When I was midway through high school in 1972, I eagerly pulled the New York Times in from the doormat one Sunday morning. My goal was to get the Arts and Leisure section before my sister did, because I wanted to search for the Ninas hidden in Al Hirschfeld’s weekly caricatures of theatrical openings. Hirschfeld would incorporate his daughter’s name Nina into multiple locations of each drawing, hidden in folds of clothing or wisps of hair. Just knowing about the game meant that you were a New York insider. But on this particular morning I stopped short to take in a striking photo of a handsome chef on the cover of the Times Magazine. He was standing at a farmers market proudly surveying an abundance of fruits and vegetables. Pre-breakfast and still in pajamas, I read the article. The Ninas could wait.
The man was Paul Bocuse, 46, chef of his family’s Michelin three-star restaurant outside Lyon and the leading spokesman for a new generation of chefs who were modernizing fine dining in France. They were breaking away from the classic Escoffier-modeled kitchens, with their mechanistic approach to cooking and menu development and the stultified cuisine that resulted. Bocuse and his cohorts were adventurous, wanting to bring a fresher, lighter approach. They refused to be relegated to the stoves; they came out into the dining room, proud to be the face of their restaurants and the source of creativity and innovation.
Bocuse, who died last week at age 91, was rising just as a growing American middle class had begun traveling to France, enjoying not only the cafes and bistros of Paris but haute cuisine spots throughout the countryside as well. A.J. Liebling and M.F.K. Fisher wrote inspirational prose about their Parisian dining exploits; Julia Child and James Beard deconstructed traditional French fare to make it accessible to the American home cook. While these writers shared their love of French cooking and culture, they were neither professionals nor French. The nation and the cuisine needed an ambassador of its own. That was Bocuse, the original celebrity chef.
Looking at that Times cover photo, I immediately saw a path for myself. Here was an occupation that had enormous room for creativity and intellectual stimulation but was rooted in physical labor and tangible productivity and maintained a connection to the beauty of the natural world. The all-encompassing nature of the work was thrilling too: shopping at a market for ingredients, then transforming them into delicious meals and interacting with the diners who might cherish their meal as an experience of a lifetime. Bocuse represented that possibility for countless American middle-class kids looking for alternative career paths. We didn’t have to go into law, medicine or finance. He brought prestige to work that had been viewed, in this country at least, as a service job.
The article was enough to motivate me to begin pursuing a culinary career. After a few fits and starts in the French Midtown restaurant world, I traveled to France in 1980 for study with Madeleine Kamman. Kamman upended my construct of fine food and fine dining. She told me that the treasures of French cuisine were to be found in regional kitchens, many of which were helmed by women, and not in the “gros bonnets” male kitchens of haute cuisine. We learned to cook food of people in their place, not food of the aristocracy who preferred to dine on exotic and faraway ingredients.
When I told Kamman that I intended to eat at chez Bocuse on one of my weekends off, she directed me instead to La Mere Brazier, where Bocuse had trained under Eugenie Brazier, the first female chef to garner three stars (she held six stars, three each at two restaurants). When I began bicycling through France, I traded my red Michelin guide for Kamman’s dog-eared copy of Waverley Root’s “The Foods of France” as my companion guide. Root organized the regional cuisines of France by which fat was used for cooking: butter in the north, duck and goose fat in the northeast and southwest and olive oil in the south. Root was my Virgil on my search for the old, the traditional, the disappearing. These quests indelibly shaped the cuisine I developed when I opened Savoy, one that reflected my interest in the regional flavors and dishes of the broader Mediterranean. I never looked back at the more traditional French fine dining found in Midtown.
Recently, while working on a memoir, I searched online for that original Times Magazine piece about Bocuse. The article was titled “The Restoration of French Cooking,” and was written by none other than Waverley Root. Here was my French back roads guide turning up as the author of my culinary genesis moment. Rereading it, the text revealed an even more profound truth about Bocuse.
Root admits that he was no fan of Lyonnaise cooking but made an exception for Bocuse, spending a day shadowing him on his rounds, which began at 6 a.m. in the farmers market. Root wondered, “Why, at his present eminence, doesn’t Bocuse delegate the irksome chore of rising before dawn and doing the shopping to one of his 45 employees? ‘Because first-rate raw materials are the very foundation of good cooking. Give the greatest cook in the world second-rate materials and the best he can produce from them is second-rate food,’ Bocuse answered.”
Bocuse was shopping in the market because he knew what a qualitative difference it ultimately made to the food eaten in his dining room. I had come to the same conclusion. That’s why I spent many days a week for many years moving food by bicycle from the Union Square Greenmarket to my SoHo restaurant and developing direct relationships with farmers and producers. Root wrote that Bocuse also enjoyed the community that came with shopping in the public market, chatting with farmers, fellow cooks and other shoppers. Bocuse talked about the direct impact scale has on the quality of freshness and the food. “All the mass wholesaler, who pours all his produce into the same hopper, is able to sell is the average,” he told Root. The quote raised questions of scale and quality in our food and agriculture that I grapple with to this day.
Bocuse went on to leverage his image into an international brand, a cooking school in Tokyo and a 2,000-meal-a-day restaurant at Disney World. He was the first chef to get out from behind the stoves and build associated businesses in other cities, even countries. Ever the showman, he cooked a pumpkin soup in a whole pumpkin, inspiring me in 1980, when working in a New American restaurant, to scour the farmers market to find small pumpkins we could serve as single-portion soups. An army of American farmers who grow Jack-Be-Little pumpkins have Bocuse to thank for their popularity.
The culinary Olympics he helped organize, called the Bocuse d’Or, serves to keep French as the preeminent cuisine in the world, but it is not my thing; the food is over-manipulated, overthought. It has strayed far from the market cuisine he once promoted.
But it doesn’t tarnish the gift I received from him long ago, when the younger me came upon that 1972 article. The farmers market photo provided the spark, but Bocuse’s commitment to cook from the market, to dedicate himself to “la cuisine du marche,” was a philosophical building block right from the start. It took me several decades to adapt those principles to my time and my place, but Bocuse’s dependence on seasonality as a source of inspiration and his reliance on small farmers for quality ingredients became my “very foundation” as well.
I never met Bocuse, but I continue to honor him by passing along this philosophy to the next generation of cooks. Thank you, chef.
Hoffman is a consultant and former chef-owner of Savoy, Back Forty and Back Forty West in New York City, where he lives. He is working on a memoir with recipes.