To a guileless observer, innocent of gastronomic chic, everything appeared as usual at the Restaurant Paul Bocuse. The shrine of France’s most celebrated three-star chef drifted as elegantly as ever at anchor on the banks of the impassive Saône in suburban Lyons. Inside, amid the pristine linen and perennial floral extravaganzas, the menu still boasted his trademark truffle soup.
But, mingled with the heady aromas of foie gras and pâte brisée, arose the distinct odor of a counterrevolution brewing.
Lurking among the entrées, two items glared up from the menu page: pouleau-pot and blanquette de veau. In a country where nothing is quite as sacred as dinner—except, of course, lunch—those old chestnuts of traditional cookery are stirring up a tempest in the national stewpot. That is not surprising. With a flourish of well-publicized provocation, Paul Bocuse, the man of perpetually thriving ego who revolutionized 20th-century cooking with his credo of nouvelle cuisine, is suddenly renouncing the faith and calling for a return to the ancient culinary gospel.
As his critics are quick to point out, no one is more likely to benefit from his rallying cry for a return to simpler regional cooking than Paul Bocuse, who has just published a cookbook of simpler regional recipes. Still, if his renunciation of nouvelle cuisine has characteristically created the most stir, he is not the only one among its apostles to have taken his distance from the lighter, audaciously inventive cookery he once preached.
The first chef to beat a public retreat from nouvelle fare was Michel Guérard. Guérard had earlier distilled its penchant for doing away with cream in sauces into a complex diet regime he dubbed Cuisine Minceur. Last year, after shuttering his three-star oasis in the southwestern spa of Eugénie-les-Bains for the winter, he set out with his wife, Christine, on a gastronomic tour of
France. Dropping in on fellow chefs around the country, he was horrified to realize that, “We’d eaten the same dishes almost everywhere. Everywhere the same menu, the same tastes, the same rare duck’s breast with a sauce of green peppercorns. I got fed up with the sameness.” When he confided to a food writer that cooking now threatened to become what it had been before he and the Bocuse brigade hatched nouvelle cuisine—that is, homogenized to a new boredom—some of his fellow nouveaux cuisiniers came to a quick boil. “They accused me of spitting in the soup of nouvelle cuisine,” he said. “But what I
wanted to show was -
that this new cuisine, Guérard: a public retreat which was meant to bring a breath of fresh air to cooking, now risked becoming claustrophobic.”
Guérard has since replaced his initial public renunciation with a businessman’s pragmatic revisionism. And other chefs have followed suit with a speed that betrays the particular French terror of being caught one step behind fashion. Just as, a decade ago, a new generation of young French chefs
spontaneously rebelled against the overcooked, oversauced and ultracaloric haute cuisine. Bocuse was their star and spokesman, evangelizing on the merits of green beans undercooked to crispness, fish steamed to springiness and duck’s breast as rosy as rare beef. Scarcely a week passed when they did not come up with some new culinary breakthrough served on oversized plates and color coordinated with the precision of an hautecouture collection, i When former president Valéry Giscard id’Estaing officially
cuisine in 1975 by pinning the Légion d’Honneur on Bocuse, it was as if some international egg timer had suddenly gone off: nouvelle cuisine invaded kitchens from New York to Tokyo. Suddenly diners around the world found themselves awash in undercooked string beans, bloody duckling and kiwis run amok.
Now nouvelle cuisine seems to have fallen victim to its own success—a case of too many cooks spoiling the broth. Raged Guérard: “Anyone who spent a week chez Bocuse or Guérard can open a restaurant now. Nobody asks them if they were in the kitchen or sweeping the floor. Cooking has become full of imposters and imitators.” Bocuse blanches at the mannered excesses into which nouvelle cuisine's hangers-on have tumbled. “Someone in New York the other day served me what they called a nouvelle cuisine tarte,'' he says. “It was five apples on a plate. Here you find rock bass in raspberry sauce and Camembert sherbet. All the vegetables have suddenly become purees. It’s a painter’s palbut one would the French had teeth left.”
Guérard puts the
blame, in part, on all the TV cooking classes and recipe books that the nouvelle cooks have churned out, unlike the preceding generation of chefs who jealously guarded their secrets. But Bocuse—never one to take a swipe at his own success, which includes marketing his own line of Beaujolais, nickel saucepots and Lyonnais sausages—credits sheer economics with souring things. “This nouvelle cuisine is horribly expensive,” he points out. Walking away still hungry from a five-course spectacular of bite-sized works of art only to be handed a $100-a-head bill has caused more than one would-be gourmet a brand of nouvelle indigestion.
Certainly the recession may explain the growing appetite for culinary conservatism. A poll published last fall by the monthly Cuisine et Vins de France reported that 72 per cent of Frenchmen now prefer entertaining dinner guests at home to dining at a restaurant. And that is an astonishing admission in a country in which couples can eat out together for 20 years without ever glimpsing one another’s dining room tables. Part of the explanation for the change lies in François Mitterrand’s Socialist government’s tax reforms, which have reduced the desirability—and deductibility—of expense-account eating.
At the same time, in a period of belttightening, gourmands can no longer afford a regular diet of nouvelle cuisine that is larded with the priciest ingredients. As Bocuse admits, explaining his own about-face: “My restaurant is like a sailboat. I have to keep the wind in its sails. If we want to fill our tables, we must respond to the customers’ demands and go with the current.”
Some critics, such as Le Monde's La Reynière, dismiss the fuss as just one more chapter in what he regards as the colossal publicity stunt that created nouvelle cuisine. Others, such as Gault et Millau, authors of the Nouveau Guide to nouvelle cuisine whose $l-million-a-year restaurant-guide empire is threatened, have pointed out that there is no turning back. “No one wants to return to the heavy cooking of 25 years ago,” argues Christian Millau. “We eat very differently today, and it’s better suited to our lifestyles.”
For some young chefs the solution lies not on the stove but in semantics. These days one may call his cooking “neoclassic,” while another will label his “cuisine moderne.” The kiwis and the deep-fried rose petals may have disappeared, but their substitutes nevertheless bear a startling resemblance to the cooking that until very recently was known as nouvelle. Now, perplexed French diners cannot be blamed for paraphrasing a slogan from another sort of revolution: NOUVELLE CUISINE IS DEAD. LONG LIVE NOUVELLE CUISINE.
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