IN IMPISH mood, Paul Bocuse would roll up the sleeve of his whites to reveal, on his left bicep, a tattoo of a Gallic cock crowing. An American GI had done it for him during the war, and it seemed just right for his subsequent career as France’s most celebrated chef. This was a man who was called the pope, even God, by lowlier meal-makers, and whose death, said Emmanuel Macron, had chefs everywhere weeping in their kitchens.

He was the most decorated of them all, and not simply with Michelin stars, of which his restaurant, L’Auberge du Pont de Collonges “Paul Bocuse”, near Lyons, had held three for over 50 years. (To match his three stars he had, for almost as long, three women, fairly harmoniously; his appetites were large.) With his whites he usually wore the tricolore collar of a Meilleur Ouvrier de France, and occasionally his Légion d’Honneur on its red ribbon. On that glorious evening in 1975, when his medal had been pinned on by the president, they had sat down to his own invention, black-truffle soup VGE, for Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. It was served ever after in his restaurant, in specially inscribed white bowls.

The cockerel proclaimed his patriotism, as if it were in any doubt; he was ever the small boy who loved to run after marching bands on the 14th of July, shouting and singing. For what country was better provisioned than France? Her shores were washed with a seething bouillabaisse of fish, her gardens laden with good things; Charolais cattle grazed the fields, chickens from Bresse pecked in farmyards. And the wines! He was France’s most fervent ambassador, setting up restaurants in America and Japan, and providing food both for Disney’s French enterprises and for Concorde—always taking his own ingredients with him, to be sure they were the best.

Nitrogen, pfuit!

He could crow about French cooking, too. From Carême to Maître Escoffier to himself, there was none better. Cuisine classique had become over-fussy, but its fundamentals, butter, cream and wine, were so magical that nothing could replace them. (A dish of just-made fromage frais with cream was, for him, pure joy.) With a little simplifying, more emphasis on freshness, French cuisine would again be unbeatable. He signed on briefly to nouvelle cuisine, but in the end it bored him; nothing on the plate, lots on the bill, was his conclusion. Instead his menus offered the grand, substantial dishes of the decades: duck with foie gras, pike quenelles, fillet of beef Rossini, coq au vin. The only inventions of his own were the truffle soup and sea bass in pastry. He was no fad-follower, no fiddler. Molecular cuisine, bof! Nitrogen, pfuit! Give him some sausage and a glass of good Mâcon, in the company of friends, any day.

What made him most content, though, were two apparently smaller things. The first was the rescue of his family name. The Bocuses had been chefs since the 18th century, always in that little auberge on the Saône: the house he had been born in, with the murmur of the river outside. There he caught fish, and in that kitchen, at nine, he had first served up veal kidneys with puréed potatoes. But the restaurant had been sold, and the name lost, by his grandfather, and not until 1959 could he get the building back. He won his first Michelin star when there were still paper cloths on the tables. Gradually it became splendid, with crimson shutters and green paint, a ceremonial courtyard and much brass. Inside, preserved as a shrine, was his grandmother’s kitchen, with its battery of copper pans; and the name “Paul Bocuse” marched in neon across the roof.

The second source of pride was easier to overlook. By the 21st century, celebrity chefs were everywhere, foraging, posing, fronting restaurants, writing books. Yet when he began, just after the war, chefs toiled and broiled behind the scenes, while the owners patrolled the dining rooms. At La Mère Brazier’s in Lyon, as an apprentice, he had to feed the pigs and do the laundry, as well as bring in the coal. Perhaps his chief accomplishment was to make chefs emerge, proud of themselves.

They had every reason to be, as artisans who loved their craft. A good chef like himself worked (and worked, and worked!) by instinct, accepting that a recipe would be subtly different every time. That final seasoning, with the tips of the fingers, was a beautiful gesture, his signing of the dish. And once it was done, the chef should leave the kitchen, greet the diners, present what he had made. Hence the many portraits of him in his restaurant, so that even when he was away, or no longer cooked himself, he was there. He positively encouraged his cooks to open their own restaurants, and was delighted to welcome 650 students each year to his chef’s school at Écully. Even young women came—though he preferred women in bed, and smelling of Chanel rather than cooking fat.

A chef’s sense of his own importance began, he insisted, with the uniform: the calot or the tall toque, the immaculate white jacket and the apron, the clothes of his trade. That moment when, preparing for his entrée en scène, he tied his apron ribbons round his capacious waist, was the proudest part of all. And he might just have time too to roll up his sleeve, flash a smile and cry “Cocorico!”, in case anyone doubted who, and which country, ruled the culinary world.