Luxury restaurants are finding it very hard to survive in the world economy today. Now, "it's the figures, it's whether they can make a profit that counts," explained Monsieur Paul Bocuse during his recent visit to the Paul Bocuse restaurant at Daimaru which will close forever this Saturday.
The great chef, founder of an empire of restaurants, brasseries, bakeries and merchandiser of all sort of Bocuse goods left Melbourne with no intention, certainly no reason, to return.
And what about Sydney?
"I have no projects planned for Sydney. You know that I am 72 so I don't want to start new projects, life must stop one day." Before returning to France he went to check on business in Tokyo where there are more such establishments closing. Mr. Bocuse had a Paul Bocuse restaurant with the Suntory group who he believes own 200 Luxe restaurants around the world. He said that all of these will close at the end of the year. And what's more, the acclaimed Le Chateau, a partnership in Tokyo between Joel Robuchon (regarded as the chef of chefs of this past decade) and Jean Claude Vrinat of the legendary Taillevent of Paris, has now closed and is being re-opened as a wedding reception centre.
Is this the total demise of "fine dining", has the great restaurant had its day? I pondered with Mr Bocuse as to whether the 20th century was indeed the one for restauration and that great restaurants would be museum pieces in the next??
Mr Bocuse was tired the day we spoke but his sense of humour still much in evidence. He suggested that we arrange a rendezvous in 2020 to answer the questions I posed. But clearly for him, after 55 years cooking, there are no plans for a re-expansion of his gastronomic empire. He seems content with his home restaurant in Lyon where he also has 3 theme brasseries (North, South and East) and a large reception centre with some 200 staff in all. Then in America there is Paul Bocuse in Florida, many Bocuse products (groceries and wines) to be distributed around the world and an eye kept on the bakeries. In Melbourne the bakery will remain and in Japan, there are still 18 bakeries operating.
Mr Bocuse believes that it is very difficult to make money from luxury and that the Japanese economy, in particular, will no longer support them. "It's a question of figures, . . . they must make money these days and great restaurants are for prestige not money. You must have associated products" In France too Luxe is struggling. "They have too many debts and too many responsibilities to meet. Because of this, the prices are very high (more than 1000 francs for a meal) and there are very few people who can afford those prices. Prices at Paul Bocuse in Lyon are much lower (ranging from 320-750 francs). Mr Bocuse explained that he (like Restaurants Trois Gros and Haeberlin) were able to offer lower prices because "we are the oldest and we have paid back all our debts."
Paul Bocuse was the first three star restaurant which I visited in France in 1977. I can remember being quite overwhelmed by its style, by the quality and quantity of the food. It took a lot more visits to begin to feel comfortable in an establishment such as that and to begin to fully comprehend its art. It was a Luxe era. Going from one three star to the next, from Paul Bocuse on to visit the great Trois Gros brothers at Roanne. Going from a lunch at Girardet in Switzerland to a dinner the same day in France with Alain Chapel at Mionnay. All the great chefs had their special dishes but when pressed to name his, Mr Bocuse was surprisingly modest.
"I believe that in cooking like in music, one doesn't invent much. One makes interpretations but the word "invention" for me is a bit pretentious."
But when asked about the succession, the continuation of Paul Bocuse, he joked that "after Mozart, there weren't many people!"
There is no doubt in Mr. Bocuse's mind that cuisine is a great art form as is music. "It is an arrangement, one makes interpretations, but you must respect the basic culture. Asian and European cultures are completely different. You can't mix them. And the worst thing with Asian tastes is that the marriage of wine does not work at all."
"There are too many cooks trying to do new things and you know when one reads cookery books one always finds something which has already been done, What is invention - I think that is a very pretentious word. To mix chocolate with tomatoes or tomatoes with jam - that's not an invention . . . a sole with chocolate - the sole is a good product, chocolate is a good product, the two mixed together - give you shit.
"But people should be able to enjoy different experiences - there is good rock 'n roll, there is good jazz, good opera-- but not all on the one night."
And his advice to chefs in Australia "they must work, and must work more, they must cook correctly and exactly and they must season well." He scoffed at fears of salt and the use of butter and cream - "the base of French cooking," and is certainly not keen on change, "what's new today is already old tomorrow."