaged the notion that his culinary offerings amounted to nouvelle cuisine, although he incorporated aspects of it. And he scoffed at critics who contended that his food was stuck in a bygone age. Georges Auguste Escoffier, who gave classic French cuisine a world profile, remained a solid inspiration at Bocuse’s table.
“Escoffier was the master of us all,” Bocuse once said.
World War II interrupted his kitchen duties. He fought in the First Division of the Free French Forces, was wounded and cared for at a U.S. field hospital.
“I always say I have American blood in my veins because … I had transfusions of American blood,” he said in the AP interview. An American flag still flies outside his restaurant.
The war had a lasting impact on the chef.
“(It) forges the character,” he said. “You no longer have the same idea of life.”
Bocuse might have settled for being a renowned French chef worthy of a pilgrimage by food lovers with deep pockets. Instead, he parlayed his culinary skills into a worldwide food conglomerate.
He opened two brasseries in Lyon in 1995 and 1997. He added three other eateries in the city and even a hotel. He planted restaurants in the south of France, in Geneva and hopped across the world to Japan, where eight Bocuse brasseries, cafes and other establishments were opened.
He also aimed to transmit his savoir-faire to a young generation through the Foundation Paul Bocuse, established in Lyon in 2004 to initiate youth into the cooking profession. His Bocuse d’Or, or gold award — an international competition for young chefs — has grown into a major culinary showcase since its inception in 1987.
While Bocuse’s kitchens were meticulously in order, his personal life was unorthodox as he quietly shared his life with three women.
“I think cuisine and sex have lots of common points,” Bocuse told the L’Express before publication of his biography “Paul Bocuse: The Sacred Fire.” “Even if it seems a bit macho, I love women.”
The chef put an upbeat spin on his private life: “If I calculate the number of years I’ve been faithful to the three women who count in my life, I get 145 years,” he is quoted as saying in “The Sacred Fire.”
The biography was written by Eve-Marie Zizza-Lalu, daughter of the most recent woman in Bocuse’s life, Patricia Zizza, whom he met in 1972.
Yet it is his wife Raymonde, with whom Bocuse had a daughter, Francoise, who helps watch over his main restaurant. That is no small task — Bocuse saw the reservation book as the real measure of any chef’s cuisine.
“If the restaurant works, if it’s full of clients … whatever the cuisine, he (the chef) is right,” he said.
In addition to his wife, Bocuse is survived by his daughter Francoise and his son Jerome.