Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Nouvelle Cuisine

Why it is still relevant

How many of you know what Nouvelle Cuisine is, or for that matter have a first hand familiarity with it? Recently in an interview that the British food journalist Jay Rayner conducted with Ferran Adria, the topic of Nouvelle Cuisine briefly came up. Chef Adria stated, “In 1987 we were trying to create a Spanish version of Nouvelle Cuisine.” Mr. Rayner’s response was “Not all Nouvelle Cuisine was popular, it had its critics.” To that, Chef Adria’s response was,” Anything that’s new always has its critics.” When it comes to food, art, music or architecture that statement could arguably be considered an absolute. In general, the majority of people are not comfortable with radical change. In 1987, In Spain, 12 years after the death of Franco, Chefs such as Mr. Adria could look back at the generation of Chefs in France, who were proponents of Nouvelle Cuisine, and feel an affinity towards their revolutionary philosophy and work. At the time when these Chefs in France started their experimentation, French people ate French food, period. People desired and consumed good food, but it was a food whose main focus emphasized the stable, consistent, and homogeneous sides of the relationship between eating practices and identity. Classic Haute Cuisine had been around for a long time. Its offerings of the exotic concerned themselves more with the addition of seasonings, as herbs and spices did not predominate in any way. For instance, á la Indienne meant the addition of curry, á la Chinois referred to the addition of ginger, etc. Nouvelle Cuisine was the first style of food preparation that incorporated actual fusion cooking. People were not used to having dining experiences where everything became strange and familiar at the same time and the boundary between that strangeness and familiarity was thrown out the window. This shocked and frightened some people in the same way that the art of the Impressionists did when they burst upon the scene in the 1860’s.

In 1968 France experienced tumultuous times that, all things considered, was more of a revolution than an accident. Although law and order had been restored, new ideas were flying across Europe and parts of the world. Cinema, which was a French invention, was a part of that revolution. Young directors, specifically Jean Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Louis Malle, and Alain Resnais, had begun to shake the celluloid establishment with incendiary articles in the infamous journal Cahiers du Cinema. With their new cinematic style, known as "La Nouvelle Vague" (the new wave) they turned their back on the conventional cinema style, heavy equipment and stock scenarios, and instead focused on imagination and ingenuity. Handheld cameras were employed cinema verité style and new techniques created a more lively and realistic style of film. Cinema changed forever. The gastronomic world was soon to follow.

The term Nouvelle Cuisine has been used many times in the history of French cuisine. In the 1740s for example, the work of Vincent La Chapelle, François Marin and Menon was described as Nouvelle Cuisine, and in the 1880s and 1890s, even the cooking of Georges Auguste Escoffier was described with the term. The label “Nouvelle Cuisine” just as the label “Impressionist” was created by the press and not by its practitioners.
The modern usage can be attributed to authors Henri Gault and Christian Millau, to describe the cooking of Paul Bocuse, Alain Chapel, Jean and Pierre Troisgros, Michel Guérard, Roger Vergé, Louis Outhier and Raymond Oliver, many of who were apprentices of Fernand Point.
Point created his own spin on Haute Cuisine transporting classic French Cuisine into a style that was lighter and more individualized. He did not agree that the classical cooking of Escoffier must be followed without deviation if it did not satisfy his and his clientele’s taste. Point believed that great cuisine should not be static and that a chef cannot live in the past and not go further. One should work from the fundamental building blocks of cooking and then modify and refine upon them to suit changing tastes in changing times. By creating a new style of cuisine he broke new ground for his fellow chefs. Before Point, the chef stayed in the kitchen, but that was about to change. He came into the dining room to talk to his clients, sounded out their likes and dislikes and composed their dinner with them, creating dishes to their tastes. This style was to be adopted by the young cooks working under him who later became founders of a new cooking movement and the first “Star Chefs” in the public arena.

In March 1969 Henry Gault, Christian Millau and André Gayot founded Le Nouveau Guide, a monthly magazine devoted to food and wine, the first of its kind in France, which also included an alternative rating system to the famed Michelin guide. In 1973, in number fifty-four of their guide, Gault and Millau published the ten commandants of Nouvelle Cuisine, among which they advocated that:
One should reduce cooking time
Use best quality and fresh from the market products
Offer a shorter menu
Keep open to new developments
Do away with marinades and game hanging
Cook sauces that were less rich
Respect dietary rules
Use a simple estheticism
Be creative
Nouvelle cuisine became all the rage in the fine dining establishments of France. It was everywhere, on television, on the radio, in the newspapers; people talked about it and held controversial discussions. The chefs who started this movement were the first rock star chefs. They became rich enough to purchase their own restaurants and become their own masters. However, this inspired many less talented chefs to follow suit. Unfortunately for several of them, what ought to have been simple, original, or healthy food became ridiculous, epitomized by bad fusion and over priced, parsimonious portions. The writers and critics, who had praised the best chefs, now did the same with the wannabees, and gave their seal of approval to gastronomic mutations. As a result, by the 1980s, Nouvelle Cuisine had lost its appeal.

Today, when one reflects upon the 10 commandments of Nouvelle Cuisine, it is not difficult to see the correlation between the cooking of those chefs our contemporary kitchen. Cooking time is reduced in regards to taste and texture. Methods such as sous vide lengthen the time but produce better results. This has much to do with embracing new developments. Top quality products, purveyed from the local marketplace, have become the norm. Although lengthy, small portion, seasonal prix fixe menus have become routine for better restaurants, they no longer offer 12 page ala carte ones. Marinades are still used but the time involved is much shorter especially when used under vacuum. For the most part, starch based thickeners have all but disappeared, replace by sauces thickened with vegetable and fruit purees and hydrocolloids.
Dietary rules are much more scrutinized as chefs strive to create a balance on the plate. Today’s cuisine is esthetically pleasing while shying away from pretentious ornamentation. Food has never been more creative than it is today. And the last of these rules, friendship has never been so apparent in the culinary arts as it is today with chefs from all over the world collaborating and joining together to support various causes.

Yes, Nouvelle Cuisine had it’s critics with a fair portion of the criticism duly deserved, However, for many of us who were around at the time of it’s inception, the beauty, brilliance and freedom it offered was breathtaking. It is these precise attributes that have so affected the modern kitchen and helped thrust it into the 21st century.


Tangled Noodle said...

After reading this, I realize that I never truly understood what 'Nouvelle Cuisine' actually represented. Instead, my impression of it was exactly as you wrote - 'over-priced, parsimonious portions'. The label overshadowed its principles and it is nice to know that they have survived the hype.

Andrea said...

Fascinating article. It's especially interesting because the earlier uses of the term that you cite begin occurring at around the place where historians normally locate the beginning of Modernism: the Age of Enlightenment, the end of the Feudal system, and the rise of a bourgeois class in cultural prominence over an aristocracy or monarchy (an admittedly long, slow process in France!). I bet some of the fundamental causes of "avant-gardism" in art were also at the root of Nouvelle Cuisine (as you suggest with your references to Impressionism). Okay, nerd alert over. I really enjoyed your post!