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Paul Bocuse, a master of French cuisine, dies at 91

Paul Bocuse, a master of French cuisine, dies at 91
Chef Paul Bocuse stands outside his famed Michelin three-star restaurant, L'Auberge du Pont de Collonges, in Collonges-au-Mont-d'or in central France in March 2011. (Laurent Cipriani / Associated Press)

Paul Bocuse, the master chef who defined French cuisine for more than half a century and put it on tables around the world, a man who raised the profile of top chefs from invisible kitchen artists to international celebrities, has died at 91, French officials announced.

Often referred to as the "pope of French cuisine," Bocuse was a tireless pioneer, the first chef to blend the art of cooking with savvy business tactics — branding his cuisine and his image to create an empire of restaurants around the globe. His imposing physical stature and his larger-than-life personality matched his bold dreams and his far-flung accomplishments.

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Bocuse died Saturday at Collonges-au-Mont-d'or, the place where he was born and had his restaurant, French President Emmanuel Macron said in a statement.

"French gastronomy loses a mythical figure ... The chefs cry in their kitchens, at the Elysee [presidential palace] and everywhere in France," Macron said.

Interior Minister Gerard Collomb tweeted that "Mister Paul was France. Simplicity and generosity. Excellence and art de vivre."

Bocuse, who underwent a triple heart bypass in 2005, also had been suffering from Parkinson's disease.

Bocuse's temple to French gastronomy, L'Auberge du Pont de Collonges, outside the city of Lyon in southeastern France, has held three stars — without interruption — since 1965 in the Michelin guide, the bible of gastronomes.

As early as 1982, Bocuse opened a restaurant in the France Pavilion in Walt Disney World's Epcot Center in Orlando, Fla., headed by his son, Jerome, also a chef. In recent years, Bocuse even dabbled in fast food, with two outlets in his home base of Lyon.

While excelling in the business of cooking, Bocuse never flagged in his devotion to his first love, creating a top-class, quintessentially French meal. He eschewed the fads and experiments that captivated many other top chefs.

"In cooking, there are those who are rap and those who are concerto," he told the French newsmagazine L'Express before his 2005 biography, adding that he tended toward the concerto.

Born into a family of cooks that he dates to the 1700s, Bocuse stood guard over the kitchen of his world-famous restaurant even in retirement, keeping an eye on guests, sometimes greeting them at their tables.

Born on Feb. 11, 1926, Bocuse entered his first apprenticeship at 16. He worked at the famed La Mere Brazier in Lyon, then spent eight years with one of his culinary idols, Fernand Point, whose cooking was a precursor to France's nouvelle cuisine movement, with lighter sauces and lightly cooked fresh vegetables.

Bocuse's career in the kitchen traversed the ages. He went from apprenticeships and cooking "brigades," as kitchen teams are known, when stoves were coal-fired and chefs also served as scullery maids, to the ultra-modern kitchen of his Auberge.

Bocuse adapted seamlessly to the changing times, making his mark with a first coveted Michelin star in 1958, a second in 1960 and a third in 1965. Since then, his cooking has been defined by superlatives.

In 1989, Bocuse was named Cook of the Century by Gault et Millau, a noted guidebook. In 2011, the Culinary Institute of America named him Chef of the Century, opening a restaurant for students in his name. He maintained a special pride, however, in the blue, white and red stripes on his chef's collar holding a large medal, attesting to his selection in 1961 as a "Meilleur Ouvrier de France," a sought-after distinction for chefs and other artisans.

The gastronomic offerings at Bocuse's L'Auberge du Pont de Collonges are rooted in the French culinary tradition: simple, authentic food that was "identifiable" in its nature.

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Emblematic of that was a crock of truffle soup topped with a golden bubble of pastry he created in 1975 for then-French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing, which is served to this day. Another classic is fricassee of Bresse chicken — from France's Bresse region, which is famed for its poultry — served in cream with morilles, a spring mushroom.

And his favorite ingredient? Butter.

"[It's a] magical product," he said during a visit to the Culinary Institute of America. "Nothing replaces butter."

He disparaged the notion that his culinary offerings amounted to nouvelle cuisine, although he incorporated aspects of it. And he scoffed at critics who contended that his food is stuck in a bygone age. Georges Auguste Escoffier, who gave classic French cuisine a world profile, remains a solid inspiration at Bocuse's table.

"Escoffier was the master of us all," Bocuse has said.

World War II interrupted his kitchen duties. He worked in the First Division of the Free French Forces, was wounded and cared for at a U.S. field hospital.

"I always say I have American blood in my veins because ... I had transfusions of American blood," he told the AP. An American flag still flies outside his restaurant.

Bocuse might have settled for being a renowned French chef worthy of a pilgrimage by food lovers with deep pockets. Instead, he parlayed his culinary skills into a conglomerate of food operations that span the globe and range from haute cuisine to fast food.

He opened two brasseries in Lyon in 1995 and 1997. He added three other eateries in the city and even a hotel. He planted restaurants in the south of France, in Geneva and hopped across the world to Japan, where eight Bocuse brasseries, cafes and other establishments were opened.

But his pride is transmitting his savoir-faire to a young generation through the Foundation Paul Bocuse, established in Lyon in 2004. His Bocuse d'Or, or gold award — an international competition for young chefs — has grown into a major culinary showcase since 1987.

While Bocuse's kitchens were meticulously in order, his personal life was on the unorthodox side. He acknowledged in a 2005 biography that he had been quietly sharing his life with three women — simultaneously — each with a pivotal role in his life.

"I think cuisine and sex have lots of common points," Bocuse said before publication of "Paul Bocuse: The Sacred Fire." "Even if it seems a bit macho, I love women."

He put an upbeat spin on his private life.

"If I calculate the number of years I've been faithful to the three women who count in my life, I get 145 years," he is quoted as saying in "The Sacred Fire," which was written by Eve-Marie Zizza-Lalu — daughter of the most recent woman in his life, Patricia, whom he met in 1972.

Yet it is his wife, Raymonde, with whom Bocuse had a daughter, Francoise, who helps watch over his restaurant.

He is survived by his wife, Raymonde, their daughter, Francoise, and a son, Jerome.

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