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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