Great French chefs are like the geniuses behind great inventions, the things you use everyday, love, but have no idea where they came from. With french cooking seemingly at the epicenter of any conversation involving travel and great cuisine, how much does anyone really know about how France became the king of the culinary world and the legendary chefs behind the traditions of great french cooking?
It’s not just the “foodie” or the chef who needs to know who these people are. If you’ve ever had a great meal that inspired you, that helped you understand the “art” in culinary arts, these are chefs you should know.
So, if you’ve ever been moved by food, inspired by a classic or simply love culture, this is for you. Pair that palette with a little historical background on the great french chefs who created some of the best modern culinary trends in the world, and some of the dishes only the brave aspire to.
La Mère Brazier
If you don’t know this name, you should. Long before there were celebrity chefs hogging camera time on the Food Network and Travel Channel, Eugénie Brazier (known as “La Mère Brazier” out of respect by her fellow chefs and understudies) was the chef in France.
In a culinary world owned by men, Brazier stood tall above them all as the first woman to earn three Michelin stars (1933), and the matriarch behind one of the most honored lines of French culinary genius. In total, she would go on to obtain six Michelin stars over a career that lasted more than six generations, establish Lyon as the culinary capital of France. She made the most complicated dishes seem routine, entertained the likes of Charles de Gaulle and Marlene Dietrich, and still stands as the pre-eminent name among modern French chefs. After all, without her, they wouldn’t exist.
A strict and tough disciplinarian, Brazier tore apart the boys’ club notion of French cooking in a way that was completely her own. As her most famous student, Paul Bocuse, said of her;
“La Mère was a tough and modest woman who knew instinctively how to select the best of us, in the same way that she picked the best produce. Work was the rule of the house. First to rise, last to sleep, nothing passed her eagle eye. Above all, she wanted everything to be done à la maison, even the electricity—no mean feat, that. So I learned to milk cows, chop wood, garden, do the washing, ironing, look after the wine cellar…the menus hardly ever changed, but were always perfectly executed.”
The most famous of Brazier’s students, Paul Bocuse is the living legend of french culinary art – being 91 years old at the time of this writing. Bocuse was the prized student of La Mère Brazier, and is one of the originators of Nouvelle Cuisine – an approach to cooking and food presentation in French cuisine characterized by lighter, more delicate dishes and an increased emphasis on presentation. In doing so, the heavy, calorie-dense french cooking of the early 20th century gave way to a lighter, yet more artistic form of culinary art in Lyon.
Named one of the four Chefs of the Century, and the owner of three Michelin stars, Bocuse is most well-known for the world famous soupe aux truffes (truffle soup), a dish he created for a presidential dinner at the Elysée Palace in 1975. Since then, the soup has been served in Bocuse’s restaurant near Lyon as Soupe V.G.E., as V.G.E. are the initials of the former president of France Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, who Bocuse served that night.
He’s achieved fame with the masses through his appearances on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations and Parts Unknown, as well as his recurring role on Bravo’s “Top Chef”, but before any of this, Eric Ripert was one of the most respected French chefs in the world. His flagship, Le Bernardin in New York, boasts three Michelin stars and recurs in virtually any list featuring the best restaurants in the world.
The author of six books and winner of countless awards, Ripert was schooled in Perpignan, France and began receiving rapid acclaim at only 29, when the New York Times gave Le Bernardin a rare four star rating. the restaurant would go on to repeat the feat four consecutive times and fail to drop a star in their ranking for more than ten years.
Ripert is an easy guy to root for also, as he is an active philanthropists who has chaired and contributed to causes such as the City Harvest’s Food Council and Tibetan Aid Project’s Taste & Tribute New York.
The only American chef on this list, Julia Child brought French cooking to the American masses with her 1961 book Mastering the Art of French Cooking. A graduate of Le Cordon Bleu, Child studied under culinary legend Max Bugnard and released nearly 20 cookbooks and instructional books in her illustrious career.
Synonymous with French cooking in America, the 2009 film Julia and Julia brought Child’s accomplishments back into the mainstream. Child was more of a media darling rather than a restauranteur, and accompanied French legend Jacques Pépin in television specials throughout the 1970s and 1980s which further created a desire for French cooking among American gastronomists.
Today, the actual set from her television shows is on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, further paying homage to this American giant of French cooking.
If you’re a frequent traveler with an eye on fine french cuisine, you’ve possibly dined at one of Boulud’s many restaurants, such as Daniel, his stellar Two-Michelin Star rated restaurant in New York, but you may not know the name of the man behind them.
A successful restauranteur with establishments from New York and London to Singapore and Montreal, Boulud is somewhat of a wunderkind of the culinary world. Earning his first notoriety at only 15, he was a finalist in France’s competition for Best Culinary Apprentice, he went on to become the private chef to the European Commission in Washington, D.C. before opening his first restaurant, The Polo Lounge in New York City.
One of the more illustrious restauranteurs among recent classic French chefs, Boulud has seen his public star rise through features on the Travel Channel and open acclaim from more household names such as Anthony Bourdain. Boulud’s history is one of relentless work to the trade, as he received much of his training at the hands of renowned French chefs outside of Lyon.
Passard is oft cited as the inspiration for new and upcoming chefs, especially in France, England, and America, and rightly so.
The owner of the three-star restaurant L’Arpège in Paris, Passard began his tutelage under Michelin-starred Chef Michel Kéréver in the early 1970s before receiving his first two Michelin stars at only the age of 26!
Passard is a renegade in many ways, having focused much of his more recent work to vegetable farming and focusing on vegetarian options in his restaurants. As a result, he’s often called the “greatest vegetarian chef in the world”, although he does allow working with meats in limited quantity.
Robuchon is the owner of 13 restaurants, in grand cities such as Paris, Monaco, and Tokyo, among others, and holds the record for the most Michelin stars – TWENTY EIGHT!
A relentless perfectionist, Robuchon was the most influential French chef of the post-nouvelle cuisine era and was awarded the The Laurent Perrier 2009 Lifetime Achievement Award. A mentor to Gordon Ramsay and Eric Ripert, among other influential chefs, Robuchon retired at the age of 50 before coming out of retirement in a continuance of opening dazzling establishment after dazzling establishment.
While there are other giants of French culinary traditions that deserve mention, such as Jacques Pepin and Auguste Escoffier, the man who updated many French cooking traditions in the 19th century, such a list to include all who deserve mention would be exhaustive.
Dig into these names however, find who they’ve influenced and who influenced them, and perhaps enjoy your own meal at a Michelin rated restaurant of a French master chef!