Celebrity Chefs: It All Began with Bocuse

Paul Bocuse was a gastronomic giant.

© picture provided

Paul Bocuse was a gastronomic giant.

Paul Bocuse was a gastronomic giant.

© picture provided

Forty years ago, Paul Bocuse was the chef des chefs, a cook who had still learned his trade from the legendary Mère Eugénie Brazier, France's first woman to be awarded three Michelin stars (and the first chef ever to earn three stars in two restaurants simultaneously). At the time, French cuisine was still seen as the pinnacle of everything a gourmet could aspire to and Bocuse embodied it like no other. His Potage aux Truffes, conceived on the occasion of his elevation to the rank of Chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur, France’s highest order of merit, is emblematic of this classic cuisine, yet carried by the spirit of nouvelle cuisine.

French Superstars

If you wanted to eat well in the 1980s, you simply had to go to France – but the republic has too many superstars to list, but a few do merit mention: Joël Robuchon, of course, who was as famous for his mashed potatoes and capricious dots of sauce as he was for his total of 32 Michelin stars between Paris and Las Vegas. Or Alain Ducasse, Bocuse's worthy successor as a superstar of French cuisine, with three-star restaurants in Paris, Monaco, London and New York.

Then there is Michel Bras, who runs his eponymous restaurant in the splendid isolation of France’s Massif Central. In 1981, he invented the Coulant au chocolat, the chocolate cake with a liquid centre that became the "lava cake”: a killer dessert copied a billion times. Among chefs, however, Bras owes his legendary status to a different dish altogether: Gargouillou, composed of forty vegetables, herbs and flowers, always different, always a perfect reflection of the season – a starter that put vegetables centre stage for the first time. To this day, the dish is reinterpreted time and again as a tribute to Bras by many colleagues – from Björn Frantzén in Stockholm to Rodolfo Guzmán in Santiago de Chile.

European Talents

Then there is Frédy Girardet in Switzerland. He trained as a chef in a Lausanne, Switzerland, but made his way to the top on his own, without any great mentors. Girardet turned his Hôtel de Ville in Crissier into one of the world’s most sought-after dining spots for grandiose food. His sensitivity for unexpected harmonies and compelling combinations was legendary. This rather ascetic-looking chef also knew how to stage his departure: He left in 1996 at the height of his fame, handed the restaurant over to his long-time companion Philippe Rochat – and to this day enjoys his twilight years as an icon of haute cuisine.

The advent of the much lighter nouvelle cuisine from the 1980s onwards, placing key emphasis on what each seasonal change had to offer, is clearly down to Japanese influence. This understanding of pure, ingredient-centred cooking can be experienced with chefs like Takashi Saito in Tokyo or Yoshihiro Murata at the legendary Kaiseki temple Kikunoi in Kyoto. While they may not be household names in the same way as Bocuse or Robuchon, their influence on how and what we eat is hard to overstate.

»The Naked Chef«

From the 1990s onwards, sushi in increasingly fantastical iterations, often with just tenuous links to the Japanese original, became de rigueur in western fine dining. The Japanese Nobu Matsuhisa, educated in Peru among other places, opened his Los Angeles restaurant in 1987 and turned Robert de Niro into a fan of his Nikkei cuisine. The actor promptly became a business partner and co-founded the Nobu restaurant chain with him – the rest, of course, is history. Nobu became a people-magnet, and its name is synonymous with Japanese-inspired dishes the world still goes mad for.

Jamie Oliver, whose TV career launched him as the Naked Chef in 1995, has never operated within the fine dining tradition, but his enduring influence is undoubted. Simply because his best-selling cookery books and his uncomplicated, spontaneous style persuaded millions of people to try their hand at cooking on a regular basis.

From Scandi to Ethnic Cuisine

However, it was another man who put England on the gastronomic map. Marco Pierre White's naughty but always perfectly executed haute cuisine of the 1990s, along with his punk superstar status founded in his cookery book White Heat, are as legendary today as they were then. Coming from diametrically opposed poles, Oliver’s and White’s presence also meant that chefs were perceived as sex symbols for the first time.

In the early 1990s, however, another Brit positioned himself as a chef of world renown in a fundamentally different fashion: The trained architect Fergus Henderson opened his St. John in London, a restaurant that served almost unheard-of absurdities: tripe and chitterlings, tongue and brains, pigs’ tails and trotters. His concept of "nose to tail eating" became a resounding success; even stars like Madonna and Elton John did not want to miss out on the miraculous dishes he could conjure from offal.

His success, however, also illustrated how hungry the world was for new ideas. Catalonian Ferran Adrià completely reinvented fine dining as a pyrotechnic display of unexpected sensations. Neither was he afraid to use food industry additives. His Cocina Tecno-Emoción, later popularised as molecular cuisine, enjoyed worldwide success and, thanks to cleverly marketed chemical kits, was even attempted in home kitchens. However, what amounted to high art at Adrià’s restaurant El Bulli, degenerated into helpless bungling at home. It is fair to say that Adrià probably did more harm than good to cooking.

However, he had a disciple who proved to be an even better communicator: René Redzepi. After years with Adrià and the three-Michelin-starred Thomas Keller in the United States, Redzepi founded a restaurant in Copenhagen that presented Scandinavia’s natural produce with both wit and technical skill. He brought moss and lichen to the table and was the first chef to be named "god of food" on the cover of Time Magazine: a terrific cook, but also an unrivalled communicator who told a compelling story of great, new food. The fact that his ideas helped determine the gastronomic discourse of the past fifteen years and inspired the megatrend of fermented foods, sits well with this image of Redzepi probably being the greatest chef of the past forty years.

Contemporary Heroes

Alongside ultra-local cuisine, ethno-cuisine has finally emerged as well. Latin America, blessed with an immense array of ethnic cuisines – think Mexican and Peruvian – at last discovered its fine dining potential. Gastón Acurio is the man who put Peru's diverse agricultural produce, sourced between Andes and Pacific, into sharp focus. The Mexican Enrique Olvera, long since established with restaurants in New York and elsewhere, did the same for Mexico's cuisines.

New York is also where David Chang began his career. The son of Korean immigrants worked his way up in posh kitchens like the legendary Café Boulud; then left the world of fine dining to open Momofuku Noodle Bar, a minimalist restaurant presenting contemporary takes on Asian classics like ramen or Korean fried chicken. Today, he is once again a star chef with establishments in Los Angeles, Manhattan, Toronto, Washington D.C. and Sydney. He also graced the cover of Time Magazine, however, his superstar status among foodies around the globe is down to Netflix documentaries like Ugly Delicious and Mind of a Chef, as well as the intellectual food magazine Lucky Peach, which he founded. Chang brought the East Asian cuisines of China and Korea into the fine dining circuit – but perhaps there is an even more lasting achievement: he understood that the new generation of diners has neither the time not the patience to sit out hours of gastronomic detention in stiff food temples.

Instead, today’s diners have an irrepressible desire for intelligent, irreverent and immensely varied food whose highest maxims are cosmopolitanism and flavour. A lot has changed in the past forty years – and you would have to be a reactionary to see this democratisation of good food as anything other than positive. After all, it is only a matter of time before the luxurious ways à l'ancienne roll around again as the next super-trend.