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French Regional Cuisine Returns : Old Favorites Replace Once-Favorite Nouvelle Cuisine

February 04, 1988|SIMON HAYDON | Reuter

PARIS — Nouvelle cuisine, the culinary revolution that replaced rich creamy sauces with pureed vegetables and steamed fish, is dead, according to French chefs whose work is emulated around the world.

The health-conscious new cookery which swept across France in the 1970s threw out cholesterol and calories and put gourmets on a diet.

Exotic combinations such as duck with black currants or salad with hot chicken livers were arranged artistically in tiny helpings.

But now nouvelle cuisine is making way for traditional cooking that may bring old favorites like potatoes, cabbage and wine and cream sauces back into fashion. The emphasis, once again, is on regional specialties.

Still a Good Influence

"There was a change about 10 years ago but it looks as if French cuisine is returning to what it was before then," said Jean Fleury, top chef at the Restaurant Paul Bocuse, known as one of the finest in the world.

"The new tendency takes us back to our roots," said Michel Troisgros, of the top-ranked Troisgros restaurant in Roanne.

But even the loudest critics of nouvelle cuisine admit it has left a lasting taste, and that it had a healthy influence on chefs.

The Champerard food guide, one of dozens published in France, a nation where cuisine is seen as an art form, said in its just published 1988 edition, "Everyone admits that nouvelle cuisine is dead."

But the guide added that nouvelle cuisine meant that "visiting a restaurant no longer means being attacked by floury sauces, and fish are no longer massacred by being boiled endlessly."

All but the most die-hard fans of the modern cuisine are giving up such controversial dishes as turbot with kiwi and lobsters with mango.

Parisian restaurants were at the forefront of the nouvelle trend.

Paul Bocuse, a renowned critic of nouvelle cuisine, said in 1982, "My latest meals in Paris make me think that a bargeload of kiwi fruits has crashed into a ship full of broccoli."

Guerard Credited--or Blamed

Most attribute the birth of nouvelle cuisine to Michel Guerard, who started with a humble bistro in Paris.

Guerard originally christened his style cuisine minceur (slimmers' cookery), as it disposed of calorie-rich ingredients such as cream, oil, flour, sugar and butter and replaced them with the food's own juices.

Frying pans were thrown out as Guerard trained young chefs to steam, boil and poach. He presented dishes as if they were works of art, with each bean placed strategically to set off the adjacent slice of carrot.

He rejected the extravagant cooking style of Marie-Antoine Careme and Auguste Escoffier, whose work in the 19th and 20th centuries formed the basis of French cooking.

Careme produced a book in 1833 detailing more than 200 sauces that have remained at the heart of the national cuisine, and was famed for laying dozens of dishes before banquet guests, who were known to collapse long before the end of the meal.

Escoffier's "Le Guide Culinaire," published in 1921, has remained the bible for generations of French chefs.

After World War II, Fernand Point, whose recipe for success was "butter, butter and more butter," became king of French cuisine. His restaurant, Chez Point, in Vienne half way between Paris and the French Riviera, was a stopping place for the rich and famous.

Point died in 1986, and to the horror of gourmets his revered restaurant has passed into the hands of a hotel chain.

Bocuse is now France's most famous living chef, and his restaurant on the outskirts of Lyon has become a shrine for food-lovers.

His chef, Fleury, said: "For us there really has not been an old or a new cuisine. There has just been good cuisine."

Bocuse, one of the first French chefs to come out of his kitchen into the limelight, is rarely seen in the restaurant now, but still chooses fresh produce from Lyon market early every morning.

His restaurant mixes traditional dishes like fresh vegetable soup, at $13, with complex concoctions like sea bass in pastry with lobster mousse and Choron sauce, $50 a portion. The sauce is a basic Bearnaise with tomato puree added.

Chez Troisgros

Forty miles away, Troisgros' restaurant in the town of Roanne offers nouvelle cuisine, with "finely sliced duck breast in sweet and sour rhubarb sauce" and "poached eggs with Beluga caviar."

At 29 one of France's youngest grandmasters of cuisine, Michel Troisgros has traveled the world studying cooking and his food has been influenced by foreign styles.

Both he and Fleury said Japanese cooking had heavily influenced nouvelle cuisine, and had become merged with French ideas.

Troisgros, who runs the restaurant with his father, Pierre, acknowledged that he was returning to basics.

"I have worked with the greatest chefs and when I returned to Roanne I was too heavily influenced by them. . . . I could be accused of taking ideas from all over the place, even if it was not consciously," he said.

"Today, I am beginning to find my way and am finding the true value of regional cooking," said the man whose restaurant has earned the highest marks in virtually all of France's top food guides, including the merciless Michelin and Gault Millau.

Neither of the chefs would be drawn on which restaurant they considered the best in France. "There's no such thing. There are those who make the best meat, the best fish, the best sauce or the best pastries, but no greatest restaurant."

But Troisgros conceded that Jamin, run by its owner Joel Robuchon in the fashionable 16th district of Paris, was widely considered the best.

Experts enthuse over Robuchon's simple green salad, his creamed cauliflower in caviar jelly, his hot pate de foie gras served with lentil cream.

"But take the silliest dish in the world, mashed potato, and see what he does with it. A masterpiece, of which he refuses to disclose the secret," wrote Gault Millau.

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