NOUVELLE CUISINE. The expression "nouvelle cuisine" has been used several times in the course of the history of cooking, particularly in France in the middle of the eighteenth century. It was introduced to subordinate the practice of cooking to principles of chemistry that were to be established by Lavoisier later on. People had mixed feelings about it: for instance, Voltaire wrote "I must say that my stomach does not at all agree with the 'nouvelle cuisine.'"
Today nouvelle cuisine refers to a trend of opinion that appeared in France in the 1960s. At the time, it caught on rapidly and was a great international success. Yet, as it got tangled up in its contradiction, it stopped being fashionable, and nowadays it has a negative connotation. In spite of that, it was an innovative and quite important movement, which brought about a revolution within the "grande cuisine" whose lessons are still present in the grand chefs' minds.
Among the precursors of the movement were Fernand Point, Alex Humbert (who first made the petits legumes ), André Guillot, and Jean Delaveyne, former chef at Buckingham Palace; they were those who questioned Auguste Escoffier's heavy heritage. They rejected the overused fonds de sauce as well as the so-called Allemande (German) sauce, a light one, and Espagnole sauce (Spanish), a dark one, gravies that were the basis of all kinds of rich and little refined dishes whose taste was almost always the same, since the products lost their specificity when cooked. They made their sauces less rich, highlighting the freshness and the quality of the products, thus paving the way for a revolutionary generation who was to shake up the tradition.
One has to bear in mind that at the beginning, the chefs of the nouvelle cuisine were not outsiders to French cooking. On the contrary, they were the brilliant pupils of the greatest traditional chefs. The revolution in cooking came from within the Michelin-starred restaurants. Paul Bocuse, Alain Senderens, Jean and Pierre Troigros, Alain Chapel, Michel Guerard, when very young, all started studying the traditional way, a painstaking, difficult time of apprenticeship, moving from one place to another almost in the same way as the students who graduate from different universities. An important characteristic of the movement was friendship. Although French chefs are usually individualistic, even selfish, these young chefs were always in contact, telling one another of their discoveries, discussing their problems, and so on. Today, they still do it, although they themselves have become the symbols of a new tradition.
Characteristics of Nouvelle Cuisine
Nouvelle cuisine has several characteristics. Most important were the quality and the freshness of the products chefs used. They went shopping to the market every morning and looked for the best products, and never used any preservatives, deep-frozen food, or any product that was not absolutely fresh. They did not offer a menu card with a long list of dishes that never changed, the reason being that such a long list required having a great quantity of products available. As a result the leftovers would necessarily lose their freshness and thus could not be used. Instead, they offered a reduced number of recipes that kept changing every day according to their market shopping. At the time, in Paris, this was made easier thanks to Les Halles, a huge market right in the heart of the city, within walking distance of every restaurant. Because they were looking for quality, the chefs became more and more attracted by unusual, exotic products. Foreign influences prevailed, particularly those of North Africa (Morocco, especially), Italy, China, and Japan. In 1960 Shizuo Tsujui opened the first school of French cuisine in Japan, which multiplied the cultural exchanges between the two countries. So much so that in 2000, Alain Senderens remarked "the nouvelle cuisine is now Japanese."
In the new style of preparations, there were no fonds de sauces used in the dishes any more. Sometimes, short juices, quickly made, were turned into a small quantity of sauce, which was to be served on fresh, only lightly cooked products.
The spices banished from the French cuisine since the seventeenth century were now back in use; contrary to the Middle Ages, they were no longer used in large quantities, but in small touches and only to rouse the flavors that would blend with those of the products. The effect they aimed at was to enhance the quintessence of the product, that is to say that sauces or spices were only used to bring out the product's taste and qualities, not as a substitute for them.
The approach was similar to that of previous cuisine movements. The new chefs stressed the importance of nutrition and its consequence for people's health. They wanted to change the image of an obese gastronome into that of the slim, smart dilettante so much in vogue in the magazines of the 1960s. For their female clients, always anxious to watch their figures, the chefs felt urged to contrive new recipes that could be delightful without being rich. Indeed, it is significant to note that the first book written in 1976 by Michel Guerard was La cuisine minceur.
As a result, less food was served; of course what each dish lacked in quantity had to be replaced by better quality and a better esthetic presentation. It is true that the grande cuisine had always included an element of display and ceremony: As the dishes were prepared for all the guests present, the dinners were organized as a ceremony for the whole party, to such an extent that, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, Antonin Carême defined the patisserie (pastry cooking) as a branch of architecture. Instead, the new chefs replaced the presentation of entire dishes with that of individual plates; what was considered beautiful and attractive was not the whole chicken, the whole pate en croute, or baba, but the layout of the food on each plate that the guest was about to eat. To serve the dishes, the chefs no longer enacted their ritual at the pedestal tables on which they used to carve the meat or flambé the basses. They brought each guest their own plates, with the food previously prepared. Sometimes, it was hidden under shining dish covers the waiter would take off as a surprise, once the plate was set in front of the guest. Then the guests would appraise the esthetic aspect of the layout and enjoy the all-pervading fragrances of the food.
