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Culinary stars honour France's 'pope' Paul Bocuse

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Lyon (AFP)

Hundreds of chefs gathered in southeast France on Friday for the funeral of Paul Bocuse, a pioneering gastronome who shook up the food world in the 1960s and 70s and helped usher in the era of celebrity cooks.

"Monsieur Paul", known for his flair in the kitchen as well as his showmanship and business sense, died last Saturday aged 91 after suffering from Parkinson's disease.

"We all feel a bit like orphans, we thought Monsieur Paul was eternal. His work was eternal," said Philippe Etchebest, one of the chefs from France and far beyond who wore their kitchen whites in tribute at Lyon's Saint Jean Cathedral.

"Besides being an artisan, he was an innovator who was able to bring all cooks together. We've lost a base, a foundation," he added.

Bocuse, sometimes dubbed the "pope", was an architect of the Nouvelle Cuisine revolution which swept away rich and heavy sauces in favour of super-fresh ingredients, sleek aesthetics and innovation.

Bocuse's son Jerome said his father would have preferred a simple ceremony at the small church in Collonges-au-Mont-d'Or, the village where he ran his most famed restaurant, the three-star L'Auberge.

But "that was not possible" given the huge crowd, Jerome Bocuse said.

Over 1,000 people attended inside the cathedral, while two giant screens were installed outside for the hundreds of people who braved the rain to attend the ceremony.

"I couldn't imagine not coming. He deserves everybody's presence," Jeanine Chanal, an 82-year-old who lives near the church, told AFP.

Bocuse's casket was borne by pallbearers between rows of top chefs from around the world, representing dozens of Michelin stars, the highest award available in the culinary world.

"The feast was your watchword; the feast of your life was beautiful, rich, generous, just like your cooking, without fuss, spread our work around the globe," the chef Marc Haeberlin, who first encountered Bocuse when he was 14, said during the ceremony.

Bocuse will be buried next to his parents at the family's vault in the cemetery at Collonges-au-Mont-d'Or, where Bocuse turned his father's modest inn into an international destination for foodies.

L'Auberge earned the maximum three Michelin stars in 1965, and never lost one -- a singular achievement.

The restaurant was closed at midday so that staff could pay their respects.

- 'Cooking orphaned' -

The gathered chefs represented the firmament of French cooking, including Alain Ducasse, Joel Robuchon, Guy Savoy, Anne-Sophie Pic, Marc Veyrat and Yannick Alleno.

Alleno called him the "Johnny Hallyday of cooking" in reference to the French rocker who died in December, plunging the country into mourning for one of its most popular entertainers.

"Cooking has been orphaned but we will do our best to continue what he built," added Alleno, whose restaurants have six Michelin stars, including the three-star Le 1947 in the Alps.

Other chefs present included Daniel Boulud, based in New York, and the American Thomas Keller.

"It was impossible not to come because Bocuse was a spiritual father," said Antoine-Patrick Caestecker, a chef who travelled from Brazil.

Born into a family of cooks since 1765, Bocuse began his apprenticeship at the age of 16 and came to epitomise a certain type of French epicurean -- a lover of fine wine, food and women.

Besides his wife Raymonde, Bocuse long maintained relationships with two mistresses.

"There is one for lunch, one for tea, and one for dinner," he once joked.

Asked the inevitable question about his perfect last meal in an interview with Le Point magazine shortly before his death, Bocuse started with the guest list.

He named the godfathers of French cooking Antonin Careme, Auguste Escoffier and Fernand Point, as well as Eugenie Brazier, with whom he mastered the culinary arts of Lyon's famous "bouchon" restaurants specialising in hearty local fare.

"There would be just one dish on the menu: a nice pot-au-feu (beef stew) that we all prepared together," Bocuse continued. "We'd drink a Condrieu and a Cote-Rotie," a white and a red from vineyards just south of Lyon.

But that meant he'd have to cheat a bit and have a final lunch as well, to use the leftovers from the stew: "We could make stuffed tomatoes. Ah yes, that'd be nice!"

"I'm going to live until I'm 100, if Parkinson's leaves me alone," Bocuse added, saying that death had never frightened him.

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