Seven men in white toques and long aprons bend to their tasks, one scooping hunks of butter into a saucepan simmering on a huge stove, another flicking grains of the ground French red pepper piment d'Espelette from a spoon onto a pyramid of crayfish, a third sprinkles parsley with his fingers.
"Seventeen minutes," one cries out. "A little pepper," says another. "Did you taste the brioche?" asks "Monsieur Paul."
It is minutes before the lunch hour in the heart of the temple of French gastronomy, the kitchen of Paul Bocuse. The final touches of another three-star meal are executed with military precision.
Bocuse, whose Auberge du Pont de Collonges just outside Lyon has maintained its three stars in the Michelin Guide for 46 years, credits a deceptively simple recipe for that success _ good produce fresh from the garden, a superb kitchen staff and happy diners.
"It's the client who runs the house," says Bocuse, a man credited with transforming the role of chef from invisible artist to celebrity. Yet "Monsieur Paul," as he is known, praises everyone but himself for his accomplishments. And he bows to Lady Luck.
This week, the credit is returned when he is proclaimed Chef of the Century by the Culinary Institute of America during a reception in New York.
Despite a globe-spanning empire of upscale eateries, Bocuse doesn't sit on his laurels. The icon of French cuisine is now 85 and retired, but he still keeps an eye on the kitchen and every day eats a dish to be served.
"We always have to pay attention," he said during an interview last week.
His soupe au truffles noires, crowned with a pastry shell, is a splendor to the eyes. The black truffle soup was created in 1975 for then-President Valery Giscard d'Estaing. But, "Me, I like a simple cuisine," Bocuse says. "What I prefer is perhaps a good spit-roasted chicken from Bresse," the eastern town whose fowl are considered the best in France.
Scores of top chefs from around the world saluted Bocuse with an 85th birthday fete this year in Lyon, with a meal prepared at City Hall, a testament to his impact on the profession, and his legacy as one of the first chefs to straddle the line between man and brand.
Food sociologist Claude Fischler says that, beyond the culinary delights turned out by Bocuse, his real distinction was turning the chef, once all but a scullery worker never credited for his culinary achievements, first into a boss, then a star.
Yet the visitor is struck by the simplicity of Bocuse, the man _ and the paradoxes that imbue him and his life.
Fragile with age and illness, Bocuse comes to life once he dons his cylindrical chef's hat _ what he calls his "disguise" _ a humble figure who suddenly fills the shoes of his larger-than-life image, his likeness portrayed in murals throughout the red and green auberge, inside and out.
An innovator anchored in tradition, Bocuse sleeps in the room where he was born on the upper floors of his award-winning restaurant, once owned by the family of his mother. "But I changed the sheets," he adds in his characteristic joking style.
The master chef concocts his classic culinary fare with help from a two-hectar (nearly 5-acre) garden out back and another elsewhere in town.
"The cuisine of today is complicated," he said. "Firstly, it's complicated to have good suppliers. I think that finding the best, the best butcher, the best fish monger, the best vegetable vendor, that's important," he said.
Bocuse disparages the notion that he helped develop the lighter fare of "nouvelle cuisine."
"They always talk of nouvelle cuisine, but for me each generation had a nouvelle cuisine," he said, including Georges Auguste Escoffier, who gave classic French cuisine a world profile, and whose style remains the inspiration at Bocuse's table.
Fischler, the sociologist, agrees that Bocuse incorporates the values found in nouvelles cuisine, "use of the best products in an optimal way," while remaining classic.
"I always say that I make an identifiable cuisine with bones or fish bones," Bocuse said. "Today, there are lots of kinds of cuisine. I'm not against them. If the restaurant works, if it's full of clients ... whatever the cuisine, he (the chef) is right."
That goes, too, for modernist cuisine, a popular and often deconstructive approach to cooking that brings science and even laboratory equipment into the kitchen.
"elBulli is always full, so he's right," Bocuse says of the restaurant in Catalonia, Spain, and its chef, Ferran Adria, commonly considered a creator of modernist cuisine, but who insists he is "merely a cook."
"It's not my cuisine, but I have lots of admiration for him because he brought something," said Bocuse.
Though he turns out quintessentially French cuisine, Bocuse has a distinctly American entrepreneurial flair. He forged new ground by opening brasseries in Lyon and eventually around the world and, about two years ago, starting up two fast-food restaurants in Lyon.
Why fast food?
"Because I think you can do good things with good bread, good ham, Charolais (top quality) hamburgers, good butter. And it works very well," he said.
To transmit the profession to the young _ one of his greatest joys, he says _ Bocuse created the Paul Bocuse Foundation in 2004 to pass on his savoir-faire, and holds a yearly contest, the Bocuse d'Or, for fledgling chefs around the world.
Today, in toque and apron, he takes up his post at the kitchen door, surveying the activity straight ahead with an eye to the left where the guests pass, the epitome of a man fulfilled.
For Bocuse, who began his career in 1941, World War II had an unforgettable impact on his future.
"The war was something terrible. That served me...," Bocuse said. "It forges the character. You no longer have the same idea of life."
He was wounded while fighting and cared for at a U.S. field hospital, and "I always say I have American blood in my veins because ... I had transfusions of American blood," he said, noting that an American flag flies outside his restaurant.
Bocuse comes from a line of cooks on both sides of the family. His father worked in a "brigade," as kitchen teams are known, and his parents once ran the then-modest auberge, which sits near the Saone River.
Those are his roots, but his training came from the great masters, he said, Fernand Point in Vienne, and earlier at Lyon's La Mere Brazier, then owned by Eugenie Brazier, the first woman to win three Michelin stars.
"There was rigor," he said. "At La Mere Brazier, you had to wake up early and milk the cows, feed the pigs, do the laundry and cook .... It was a very tough school of hard knocks. Today, the profession has changed enormously. There's no more coal. You push a button and you have heat."