At Age 85, the French Icon Reflects on the Traditions, Influences and Events that Have Shaped His Expansive Culinary Career
By Jemima SissonsAs we enter a vast hall in Collonges-au-Mont-d'Or outside Lyon, France, a fairground organ booms into action, its high-pitch circus tunes almost deafening. Paul bocuse, short, with a slow gait and clad entirely in black, shuffles toward a towering contraption at the end depicting brightly colored carnival scenes. All at once, four other organs in the room bearing the name "Bocuse Circus" start, creating a surreal, discordant, almost dream-like air. Mr. Bocuse, considered one of the finest chefs alive today, spreads his arms in wonder and is reduced to a childlike rapture.
It is a somewhat bizarre setup for one of the world's most traditional chefs, yet Mr. Bocuse explains that like much in his life, the brightly hued organs are rooted in his childhood. "When I was a child, the fairground was very exciting in the village, so when the chance arose I bought the lot," he says.
At 85 years old, Mr. Bocuse now has the time to indulge his childhood passions. Although he still oversees his three-Michelin-starred restaurant L'Auberge du Pont de Collonges, as well as seven brasseries and a small hotel in Lyon, he isn't in the kitchen anymore. He also has restaurants in Tokyo, New York and Disney World Orlando.
His food continues to inspire others; for its 20th anniversary, D&D London's restaurant La Pont de La Tour will run a tribute menu from Oct. 12-31 that will include some of Mr. Bocuse's most famous dishes, such as his truffle and foie gras soup and Bresse chicken.
Mr. Bocuse talks a lot about his origins and growing up in the same house that is now L'Auberge du Pont de Collonges. Times were hard, even before the war, he says, but the family never starved. His father came from a long line of chefs, and the first thing Paul Bocuse cooked as an 8-year-old boy, under the watchful gaze of his mother, was a rognon de veau with a potato puree—the type of food he still serves today.
"I had a very free childhood," explains Mr. Bocuse, who still sleeps in the same room he did as a child. "We lived by the river and loved it. I was always playing outside, hunting, fishing. When I got bad marks at school, I would go fishing and cook it straightaway."
Mr. Bocuse still cherishes the role the river played in his life. "Whenever I go to bed, wherever I am in the world, I always want to know which side is the Saône. It is my savior river. This river has been the rhythm of my life."
He was conscripted during World War II when he was 18. After being wounded in Alsace, he ended up in a U.S. Army hospital, where a blood transfusion saved his life. And since 1944, he recalls, "I have always had a U.S. flag flying outside my restaurant."
Read the rest of Chef Paul Bocuse's story here.