In an era of ingredient-driven cooking, Paul Bocuse was the high priest of technique

A master of culinary technique.
A master of culinary technique.
Image: AP Photo/Laurent Cipriani
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The legendary French chef Paul Bocuse, who died Jan. 20 at the age of 91, once said his mission was to “render unto a chicken that which is its due, and nothing more.”

It’s a message that sounds familiar to anyone who has digested the farm-to-table ethos of the last two decades of popular cooking. Certainly it’s one that resonated as I walked through the Union Square farmer’s market in New York City last summer. “This is place to be,” I thought, as bits of my favorite chefs’ YouTube videos replayed in my head.

Each of these chefs had sauntered through a similar farmer’s market, bartering with farmers and stashing esoteric root vegetables in their tote bags, then turned to the camera with the same message: Simply buy the best ingredients you can. These gorgeous ingredients, they assured me, will basically assemble themselves—the product of good agriculture, needing just a little coaxing, some confidence, and maybe a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil to display their complexity on a gleaming white plate.

Anyone can do this, they assured me—even you, a kitchen newbie. But what of technique? As I walked through the booths, I spent more time trying to figure out how to cut a black turnip than considering how its flavor profile would compliment the microgreens I had seen next door.

Bocuse, for all his reverence for ingredients, literally wrote the book on technique. The pendulum of fashionable cooking has swung wildly from when Paul Bocuse cooked up his first veal kidneys with pureed potatoes in 1934, pioneering a fresh, refined take on classic French technique that became known as “nouvelle cuisine” (though he later rejected the label). He was an innovator, but he also stayed true to a tradition where the techniques used to prepare food were essentially the recipes. Food was good because a chef made it so. The finesse and knowledge required to poach a chicken in a pig’s bladder or cook a sea bass in pastry can’t simply be plucked from the ground.

In the 1990s and 2000s, the rise of chefs such as Berkeley, California’s Alice Waters and London’s Fergus Henderson emphasized provenance above all, naming local farmers and foragers on menus, and touting respect for the ingredient and nose-to-tail butchery. Today’s chefs are more likely to emulate Norway’s Magnus Nilsson, an ingredient-first chef who goes to extremes like harvesting and preparing endives by blacklight, than the techniques of a classic French master.

Of course, Nilsson’s tech-enabled, science-informed approach also involves technique, but it’s one that has little to do with the knife skills or master sauces that are rigorously tested at the Bocuse d’Or—the culinary competition named for Paul Bocuse that is considered the “Olympics of cooking.”

Part of what made Bocuse such a force of culinary change was his ability to take that classic technique and apply it with great restraint and minimal fuss. For all its lavishness, Bocuse’s bladder-poached and truffled chicken is served simply—as he said, given “that which is its due, and nothing more.” When he first made his name, Bocuse was known for extending the legacy of Fernand Point, who bucked many of the French culinary norms to focus on the ingredients.

As I’ve become a (slightly) more experienced cook, I’m finding myself craving technique—as well as carefully sourced and prepared ingredients. Even the considered processes proposed by Samin Nosrats’ Salt Fat Acid Heat leave me with a plate filled with separate piles of protein, vegetable and starch. Well-seasoned and perfectly cooked as they may be, they seem to have little relationship to each other.

I have not consciously imitated Bocuse’s journey, but I’m beginning to understand how ingredients can serve ideas, rather than the other way around. The French mother sauces rarely make appearances on online cooking videos, but after picking up James Peterson’s Sauces in an unconscious regression a few weeks ago, I’m realizing their beguiling powers.

The great French chef, rooster-tatooed and powerful enough in France to be immune to parking tickets, is dead, but the idea that technique is essential to truly innovative cooking is not. For me, at least, that means I’ll be spending more time in the kitchen, and less time worshipping microgreens.