• Paul Bocuse, star chef


    Ma. Isabel Ongpin

    I am not a foodie despite having been married to one and having all my children displaying foodie traits. I do appreciate good food and those who create it. I have some signature dishes that are modest attempts for foodie status but not quite. I do not have the analytical skills, the cooking prowess or the necessary taste buds to qualify as a foodie. Ordinarily, I like to eat at home. Lately, I find restaurants inordinately noisy, especially from the office crowd that think it is the height of enjoying life to be so loud that the next table can’t hear themselves.

    Having said all that, one of my great memories is once meeting Paul Bocuse, who passed away a few days ago.
    That was the time I enjoyed a meal at his restaurant in Lyon decades ago. It was a great experience and I appreciated the meal, the ambience of seriousness and reverence that his 3-Michelin-star restaurant had. The clients were many, showing appreciation by their presence and circumspect behavior, the food was the focus. From that experience, I came away with his book on Regional French Cooking (in English), which has great and simple recipes like cabbage soup and, believe it or not, baked macaroni, plus all kinds of salads, stews, desserts.

    They are simple recipes not requiring rocket science to succeed to do, because Paul Bocuse knew how to put tradition, ingredients, skill together under present day circumstances and come up with a wonderful dish.
    As the Paul Bocuse obituaries say, he elevated the chef that labors to create dishes and present them with style and integrity to a deserved status, that of an artist. He started the trend of star chefs which are now the thing and make all of us appreciate the effort that cooking is, the ingredients that we must preserve and use, and the tradition of dishes that come down to us from generations of cooks, housewives, aficionados, foodies all of them. Cooking is part of civilization, if not civilization itself.

    How did I get to that Michelin 3-star restaurant? Simple, I was in the hands of my foodie eldest son, Rafael, who was driving with me from Spain to Italy one summer after his graduation from the European School of Management (INSEAD) in Fontainebleau, France. He was driving the car, I was the passenger in the back of a stretch Mercedes limousine (that is another story). Going from expressway to expressway in country after country, region after region, stopping to eat in expressway restaurants (which were fine with me) and watching the vehicles whizzing by at great speed to me (not realizing that we were doing the same speed), I was content to listen over and over again to Grace Nono (Rafael’s choice, as he controlled the dashboard) singing her heart out as we hurtled down south toward Italy.

    Somewhere in the south of France, Rafael casually said that we were near the Paul Bocuse restaurant in Lyon. It was given as a piece of information but suddenly I found myself challenging him that if he could get a reservation I was willing to make a stop for dinner there. It was really a challenge that I felt certain could not be taken up and accomplished. We were in an expressway in the middle of nowhere and there were no mobile telephones in use.
    Rafael immediately stopped at the nearest phone booth and came back to say we had reservations for dinner that night. I was astonished and wondered where and how we were to get there. No GPS or Waze either, just the usual road maps. But somehow we actually arrived at the Paul Bocuse restaurant in time for dinner, which was in broad daylight as it was summer.

    On entering the restaurant, a tall person in a chef’s attire smiled and greeted us in such a friendly and almost familiar manner that I whispered to Rafael, “Who is that?” Rafael shook his head and said, “Mom, THAT is Paul Bocuse.” Wow! The man himself making his clients feel at ease. It must have been one of Paul Bocuse’s innovations to achieve what he managed to get – fame and the appreciation of his customers. And a new tradition that is being observed to the present.

    We sat down to dinner in a country setting but with the appropriate traditional table linen, cutlery and crystal, of course. I ordered a bean dish with all the meat ingredients, soup, salad and was thinking of dessert. Rafael went from soup to nuts having ordered a distinctive duck dish with all the trimmings. Shades of his father. Then, of course, the wine, a French red chosen by him and approved by me. We were getting mellow, feeling smart for making the detour.

    We were the only tourists in the restaurant, which was full but not crowded, or maybe the only foreigners. The French clients had also traveled to get there, so they too were tourists.

    As we were waiting for the main course, Rafael noticed that all the men were wearing jackets even if it was summer. So, he went to the car and came back wearing a jacket. The waiter smiled and the service, already good, went a level up. Appreciation is appreciated. Respect for the occasion of someone’s efforts for you should, indeed, be the norm.

    We dined leisurely among murmured conversation, in an atmosphere almost of reverence for the experience, knowing that the memory of that dinner, that night, that summer and that time in our lives would forever remain.
    It comes back to me now that Paul Bocuse has gone to meet his Maker. I called Rafael to tell him about Paul Bocuse and asked when were we at his restaurant, his immediate and unhesitating answer, “1996.” He, too, has the memory. Yes, ordinary non-foodies like me do appreciate what Paul Bocuse has done to make us thankful to the cooks, chefs, foodies, farmers, butchers, housewives, restaurateurs, among us.
    Merci, Monsieur Bocuse.


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