My relationship with Paul Bocuse started when I was fourteen years old. At the time, I was apprenticing at Nandron, a two-Michelin starred place in Lyon. Two weeks into that job, I met Paul Bocuse at Les Halles de Lyon, because it was down the street. Every morning, I picked up the fish and vegetables and carried the boxes of product to the kitchen. I was the delivery man.
Gérard Nandron, the owner of the restaurant where I was working, was best friends with Paul. One day I was doing a catering job a bit further up the river from L’Auberge du Pont de Collonges and my boss asked me if I had ever been. He said, “Let’s cross the bridge and say hello to Paul.” When we got there, the first thing Paul did was tell the waiters, “Bring the kid a communard (red wine and cassis liquor).” I was fifteen. I wanted to be polite and play macho, so I drank the whole thing. It was an enormous glass of booze. When I got back to work, I was completely smashed.
In the following years, whenever Paul was short of cooks, I would go spend a few weeks at the restaurant. I was so impressed by the level of discipline. He really was a formateur. I apprenticed at a two-star, but Paul’s was a three-star, and you could really sense the sheer pressure they were performing under. They understood the expectations. It was about perfection, soul, generosity, cooking, and food as a spectacle. There was a wood-fired chimney full of ducks and chicken. The kitchen had majestic platters of food coming out, like the loup en croûte or lièvre à la royale. He knew how to make food entertaining, but it was always very classic.
After a few years, I wanted to leave Lyon, so I traveled to work with Georges Blanc, which cut my ties a little bit with my home city. Every time there was a gathering of chefs, though, I saw Paul. When I worked with Roger Vergé in the southeast of France, Paul visited the restaurant often, since he was very close with Roger. He always remembered me, and how good he was to me. Even when I went to work for Vergé in Denmark, I saw Paul a few times. We always ran into each other somehow.
In 1982, I was living in New York, and the manager of the Westbury, the hotel where I was working, was also a best friend of Paul. Paul, Roger, and Gaston Lenôtre always stayed there, so I saw them often. I really reconnected with Paul during this period, since he was opening up the French pavilion at Epcot. There were no direct flights from Paris to Orlando at that time, so he always stopped in New York on the way. When I was at the Plaza Athénée, in New York, I was in charge of cooking Paul’s sixtieth birthday party, where many of those chefs gathered to celebrate. After I had cooked for Paul, I was invited to join all the chefs at Le Cirque. The meal was okay. The pheasant was overcooked, I remember. So, Roger Vergé and Bocuse told Sirio that he should hire me to take over the kitchen at Le Cirque.
I got the job and kept in touch with Paul all the time. The sea bass dish that I became popular for making there was based on the rouget with the crust of potatoes at Paul Bocuse, which itself was inspired by a rouget with zucchini scales at Girardet. I eventually left to open Daniel. In 1999, I moved Daniel to 65th Street, where it is now. That spring, I wanted to stage a gala to celebrate the new Daniel and the mentors who got me to where I was. I invited my apprenticeship chefs Gérard Nandron, Georges Blanc, Michel Guérard, Roger Vergé, and Paul Bocuse.
Today, Paul is like a father figure to me in the kitchen. He watched after me all the time. I ate at Paul Bocuse every year. Jérôme, Paul’s son, was a student at the CIA and also became a very good friend. I’m now the godfather of Jérôme’s son, who is named Paul Bocuse. We are family.
When I think about Paul now, I always think about the fact that we are both from Lyon, which means we speak the very same language of cooking and life. The same kind of meaningful, soulful food makes us both so happy. I’ve learned tradition and ambition and focus from him. But I’ve learned the importance of having fun from him too. He was the first chef I can remember who really wanted to throw a party with his friends. You could really see the fraternity among chefs. In New York we chefs may not be able to spend that much time together, because of the hours and craziness, but for Paul, it was very important. He became basically the Pope of cooking in Lyon. But he also was friends with the best chefs from all over France, as well as all over Europe, Japan, and the U.S. (In the 1960s and 1970s he was already going to Japan! He was in love with it—way before it became trendy to do that. Today in France, some of the best restaurants are of Japanese chefs cooking French food in Paris, and we owe him a lot for this.)
Paul Bocuse—both the restaurant and his Institut—are important schools. If you are just starting out, you will use his influence to learn the foundation. And if you have been around for a while, like me, you will still learn a lot.
I think there will always be a place for Paul Bocuse’s restaurant. It keeps making people very happy. There are few museums like this around the world. Why does the Met keep five-hundred-year-old sculptures when they could replace them with contemporary art? There is a place for everything, but you need to maintain a respect for historical references. He cared about being relevant—not trendy—and that’s what’s helped his restaurant survive when many others like it haven’t. We need those time capsules.
When I meet with him or talk to him on the phone, he remembers every single thing. He knows all the players here in New York. He may not be as agile—he can’t jump out of the chair and run into the kitchen—but he still has it. We always talk about what is going on in French cuisine, in American cooking, in business. He wants to know what’s going on everywhere, with all generations.
As told to Gabe Ulla.