Irish chef Kevin Thornton has given an insight into life working under Paul Bocuse, telling The Caterer: “He was my Escoffier”.
The renowned chef, who gave his name to the Bocuse d’Or culinary competition, died on Saturday at the age of 91.
Thornton had a two-month paid position at Paul Bocuse’s restaurant L’Auberge du Pont de Collonges in Lyon, France in 1987. He arrived following stints in restaurants in Europe and Canada but Bocuse’s “kitchen proved to be the most inspirational and influential training” he would experience.
“Paul Bocuse’s encouragement of me as a chef hugely strengthened my confidence and self-belief,” he said.
“His kitchen was run with mesmerizing precision and the efficiency of the operation was military like. There was an ordered way of doing things and no deviation was tolerated. Coppers hung gleaming and proud over the huge stove as they have done in every kitchen I have ran since then. I have no doubt that my appetite for precision and attention to detail was indulged so much at Restaurant Paul Bocuse that it copper-fastened my approach to every aspect of cooking from then on.
“My first few days there I was ordered to clean the many fridges, which every new chef was tasked with. Within a short while I was promoted to the pastry then to the fish section and finally to the most coveted corner of the kitchen – sauce. I knew I had passed the test of discipline and showed my hunger to achieve. He would say “Superb, petit Irlandais” (which translates to superb, little Irish) when I plated something to his satisfaction and for one who did not praise often these were big words.
“I have a few stand out memories. Daily inspections of staff uniforms took place and long hair was not permitted under any circumstances. I had a little ponytail that I kept hidden under my chef’s jacket. One day while bending to take a plate from the oven the head chef noticed the ponytail. All hell broke loose! It was like sacrilege; “what would the papers say if they found out a chef at Restaurant Paul Bocuse had long hair? What would Monsieur Paul say?” he exclaimed. I said it was a religious thing, part of my Buddhism, anything to fend of the summons to cut it off, but nothing worked – if I wanted to stay the ponytail had to go.
“I had a decision to make and, for me, it was a very difficult one. I decided to sleep on it. The next morning I was late leaving my bedsit and I rushed to work bringing my nail scissors with me as I still hadn’t decided what to do. When I got to the door of the kitchen the head chef was waiting for me, arms folded pointing at my head to turn around. I took out the scissors and cut off the ponytail in front of him and handed it to him. That was a big statement of respect for me to make and one that I never regretted.
“Another day there was an English-speaking guest in the restaurant that none of the staff could understand. I was summoned by Paul Bocuse – “Viens ici, petit irlandais” (come here, little Irish) and duly translated the praise from the guests. He was very happy with their remarks. The next evening I was invited to eat at the chef’s table with Monsieur Paul and the rest of the senior team and that again was a privilege as it didn’t happen often.
“This photo was taken on my final day at Restaurant Paul Bocuse. He told me I had “mains speciales” (special hands) and he smiled and posed for the camera.
“I met him again a few years later when I represented Ireland at the Bocuse d’Or competition and he remembered me. A few years after that I was representing Ireland at a Panel of Chefs event in South Africa which he attended also though I was unaware he noticed me at all. Back at my hotel that night I received a note under my door from one of his team inviting me to attend a breakfast with him the following morning.
“For me, Paul Bocuse was my Escoffier and I feel privileged to have spent time in his kitchen. May he rest in peace.”
Kevin Thornton, former two-Michelin-starred chef-patron of Dublin’s famed Thornton’s Restaurant, is a lecturer, author, radio presenter and TV personality. He currently runs a Kevin Thornton’s Kooks with wife Muriel, which allows guests to watch demonstrations, partake in cookery classes and go on food outings with the duo to forage for ingredients. The team cam also be hired for private events.
Videos from The Caterer archives