The Chef is NakedHome >> Experiences
Paul Bocuse is France's number one celebrity chef. In a way he is the incarnation of the French chef on the numerous TV shows where he appears. He commands immense respect across the nation and amongst professional cooks. He has a number of restaurants, food product lines and books. I assumed that his flagship restaurant outside Lyon would be a top gastronomic restaurant - how naive.
L'Auberge du pont de Collonges in Collonges au Mont d'Or near Lyon is where Bocuse is. That is his most famous restaurant. If you want to see him, that is where you need to go.
Arriving at the restaurant, the first thing you notice is the immense mural painting of Bocuse with a number of other chefs. Another mural shows him with a TV crew. The murals seem to be a hit with Chinese tourists as you can see on the picture above. The first thing after the no less immense parking space for the huge tourist buses built on his land. As you walk towards the restaurant, Bocuse is right outside, shaking hands with clients and posing for pictures dressed up as a chef. I say dressed up because obviously he doesn't see the inside of the kitchen. He didn't move for the entire meal, so I guess his job nowadays is to clown around with clients and enjoy his celebrity. This does not seem to disturb the usual patrons. We saw several tables where a man was filming the entire meal for his grandchildren.
Bocuse does not cook himself at all, even when he is present in his
restaurant, is not a scoop. 'Mr Bocuse, who cooks when you are not here? - The same people who cook when I am here'. Straight
from the horse's mouth. In a 3 Michelin stars restaurant, the chef
usually does not cook, but he looks at every single plate going out the
kitchen. Bocuse is not even in the kitchen.
The waiter was so pretentious and full of himself, I assume must have been working for the train station Mac Donald's the week before. He seemed so elated to be working for Bocuse he barely noticed the poor quality of the food or the clients.
We tried the soupe de truffes en croûte, "Created in 1975 for President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing at the French Presidential Palace", a watered down broth with some black rubbery pieces which only the price indicated they were truffles.
I've been trying to forget the rest of the meal for some time now. There was nothing redeeming in it.
The cheese tray was the icing on the cake. In French gastronomic restaurants you expect to get a good selection of local and national cheeses served at the perfect degree of maturity. Here the tray was a wooden thing straight out of the fridge. There was even condensation on the wood and I touched it and the cheeses, both about 5°C. I've never seen this in any restaurant, let alone such a 'legendary' place.
Back home I hit the books, puzzled. The Michelin guide gave it 3 stars, but Gault Millau, a leading French restaurant guidebook, chose not to give him any rating, explaining that if they did it would be a mere 13 or 14 on a scale of 20. Restaurants below 12 don't even make it in the guide. In the last edition Gault Millau says the restaurant is a gastronomic museum where you can experience the way people dined in the 1970's. Well, I sure hope they dined better back then.
Bocuse clearly hopes to go down in history like the most important French cook of the 20th century, like Carême and Escoffier before him. I am not sure about that. The term 'chef of the century' was bestowed on him by none other than Gault Millau in 1989. But Gault Millau giveth and the Gault Millau taketh away. When in 1999 the guidebook ventured to say how bad Bocuse's restaurant had become, all hell broke loose from Collonge. Bocuse said that 'The nice thing with this restaurant guide is you can use in the toilets. You see, pages are easily removed.' or 'Anyway, Mr Henry Gault is always drunk.'. You don't need to take my word for it. This article in French in a local Lyon paper gives more details.
When chef Bernard Loiseau shot himself after losing two points on the Gault Millau scale, the first to speak against the restaurant guides' dictature was - Bocuse. There he was, his belly almost pushing the TV cameras back, having hissy fits that restaurant guides were too hard and did not know one thing about gastronomy. Well, I don't know about that, but from that day I have stuck to the Gault Millau and I try to read between the lines before booking.
It was really a sorry sight to see such a stand-up man clowning around dressed up like a chef before his restaurant almost like an old dog begging passers-by to be pet him. He deserves better than that. I hope to have seen him on one of his bad days. But is it fair for Bocuse to rest on a 20-year-old reputation and let his restaurant slide down, hoping nobody will notice and going after the few courageous food critics who reported fairly how bad it is?
There is nothing wrong with a chef being over the hill. At one time or another, you need to retire, or you'll either die from exhaustion or the restaurant's quality will decline. Bocuse has apparently managed the latter without having to pay the price of being downgraded by Michelin. Good for him, not so good for the pigeons like myself who go there expecting a 3-Michelin-star-class dining experience. And only the quality has been discounted, not the price. And you could expect that a man managing such a feat would be try to keep it quiet lest somebody notices. Not quite. Bocuse actively poses as the 'Pope of French gastronomy'. Have a look at his worldwide cooking competition where the prize is a golden statue of Paul Bocuse in chef's attire with both feet on a tiny terrestrial globe. It is modestly called 'Le Bocuse d'or' - the golden bocuse and presented as the Nobel Prize of French gastronomy.
I'm quite sure Bocuse can cook to a very high order when he wants to, that he is a capable man always eager to help younger colleagues' careers and that perhaps he was instrumental in creating today's French cuisine. Many great chefs are egomaniacs and it may come with the territory. But the man and the restaurant I saw that day was little more than a tourist trap capitalizing on media hype. Why newspapers are afraid of printing how far his restaurant has really sunk from the 3 Michelin stars he obtained in1965?
So you will need to excuse me but after having been separated from the best part of €500 for a very bad meal and seeing the man parading around the world like if he was Antonin Carême reincarnated, I felt I owed readers of FXcuisine.com the truth. And the French reader need not feel insulted, for I am a great lover of French gastronomy and his national gastronomic pride would be placed in the wrong place if he were to feel I am challenging French gastronomy by saying that the chef is naked.