Paul Bocuse was a leading figure in the pathbreaking culinary movement known as nouvelle cuisine, and shaped a pathbreaking style of cooking at his three-star restaurant near Lyon.
Paul Bocuse, the most celebrated French chef of the postwar era and a leading figure in the pathbreaking culinary movement known as nouvelle cuisine, died Saturday, his family said. He was 91.
Mr. Bocuse emerged as the first among a brilliant band of chefs who developed a modernized version of classic French cooking in the late 1960s and early 1970s, cheered on by Henri Gault and Christian Millau, publishers of the influential Gault-Millau Guide.
Following the lead of Fernand Point, the spiritual father of nouvelle cuisine and a mentor to many of its pioneers, Mr. Bocuse shaped a style of cooking at the Auberge du Pont de Collonges, his three-star restaurant near Lyon, France, that emphasized fresh ingredients, lighter sauces, unusual flavor combinations and relentless innovation that, in his case, rested on a solid mastery of classic technique.
His signature dishes pleased the palate, seduced the eye and piqued the imagination. He stuffed sea bass with lobster mousse and encased it in pastry scales and fins. He poached a truffled Bresse chicken inside a pig’s bladder.
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His most famous dish was truffle soup VGE, a heady mixture of truffles and foie gras in chicken broth, baked in a single-serving bowl covered in puff pastry. First served at a dinner at the Élysée Palace in 1975, the soup was named for French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, who had just awarded Mr. Bocuse the French Legion of Honor.
Mr. Bocuse, a tireless self-promoter, was a constant presence in the news media and on television. “You’ve got to beat the drum in life,” he told People magazine in 1976. “God is already famous, but that doesn’t stop the preacher from ringing the church bells every morning.”
For his artistry and innovations in the kitchen, he received his profession’s top honors, including a Michelin three-star rating, the restaurant guide’s highest, which he held for more than half a century, one of the longest runs in Michelin history.
He parlayed celebrity into a restaurant empire that extended beyond France to embrace the United States and Japan, and in so doing he became a role model for the chef-entrepreneurs of the present day, such as Jacques Pépin.
“Certainly he did more than any other chef in the world that I can think of to bring the chefs in the dining room and to make the profession respectable and to make us who we are now,” Pépin said in 2011, when Mr. Bocuse was named “chef of the century” by the Culinary Institute of America.
Paul Bocuse was born on Feb. 11, 1926, in Collonges-au-Mont-d’Or, where his forebears had been cooking and serving food for seven generations. At age 8, he made his first serious dish, veal kidneys with puréed potatoes, and as a teenager he began an apprenticeship at a local restaurant. The training was interrupted by World War II, however, when he was assigned to a Vichy government youth camp and put to work in its canteen and slaughterhouse. In 1944, he joined the 1st Free French Division and was wounded in combat in Alsace. He received the Croix de Guerre.
After the war, he resumed his apprenticeship at the restaurant, La Mère Brazier in Le Col de la Luère, outside Lyon. Like its twin in Lyon, it was owned by the legendary Eugénie Brazier and had achieved three Michelin stars by serving impeccable renditions of regional classics.
The groundswell for nouvelle cuisine transformed Mr. Bocuse into the international face of French cooking. He appeared on the cover of The New York Times Magazine in 1972. In 1975, he looked out from the cover of Newsweek under the banner headline “Food: The New Wave.” An apprenticeship at his restaurant became a rite of passage for ambitious chefs, including Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Daniel Boulud.
In time, as a backlash against nouvelle cuisine developed, Mr. Bocuse put some distance between himself and the movement. He referred snidely to “mini-portions on maxi-plates” and at one point dismissed the movement as “a joke.”
Nouvelle cuisine lost momentum, but Mr. Bocuse did not. In the early 1980s, the Walt Disney Co. invited him to create restaurants for the French pavilion at Epcot Center (now Walt Disney World) in Orlando, Florida. With Gaston Lenôtre and Roger Vergé, he developed Les Chefs de France restaurant, now operated by his son, Jérôme, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America. It serves 2,000 meals a day and generates about $30 million a year.
When the organizers of Eurexpo, a culinary trade fair in Lyon, approached Mr. Bocuse on how to promote the event, he proposed a cooking contest in which chefs would prepare two elaborate dishes, one fish and one meat, before a live audience and then submit them to a panel of expert judges for scoring. The Bocuse d’Or, held every two years, made its debut in 1987 and is now regarded as the culinary equivalent of the Olympics, attracting teams from all over the world.
For many years, he resisted writing the story of his life, but he eventually worked with Eve-Marie Zizza-Lalu to produce an as-told-to memoir, “Paul Bocuse: The Sacred Fire,” published in 2005.
Even in France, eyebrows lifted a little when Mr. Bocuse revealed that for more than 30 years, he had enjoyed the company of not only his wife, Raymonde, the mother of his daughter, Françoise Bernachon, but also of two mistresses, one of them the mother of Jérôme. His wife survives him, as do his two children.
“It would not be everyone’s idea of married life, but everyone gets on,” he told The Daily Telegraph of London at the time.
Despite his international status, Mr. Bocuse remained a chef deeply rooted in his native soil. He slept in the same bedroom where he had been born.
“When the time comes, I too will end up in the oven,” he told L’Express in 2005, musing over the multiple meanings of his memoir’s title. “I want my ashes to be scattered in the Saône, which flows right past my house. It is the river of my life.”