French cooking guru Bocuse is 'chef of century'

Frenchman Paul Bocuse, credited as the father of "nouvelle cuisine" and the first of the celebrity chefs, was named "chef of the century" by America's leading cooking school on Wednesday.

The Culinary Institute of America named Bocuse the top chef of the 20th century, citing the 85-year-old's legendary career in which he transformed both food on plates and the lives of the people who cooked.

"He is one of the greatest, most significant chefs of all time," Tim Ryan, president of the institute, which is known as the CIA, said at an event with Bocuse in New York prior to the awards ceremony.

Ryan said Bocuse led the movement in the 1960s and '70s in France that became known as "nouvelle cuisine" and was typified by experimentation, new care over presentation and attention to fresh ingredients.

Bocuse also brought cooks out of the anonymity of the kitchen and into the media, becoming "the first celebrity chef of the modern era," Ryan said.

The French icon, whose Lyon restaurant L'Auberge has held a Michelin three-star grading - one of just a handful in the world - all the way back since 1965, said the secret of success in the kitchen is simple.

"You can not forget the good ingredients. If there are not good ingredients, there is no good cooking," he said at the New York event, adding: "There is no great or small cooking - there is only good."

His impact on gastronomy has been indelible, but as for his role in inventing "nouvelle cuisine," Bocuse is less than eager to accept the honor, saying the term was a media invention and the cooking was not "some incredible revolution."

Known for his humorous approach to the hard work of being a globe-trotting chef, Bocuse joked: "Nouvelle cuisine was nothing on the plate, but everything on the bill."

Fellow top chefs attending the award ceremony said Bocuse deserves every accolade he gets.

Thomas Keller, chef at New York's Per Se restaurant, said Bocuse had not only thrilled diners, but liberated chefs, creating the modern cult of the cook in which Gordon Ramsay and Jamie Oliver are household names even for people who can barely boil an egg.

"He's the one who brought chefs out of the kitchen," Keller said. "He set us free in many ways.... We were allowed to have an interpretation, a point of view about food."

Daniel Boulud, named chef of the year by the CIA, said Bocuse had been his inspiration throughout his career, not just for his cooking, but the way he dealt with others in the "fraternity."

"He was gathering with his best friends in the market, selecting their 'marche du jour' (fresh produce) and gathering around the table," said Boulud, whose restaurants include Daniel in New York. "He still makes a point to gather his friends."

Son Jerome Bocuse, who is following in the family's long tradition, also highlighted the great cook's human qualities, saying that even at the height of his fame and frenzied business life, his father always managed to pick him up from school.

The difficulty came later, when he went to train as a cook at the CIA, and he realized he was kitchen royalty, Jerome Bocuse said. "It was not always easy to have that last name embroidered on the jacket."

Bocuse, who continues to sleep in the same room where he was born nearly a century ago, said technical changes had made a big impact in cooking, particularly the switch from wood-fired to gas stoves. "You lose a bit of knowledge, but you must live with progress," he said.

But he warned that technology can also be dangerous, citing the nuclear disaster in Japan, a country he has long visited and admired.

"The Earth is fragile," he said.