The books we had to have - the terrines, the fans, the coulis...
(Spoiler alert – Nouvelle Cuisine is NOT Cuisine Minceur)
In 1969, two young journalist in Paris, Henri Gault and Christian Millau set up a new magazine (Gault & Millau – le Nouveau Guide) to rival the staid Michelin system of grading restaurants. Michelin gave an overall score that included atmosphere, décor and food (causing restaurants to spend lavishly on new lavatory facilities and extravagant flowers to win a third star). Gault and Millau scored the food only, and simply commented on the rest.
By 1973, they were noticing changes in the menus and on the plate – a new delicacy; lightness, simplicity and elegance. They spoke of “la nouvelle cuisine” and the expression “went viral”, as they’d say today, aided and abetted by a rash of cook-book publications, all of which we collected avidly.
At the forefront was Paul Bocuse, but also significantly Michel Guérard, Jean and Pierre Troisgros, Roger Vergé, Alain Chapel and Alain Senderens (for whom I translated in the mid 80s when he came to Australia). Interestingly, they all had been classical trained.
Gault and Millau listed ten commandments or observations. There are still negative connotations to Nouvelle Cuisine as a result of poor cooks just playing with colours and strange combinations. I know of a chicken breast stuffed with macadamia nuts on a bed or puréed beetroot with a kiwi fruit coulis! Nouvelle Cuisine, cooked with integrity, was a very important movement that still resounds today, both at home and in restaurants.
Just a few observations…
Lighter, shorter cooking times for vegetables, meat and especially fish, often served pink in the centre. Vegetables were no longer water logged but tasted of themselves. (Unfortunately it also could mean squeaky vegetables and they’re still around. I loathe hot, raw vegetables. Give beans exactly seven minutes – perfect.)
Use produce that’s in season so check the market before planning the menu.
Lighten and shorten the menu and abandon the orthodox, tightly prescribed canon. A classic Tournedos Rossini, for those in the know, was a fillet steak cut from the central portion of the full “undercut”, cooked rare to medium rare, served on a crouton, topped with a slice of foie gras and a black truffle, coated with a Madeira brown sauce. Delicious, but the kitchen would never deviate. If you used Port in the sauce, it was no longer Tournedos Rossini. Now you could add and subtract (even introduce Asian ingredients). Dishes were described by their ingredients (which later lead of course to some places going to ridiculous lengths, listing every ingredient in a dish, like a shopping list).
Check out new techniques and new technology. The Magimix hit our benches and we’ve never looked back. This opened up a world of fish mousses and purées that would have taken so many person-hours.
Abandon lengthy marinades and hanging of game so that food could taste freshly of itself.
Lighten sauces so as not to mask the food. Sauces had been heavily intense and lightly thickened with flour. Now sauces were a gentle reduction and rather than coating and masking the food, sat beneath it. The dish that comes to mind, served by many chefs, was a beautifully poached or steamed piece of salmon sitting simply on a very pale sauce of cream, white wine and stock enhanced with sorrel. (But once again the aberrations gave rise to colour and flavour combinations that were garish rather than gastronomic.)
Take health and well-being into consideration. Although butter and cream were still lavishly used (and we know now that was fine) the first course could be a composed salad – e.g. thinly sliced cured duck breast with frizzy lettuce, grilled peaches and toasted hazelnuts. Dishes did not really become small, just lighter and the flavours clearer.
Do not over decorate the food. Chefs became more responsible for plate presentation, the elements more clearly seen on a large plate (lots of Villeroy & Boch) - often a Japanese sensibility. Everything on the plate was edible - no dessert with an obligatory half strawberry (often unripe) and mint leaf. (Think of the later silliness of food with "height" and the overwrought decorations we might see today.)
Allow creativity with ingredients and even borrow from regional and other ethnic cuisines. Question standard practices. Alain Senderens shocked the food world by suggesting that most white wines were more suitable for cheese than red wine. He also introduced wine pairings for the dishes on his menu.
We take these changes for granted. Now, what’s not to like?
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Michel Guérard was classically trained in both cookery and pâtisserie. He opened his first restaurant (Le Pot-Au-Feu) in Paris in 1965, received his first Michelin star in 1967 and his second in 1971. The restaurant was forced to close in 1972 due to a major road works, at the same time that he met his future wife. He was a significant player in the movement known as Nouvelle Cuisine but along side this, he developed what he called Cuisine Minceur. This is the story.
