Paul Bocuse died last week, at 91, at his flagship restaurant in Collonges-au-Mont-d’Or, like an emperor entombed in his self-made mausoleum. As I argue in “Beyond Bocuse,” my contribution to the special current issue of Contemporary French Civilization 42.3-4, the great chef’s passing was long anticipated, in ways as intriguing as they are revealing:
Chef Paul Bocuse (born 1926) has long been seen as the living embodiment of French haute cuisine, the standard bearer for this prestigious tradition. As he approaches the end of his life, tributes have turned monumental, with statues erected, places renamed in his honor, a giant street mural in Lyon bearing his likeness, and even a colossal effigy of him as a float in the Carnaval de Nice. While there is some historical precedent for lionizing French chefs, no other has ever been the object of such extensive and emphatic veneration. This is all the more noteworthy at a time when French culinary preeminence, long a linchpin of French national identity, has been challenged at home and abroad (Lazareff, Steinberger).
So, what do these monumental homages mean? How do they compare with earlier tributes to French chefs, or to Bocuse himself? What might they tell us, not only about Bocuse as a public figure, but about the perceived state of French cuisine, French gastronomy, and France itself, both today and tomorrow – in a future beyond Bocuse?
The heart of Bocuse’s culinary universe, the Auberge du pont de Collonges, or Restaurant Paul Bocuse, is where he made his reputation and held three Michelin stars for over a half century. Long seen as the cornerstone of his legacy, the restaurant is a place already marked, during the chef’s lifetime, by both his presence and absence:
While master of this realm, for decades already the jet-setting chef has not always been there, raising questions about his presence and absence, anticipating a time when he will be gone forever. Customers, Zizza-Lalu explains, should realize the restaurant’s quality doesn’t waver when he’s away, because his chef des cuisines “fait jouer la partition bocusienne … en toute saison.” Diners who think dishes taste better when he’s there are experiencing “une … saveur exclusivement sentimentale.” Bocuse knows his clientele and, recognizing “le pouvoir de l’imaginaire sur leurs papilles,” alerts his employees: “Avis à tout l’équipage, bureau, cuisine, salle: je suis toujours ici. Pas d’info sur les voyages aux clients.” To further reassure diners who so value his presence, he offers abundant stand-ins for his person:
Paul a multiplié les images de Bocuse dans son restaurant. Ces représentations du chef … sont autant d’icônes tendues au visiteur venu approcher le ‘saint patron’ des cuisiniers. Cet ensemble d’oeuvres … compose une étrange collection, un petit musée de l’homme Bocuse qu’on visite au son des couteaux et des fourchettes. (Zizza-Lalu 123)
This use of visual substitutes harks back to Louis XIV’s practice of “régner par effigies interposées” (Gardes 15), notably through statues installed in the provinces and in newly vanquished cities abroad, with the king’s likenesses ruling for him, “trying to command space in the sovereign’s absence, much as nineteenth-century monuments to great men, raised after their death, would seek to transcend time” (Garval 22). So too sculptural and other recent monumental tributes to Bocuse, channeling royal and great man monument traditions, aim to command space and transcend time, both within the more narrowly defined realm of his restaurant and in the broader public sphere.
A local hero in his native Lyon, Bocuse also became a national and international figure, and was treated thus in a float at the 2014 Carnaval de Nice. This monumental likeness, entitled Bocuse Imperator, played a prominent role in the Corso carnavalesque, a procession inspired by the event’s annual theme – for 2014, la gastronomie:
Tellingly, even this most imposing of chef likenesses, for the most celebrated of contemporary French chefs, remains haunted by impermanence and inadequacy, by lingering doubts about the chef ’s status as public figure, harking back to an enduring vision of chefs as ineligible for monumental commemoration, despite their accomplishments – a vision that . . . has long plagued chef tributes, from the first, abortive attempts in the early twentieth century, through the most recent homages to Paul Bocuse.
Bocuse Imperator needs to be seen within this broader context offered by the Corso carnavalesque, of a food culture in transition, evolving in different directions, with haute cuisine playing an ever more limited role. [It] embodies the worrisome prospect of the great chef’s passing, its ambivalence and precariousness figuring anxieties, not only about the uncertain future of an elite French gastronomic tradition, but also, through this longstanding touchstone of French identity, about France’s broader place in the world.
Ultimately, the Corso carnavalesque puts on parade a pivotal moment in the history of French cuisine and gastronomy, poised between vestiges of the past and glimpses of a future already unfolding. We see France leaving behind a gastronomic model that emerged and prevailed over the past few hundred years, from Louis XIV’s court at Versailles through the rise of nouvelle cuisine in the 1970s – a movement of which Bocuse was seen as a key leader, and also the last great worldwide wave of French culinary influence (much like Sartre and existentialism in the philosophical realm, a quarter century earlier). In the figure of Bocuse Imperator, we feel the baggage of a largely bygone past, including a still incompletely realized desire to offer cherished chefs as full a tribute as other sorts of public figures once received. Though it’s unclear exactly where France is headed, something new is always built on the ruins of something old, so what might be taking shape amid the debris?
Learning of Bocuse’s death, my co-editor Philippe Dubois emailed me: “Le roi est mort. Vive le roi!” But what sort of régime—in all senses of the word—might now await the French? Our special issue, on the theme “Beyond Gastronomy,” offers a range of perspectives on this question, so please have a look!
This blog post was written by Michael Garval.
Read the complete article here.