Thoughts on Cooking and Immortality as We Say Goodbye to Paul Bocuse, and Remember Michael Roberts
“We were prepping for a dinner. A song by Nirvana came on. A 20-year-old cook asked, ‘Who’s this?’ ‘It’s Nirvana.’ ‘Never heard of them.’ Kurt Cobain? She was born the year he died; had no idea. He’s our Elvis, you know? And, for me, gastronomy and cooking have always been about being a link in a chain. Taking from the past, making my contribution, working hard on creating a legacy … in [the] culinary [world], the traditions are so rich, gastronomy can be so rich, it benefits you to know what happened before you; to study it and to learn about it, to read about it and be fascinated by it. That’s why I told the Nirvana story. Who’s Kurt Cobain? It’s like, ‘Who is Paul Bocuse?’ I said something to a guy who was making a sauce. I was, like, ‘If you were Paul Bocuse, you would have made it this way.’ And he looks at me, and says, ‘Who is Paul Bocuse?’ An American kid from Texas, staging in the kitchen, a culinary school graduate. Who is Paul Bocuse? You have to understand who these people are, so you can move forward.”
– David Kinch
Nothing dismays a veteran chef more than a young cook’s ignorance of culinary history, especially of the talents who defined prior generations. Sure, they can name Massimo Bottura, René Redzepi, and Thomas Keller. But do they know who Jean-Louis Palladin was, or Jean Bertranou, or Jean Banchet? Those were some of the heroes of today’s superstar chefs, yet they are largely lost to the ages. And it’s horrifying to today’s toques because the logical assumption is that they will be forgotten next, just as soon as they hang up their aprons and disappear through the swinging doors for the last time.
It’s a distinct, and for many, distressing, aspect of professional cooking that chefs are so easily forgotten. Often it’s chalked up to generational myopia: “These kids today just don’t care about history.” “They’re too lazy to read up on the past; if they can’t find it on Google or YouTube, it’s too much trouble.” “They’re only interested in what’s hot.”
It’s an understandable but oversimplified point of view that misses something unique to chefs: When we lose them–either to the reaper, or simply to retirement (forced or voluntary)–they take their food with them. New menus displace old ones, and eventually new chefs supplant their predecessors. And when that happens, their dishes cease to exist. They don’t hang like art in a museum or survive in print like books, or on DVDs or in streaming video like movies and television series. Unless a chef is lucky enough to be feted by a restaurant like Next in Chicago as Ferran Adria was in 2012, or In Situ in San Francisco, where Corey Lee is performing an ongoing noble experiment treating food as art, there’s simply little for future generations to latch on to. (Whether they know it or not, this is–I believe–the reason most chefs burn to write a cookbook; to make the ephemeral permanent, to seize a little piece of the immortality most artistic souls, if they’re honest, crave.)
One of the great pleasures of writing my upcoming book about the American chefs of the 1970s and 1980s was learning about chefs I’d only heard of in passing. But that pleasure quickly morphed into anguish when I realized that crafting a streamlined narrative demanded some painful edits and that many people I felt I’d come to know through my research could only be mentioned briefly, if at all. Figuring I’m one of the last scribes who might have a crack at a book of this nature about this generation, I was, for a time, riddled with guilt over having the ability to rescue more chefs from obscurity and making the decision not to in the name of something as mercenary as readability.
I had no intention of waxing philosophical today, but the loss of the iconic Paul Bocuse over the weekend demanded it. My modest plan here in the early days of my return to posting, was to write a piece introducing you to one of those chefs I couldn’t pay proper respect to in my book, Michael Roberts, of Trumps restaurant (no relation to you-know-who) in Los Angeles. And before I go any further, I’m going to do just that:…