Paul Bocuse, the most celebrated French chef of the postwar era, died in January 2018 at the age of 91. Cheered on by Henri Gault and Christian Millau, the publishers of the influential Gault-Millau Guide, he had been a leading figure in the pioneering culinary movement known as nouvelle cuisine, a modernised version of classic French cooking devoted to fresh ingredients, lighter sauces, sleek aesthetics, creative flavour combinations and constant innovation. A conspicuous presence in the news media and on television, he exploited his cuisine, image and celebrity status, as well as his savvy business acumen, in building a globe-spanning gastronomic empire and in so doing he became a role model for contemporary chef-entrepreneurs like Jacques Pépin. In 2011, Bocuse was named ‘chef of the century’ by the Culinary Institute of America. Pépin commented, ‘Now the chefs are stars and it’s because of Paul Bocuse. We are indebted to him for them.’ As the Japan Times put it, he ‘raised the profile of top chefs from invisible kitchen artists to international celebrities’. It’s a measure of his own profile that around 1,500 chefs from around the world, clad in their working whites, gathered in Lyon at the St Jean Cathedral for his funeral on 26 January.
Now, I have no wish to cast a churlish shadow over the funeral of this revered paragon of culinary arts (and may God rest his soul and lead him to a place of sublime nourishment) but there is a valid need to examine the wider culture that has given rise to the phenomenon of the celebrity chef. The famous British soldier, military strategist, adventurer and scholar, Lieutenant-General Sir John Bagot Glubb (1897–1986), also known as Glubb Pasha, famous for the twenty-six years he spent organising and commanding the Jordan Arab Legion, which became Jordan’s army, pulls no punches in his book, The Fate of Empires and Search for Survival, even though this was written forty years ago before the advent of the fêted chefs whose presence dominates such a broad spectrum of our media. Here, he expounded a system in which empires go through distinct stages, starting with the Age of Pioneers and the Age of Conquest, evolving through the Age of Commerce, the Age of Intellect and the Age of Affluence, and terminating in the Age of Decadence. This terminal stage is, according to Bagot, marked not only by a lowering of moral standards within society, but also by ‘a show of wealth and conspicuous consumption lifestyles’ of which the ‘glorification of celebrities’ is a prime feature. Glubb is even more specific in noting that celebrity chefs were one of the most visible symbols of obscene over-consumption in the decadent twilight of the Roman empire.