Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Remembering Paul Bocuse - by Rupert Swyer

The death of Paul Bocuse brings back memories of the night I went to dinner there with Martine, and her brother, in November 1973. I was feeling unwell, the beginnings of flu, and the Yom Kippur war had just broken out. But we'd booked, and this was an opportunity not to be missed.

Faithful to his legend, Bocuse himself was at the door with a jovial greeting for us. We opted for the 5-course menu at 120 francs, about 19 euros. It might be a bit more expensive now. The Saint Amour was the best Beaujolais I have ever tasted, full-bodied, long in the mouth, with a heady bouquet. Forget the vocabulary of modern wine-tasting: woodland fruits, wet dogs and grilled potatoes, or whatever.

I can't recall everything on the menu, but it did include écrevisses à la nage and a poularde de Bresse en demi-deuil, neither particularly nouvelle cuisine. My wife and brother-in-law are small eaters, so, helpful as always, I piled into their dishes too. The dessert trolley was a riot of puddings of every kind-- tarts, gateaux, fruits alone and in salads… again, not especially nouvelle cuisine. How to resist trying everything? Then came the mocha coffee, with a sort of creamy, smoky texture. Oh yes, and the accompanying chocolates!

As I started on my second cup of coffee, suddenly I began to feel cold, then hot, then cold again. I went to the gents and woke up about 15 minutes later, on the floor. I had fainted. The incipient flu, surely.

As we left, Bocuse was at the door again, looking concerned. “Was everything alright?” Definitely so, though the meal perhaps more so than I. Now I was fine, though. No food poisoning here. Not like some other so-called temples of haute cuisine.

Bocuse was renowned as a pioneer of nouvelle cuisine, which I shan't attempt to characterize here, though it had already gained a reputation for Lilliputian portions and outlandish marriages of ingredients. For
the high priests of nouvelle cuisine, dining was less a comfort for the stomach than an exercise in aesthetics and philosophy. We were supposed to become gastrosophes, à la Charles Fourier.

Rumour had it that top nouvelle cuisine chefs were repairing to Chez Allard, on the rue Saint-André- des-Arts in Paris, for a "proper" meal and the warmth of a traditional restaurant.

In 1973, though, the atmosphere chez Bocuse was relaxed and friendly, and the servings abundant.

I was describing the meal at a dinner party in Paris a few weeks later.William Christie, recently arrived in Paris, was there too. He was making a living accompanying master classes for Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, I think. In a thick American accent he asked me: "Est-ce que tu parles aussi bien du sexe que de la bouffe?" "To intimates only", I replied, evasively.

We didn't know then, but the connection between food and sex was especially apposite in the case of Bocuse. He was a voluptuary in the great French tradition: he loved food and women, like a well-upholstered man in a Picasso engraving, reclining in the arms of a sensual female. Only in his case we are told he was living with three women, not to mention other lovers.

If that isn't enough to drive red-blooded men into the kitchen, I don't know what is.

Rupert Swyer

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