The chefs were always in search of new products and new aromas. Similarly they also kept looking for new techniques. As they were the best technicians of their generation, they began using all the new tools available: cutter blenders, food processors, nonstick materials, and so forth. The relationship between food and fire had become a central problem, so they started experimenting with new methods such as cooking under vacuum, microwave ovens, and steam ovens. Yet this did not mean that they ignored some of the old methods; in fact quite a number of them were brought back into fashion, for instance, the cuisson en croute de sel and steam cooking. Moreover the fact that they had learned how to control the use of refrigeration enabled them to use new ways of preparing the food or carving the meats, which otherwise would not have been possible.
A Cultural Phenomenon
First and foremost, the nouvelle cuisine was a genuine revolution accomplished by the chefs themselves, more precisely the best of them. However, the newspapers and other media played an important part in the overall outcome. Raymond Oliver was the first to appear on a weekly TV show, which lasted for fourteen years and made him a star. Other chefs also became stars, which was seldom the case before that.
The expression "nouvelle cuisine" owes a great part of its success to two journalists, Henri Gault and Christian Millau (who for the first time in 1969 published the Nouveau Guide, followed in 1971 by the Guide Gault et Millau, a monthly magazine which soon became popular and had a great influence on the chefs as well as on their clients). Besides, at the time, the expression itself fitted nicely into a whole set of new trends of thought, of things or events which had appeared after World War II, for instance la nouvelle critique litteraire (the new literacy criticism), le nouveau roman (the new novel, with Alain Robbe-Grillet, Nathalie Sarraute, and Nobel Prize winner Claude Simon), and la nouvelle vague (the new wave) in the cinema with Alain Resnais, Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, and Claude Chabrol. Traditional guides, the Michelin in particular, had already acknowledged the worthy chefs by giving them one to three stars: for example, Paul Bocuse was awarded three stars in 1965, Haberlin, in 1967, and Troigros and Barrier, in 1968. The new Gault et Millau Guide quite cleverly introduced a new distinction between the nouvelle cuisine chefs and the traditional ones. Later on the distinction was noted by a printed symbol, the former having a red one and the latter a black one.
Heyday and Demise
In 1973, in number fifty-four of their guide, Gaut and Millau published the ten commandants of nouvelle cuisine, among which they advocated that one should reduce cooking time, use best-quality products and products fresh from the market, offer a shorter menu, limit the use of modern technical tools, while keeping open to new developments, do away with marinades and game hanging, cook sauces that were less rich, respect dietary rules, use a simple estheticism, and be creative. To these commandments, they added another one: friendship.
From then on, nouvelle cuisine became quite fashionable. It was everywhere, on television, on the radio, in the newspapers; people talked about it and held controversial discussions. The chefs who had become real stars were rich enough to purchase their own restaurants and become their own masters. The economic boom of the 1960s and the 1970s boosted the careers of the chefs, providing them with much money, which of course incited other less-gifted chefs to follow suit. Unfortunately for several of them, what ought to have been simple, original, or healthy food became approximate, ridiculous, meager food. The journalists who had praised the best chefs, now did the same with drudges, and gave the seal of quality to poor, ridiculous, and botched dishes. As a result, the movement was quite discredited though the greatest chefs were never criticized by those who blamed their imitators. By the 1980s, nouvelle cuisine had lost its appeal and today it is no longer used; it even has turned into a pejorative connotation.
The concepts used by the chefs who inspired them predominate within today's grande cuisine, not only in France, but the world over. Products must be selected with a ruthless eye on quality, wines and dishes matched with flair, cooking times short and accurate, and sauces lighter. Judicious blending of foreign trends and customs is a major element. An attractive plate is served, the food displayed simply and esthetically. An open mindedness and a concern for nutrition and diet are the essential ingredients binding the whole approach. Today, there cannot be a grand chef in the world who has not in some way or other been influenced by the nouvelle cuisine ethos.
See also Carême, Marie Antoine; Cuisine, Evolution of; Escoffier, Georges-Auguste; Fads in Food; France; Icon Foods.
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Brousse, Jean, and Thibault Leclerc. Les Étoiles de la gastronomie française. Bottin Gourmand, 1998.
Gault, Henri, and Christian Millau. "Vive la nouvelle cuisine française. Nouveau guide Gault et Millau 54 (1973).
Gault, Henri, and Christian Millau. Gault et Millau se mettent a table. Paris: Stock, 1976.
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