When the great French chef Paul Bocuse died on January 28, 2018, French President Emmanuel Macron declared that ‘Les chefs pleurent dans leur cuisine, à l’Élysée et partout en France’ (chefs are crying in their kitchens, at the Élysée Palace and all over France). Paul Bocuse was a legend in French cuisine, running his restaurant in Lyon — his hometown — and shaping the modern landscape of cooking in France during the 1960s and 1970s.
Bocuse probably invented the notion of celebrity chefs, often appearing on television and what the New York Times referred to as a ‘tireless self-promoter.’ He made his first serious dish (veal kidneys) at age 8, worked in a slaughterhouse during World War II, opened restaurants in Lyon that won Michelin stars, and opened restaurants around the Globe for Walt Disney and others. He was awarded the French Legion of Honour in 1975.
Above all, though, he was associated with promoting the Nouvelle Cuisine. When he started cooking, dishes were heavy and laden with sauce. He pioneered the use of lighter dishes, often with less food on the plate but with better presentation. There was a bit of a backlash against this kind of cooking later in the 80s, but he distanced himself from the heavy price tags and fashion trends. He was a traditional man, sleeping in the same bedroom throughout his life as where he had been born, in Lyon. However, that didn’t stop him from publishing books, launching global businesses, starting cooking competitions and a cooking school in Lyon. He will be sorely missed.
There is also probably a good distinction to be made between celebrity chefs and moguls, who run restaurants around the world and sell merchandise to go with them, versus the ones who are considered great, but run their own restaurants and stay local to France.
Alain Ducasse is perhaps one of France’s best-known chefs, with 25 world-class restaurants around the globe. His restaurant at London’s Dorchester hotel holds 3 Michelin stars but as he apparently renounced his French nationality for tax reasons, he is no longer eligible. He is currently based in Monaco.
Pierre Gagnaire runs his self-titled Pierre Gagnaire restaurant in Paris and is considered one of France’s greats because he spearheaded the fusion cuisine movement, where dishes normally involve a mixture of different types of cuisine. He is also the head chef at London’s Sketch Restaurant and has won Michelin stars.
Michel Bras is a strong contender, often associated with cooking herbs and edible flowers. He is widely considered one of the best French chefs, topping lots of Top Ten lists. He founded Maison Bras, a hotel and restaurant called Le Suquet, with his wife in Lagioule, south of Lyon. His son, Sebastien Bras took over 10 years’ ago and famously gave up the Michelin stars last year because he wanted to focus on cooking without the pressure of constantly being judged.
Éric Fréchon runs his Épicure restaurant at the Hôtel Le Bristol in Paris. He is known for being very French in philosophy, using simple ideas and ingredients but mixing things up a little, so that you might find an oyster foie gras with smoked tea on your plate. One of his favourite ingredients is black truffles.
Yannick Alleno is another French culinary God, regularly coming in the Top Ten on worldwide lists of French chefs and is known for combining classic and modern flavours. He has held 3 Michelin stars for a very long time, mentors up-and-coming chefs and runs his own group of restaurants.