Commentary: Joël Robuchon, Paul Bocuse and Anthony Bourdain: 3 great chefs and how they changed the way we eat


‘Things happen in threes,” they say. And sometimes they do. This week, unfortunately so.

With yesterday’s passing of Joël Robuchon, the third of three giants of the culinary world passed away. He follows Paul Bocuse, who died in January, and, of course, Anthony Bourdain, who took his own life last month.

You may not be terribly familiar with the work of all these three chefs, but their accomplishments have shaped what and how you eat every day — wherever you eat, whether in fancy French restaurants, at fast food chains, or cooking at home. Each of them was a disruptor that changed the way we eat, in big ways and small. Their approach to cuisine has touched all of us.

Bocuse, who passed away in January at the age of 91, was among that group of chefs credited with creating nouvelle cuisine in the ’70s. Although nouvelle cuisine was born in the fanciest of French restaurants, it ushered in trends that affect our own way of eating and cooking, even at home. The nouvelle cuisine put greater emphasis on plate presentation, marked a shift from heavy sauces to lighter preparations, and began the movement away from over cooking proteins and vegetables. The chefs of the nouvelle cuisine believed fish should taste like fish and chicken like chicken. They also believed that the healthier style of cooking vegetables al dente also preserved more natural flavor.

Robuchon came up among the generation of chefs to follow Bocuse and nouvelle cuisine. Chef Robuchon held more Michelin stars than any other chef — with as many as 32 last year — and in 1989 was named “Chef of the Century” by The Gault-Millau Guide. Where Bocuse was a great chef of France, Robuchon was a great chef to the world.

Robuchon was the most French of chefs, but he permitted his cooking to be influenced by the cuisines of many countries. In more ways than one. He was not the first chef to open restaurants outside France. He was the one that did it so well.

The sun never sets on the Robuchon empire of restaurants that stretch from Paris, across Asia, New York and Las Vegas. His collection of 32 Michelin stars came as no accident. He hired the best chefs de cuisine to oversee his restaurants and worked with them closely — traveling constantly — to ensure their consistent high quality. His view was that fine cuisine required attention to flavor, presentation — and proper nutrition. He wrote in his “The Complete Robuchon” cookbook: “To be healthy, then, as well as engaged by the singular pleasure of eating, we must all find ways of varying what we eat …” His protégés carry on the Robuchon legacy, including the chefs Gordon Ramsay, Eric Ripert and Michael Caines.

Bourdain was much more familiar to American diners than either Bocuse or Robuchon. Bourdain was the prototype of the 21st century chef — a fixture in our living rooms since 2002, literally showing us the world of cuisine. His Wikipedia page calls him “one of the most influential chefs in the world.” His place in the culinary universe is secure. However, it is not due to a talent in the kitchen. Bourdain’s talent was in front of a camera. He changed the way we eat in ways no smaller than those of Bocuse or Robuchon — it’s just that Bourdain played his role from the dining room, not so much the kitchen.

Most of us want to be Anthony Bourdain — or at least to ride shotgun to wherever he may have headed. Millions have followed his adventures in and out of war zones and odd corners of the world. He ate with the great chefs as well as the home chefs making dinner for their families, with the rest of us voyeuristically along for the ride

Bourdain opened the culinary world to all of us and put it in the context of the people that live the foods they eat. He was beloved by those that cooked for him — including Bocuse and Robuchon — as well as by those of us watching at home. As much as anyone he has encouraged travelers to step outside their comfort zones to sample exotic faire. We’ve all become more adventurous in what we eat due to the work of chef Bourdain.

All of these men have played important roles in shaping the dining experience for all of us. It is no coincidence that we easily find produce from around the world in our local Ralph’s. Most of us think about France’s great temples to food as remote places, disconnected from our daily lives, but the work that chefs Bocuse and Robuchon have done there — and that others perform every single day makes its way into all our homes and daily lives.

We will miss them, but their legacy is here to stay.

Badagliacca is the president and owner of the San Diego Culinary Institute. Founded by his parents — Harold and Lili Meyberg — in 2000, the San Diego Culinary Institute educates aspiring chefs in the skills and knowledge they need to work in many of the finest kitchens in the world. SDCI graduates work on five continents and as executive chefs in restaurants throughout the United States.