In 1972, he met Christine Barthélemy. She was the daughter of the founder of Biotherm (skin care products - big on seaweed) who also owned a string of spa hotels. She liked his marriage proposal (who wouldn't fall for that warm, friendly charm?) but suggested he might like to lose a little weight. Cuisine Minceur was born along with a clever book - a best seller. Together they renovated the spa at Eugénie-les-Bains (S.W. of France) where he not only set up his new restaurant (soon to receive the third star) but also offered a health spa with treatments and a special menu. For the spa restaurant, he developed a cuisine that was delicious, elegant and light but still with an air of pampering luxury. Sauces were often puréed vegetables, fish was steamed over herbs, there were even desserts. Look into Potted Salmon with Lemon, Green Peppercorns and Sauce Grelette or Floating Islands with Blackcurrant Sauce.
Strangely, the book came out in Australia even before his Cuisine Gourmande. I question how much it was used by the general public. There are beautiful recipes that I still use although you lose nearly as much weight putting them together as you do eating them!
(As to his other book, Cuisine Gourmande, I challenge anyone to work through it and not come out a better cook. Both books are still published but you can find them readily in second-hand book stores or at garage sales.)
Incidentally, to visit or make a booking (haha) http://www.michelguerard.com
Below, Christine and Michel, together at Eugénie-Les-Bains.
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Give me the Cutlery!
Dessert with only a spoon – OK you’re saving on dishwasher wages but do we have to push the food onto the spoon with our thumb?
Give me the cutlery!
Loud music – Yes, you’re a DJ manqué, you have impaired hearing due to the head-banger music you listened to as a youth, you have no conversation and imagine no-one else does either. Silence embarrasses you.
Whose taste is your music satisfying? (Mine's terrible - I range from Schubert Leider to Country.)
Background music is an insult to music.
(Mind you, if you were to play Willy Nelson or Merle Haggard, at a suitable volume, I’d be putty in your hands. But I guess I’d also be eating ribs and something called Jerk.)
Please, just turn it off!
Espresso martinis – I know people need, honour and crave coffee but this mixture is disgusting. It has no kick.
Mindless questions – “How’s your day been so far?” I'm asked as I sit down. I don’t know you well enough to tell you. Set up a brainstorm with your crew to see how you could engage more meaningfully.
Don’t ask me!
Long tables without ends – You see it in Vogue magazine and real estate articles – a long table with chairs on either side, no-one at the end. This looks cool, tidy, slick, minimalist, sharp, elegant. But what about conviviality? Sometimes you talk to your left, sometimes you talk to your right so to whom does the sad unfortunate at the end talk to? Really out on a limb!
A long table should have a sense of a circle, where the goodwill flows inwards, not out the end.
A long table of eleven should have 4 on one side, 5 on another and one on each end. May not look like Vogue magazine but conversation will be easier.
Fill the ends!
Napkins – we’ve lost the battle against the embarrassing late 20th century ritual of having waiters drape napkins across our laps. (More on that later.) But the new dilemma is why can’t I leave the table and not have my napkin fiddled with?
Debrett’s Modern Manners recommends placing your napkin on the seat of your chair if you need to leave the table. That’s good enough for me.
Why does someone come and intrude on my table and my friends with a flash flourish to rearrange my used napkin? Is it a way of saying “You’re a naughty girl and I’m tidying up after you”.
If you’re one of the party at the table, gently ask that the napkin be left on the seat. The time saved could be used to check our water, clear our plates, or get our bill ready. Save time for more important things.
Leave my napkin alone!
T-towels out the back pocket - I love the “hipster” look and the vibe of the places these waiters inhabit but can we lose the tea-towel hanging from the back pocket? I don’t know what you do behind the scenes, but wiping down tables with this much used tea-towel is not a good look.
Unless they have a Dolce & Gabana or an Hermès logo in view, they’re not a cute accessory.
Keep tea-towels out of sight.
Positive reinforcement – when I order, don’t tell me “Good choice”. I don’t need positive reinforcement for what I eat, (especially when I hear it said at every table).