We take a trip back to childhood with one of America’s greatest chefs, Daniel Boulud, to look at an important figure in his life and career, Paul Bocuse—and the system, the place, and the culture of food that raised both of them.
Where do great chefs come from?
They do not emerge fully formed in crisp Egyptian-cotton whites and towering toques, with imperious attitudes, into their dining rooms. In France, in and around Lyon, a region famous for its food and where this episode of Parts Unknown takes place, chances are they were farm boys, the children of fathers already in the industry, the working poor. They were survivors of “the System,” products of a very old, entrenched military-style hierarchy that relied on methods we would now rightly call abuse.
Back in the day—the years when my guide, the great chef Daniel Boulud, peeled his first carrot—you started early. Daniel’s childhood was dedicated to work on the family farm, milking cows, working the fields. Childhood ended for him, as it did for many chefs of that generation, at age 14 when he went to work in professional kitchens.
Things were harder then. Demanding a 12- to-16-hour workday of cooks was common practice, as was manhandling them. Slapping—even beating a cook—was not unheard of nor necessarily frowned upon. And if you worked with the best—as Daniel did, as a young Paul Bocuse did, as ALL who rose through the French system to become what, for lack of a better word, we have come to call “celebrity chefs”—the pressure night after night, day after day, year after year, was enormous.
So if you look at Daniel Boulud, who now runs some of the greatest restaurants in this country and beyond, and you think you see a guy who lives in some aspirational fantasyland—keep in mind that he had his teeth kicked in every day for three decades or so before getting there. When you see the simple-looking preparation of salmon in sorrel sauce in the kitchen of Les Frères Troisgros, try and understand that what you are seeing changed the way ALL of us now order and eat our fish today, that it marked a tectonic shift as important to the craft of cooking as the invention of the electric guitar to music.
When looking at where it all comes from, know that it comes from a culture where food is, simply put, important. Because it IS important. Eating well in France—as in Italy, Spain, most of Asia, much of Latin America—is a point of pride, an expression of identity, a birthright. Whether it’s simply a bowl of beans or a bony fish grilled over wood, its preparation is worth talking about. It’s worth arguing about passionately.
Our newfound American obsession with all things food and chefs may veer frequently into the silly zone; but we are in our own awkward way lurching towards what others have had for centuries: a basic understanding that food—GOOD food—is a fundamental, hugely important part of life well lived at whatever income bracket.
A version of this field note was previously published on Bourdain’s Tumblr on April 26, 2014.