“Nouvelle cuisine was so specifically French that it was, and still is, misunderstood in the rest of the world. You have to be dominated by Escoffier before rejecting him becomes meaningful.”
Mark Kurlansky, “Choice Cuts” (2002)
“Nouvelle cuisine was nothing on the plate, but everything on the bill.“
Paul Bocuse, 2011 at Culinary Institute of America Leadership Awards
On March 30 of this year, Chef Paul Bocuse was awarded the designation “Chef of the Century” at the Culinary Institute of America’s Leadership Awards. Bocuse was awarded the honor as “the father of modern French cuisine” – which is to say “la nouvelle cuisine” for which he is generally afforded pioneer status. While some have said that Bocuse gets too much credit for inventing Nouvelle Cuisine – its real creator may have been Bocuse’s own mentor, Fernand Point, it was Henri Gault and Christian Millau (and Andre Gayot) who coined the term, and chefs such as Michel Guérard, Alain Senderens, Jean and Pierre Troigros, Alain Chapel and others certainly had a lot to do with it – few question that Chef Bocuse is rightly the singular face of Nouvelle Cuisine.
There is far more question, though, as to whether Americans really know what that means. America, unlike Europe, was not steeped (some might say mired) in the grand cuisine and food culture codified by Auguste Escoffier and Marie-Antoine Carême. Indeed, for the most part, most Americans – in fact even most foodie Americans – probably have a limited familiarity with the classic French Haute-Cuisine and may even confuse it with some of the innovations wrought by Nouvelle Cuisine.
So what actually is Nouvelle Cuisine? According to Gault and Milleau, the ten characteristics of the Nouvelle Cuisine were:
- A movement towards simplicity and a rejection of excessive complication.
- An attempt to preserve the essential flavors of a product by shortening cooking times. This included a renewed focus on previously underutilized techniques such as steaming.
- A focus on the freshest and highest quality of the ingredients.
- A predilection for shorter rather than larger menus.
- Abandonment of strong marinades for meat and game.
- A change from classic heavy sauces such as espagnole and béchamel, thickened with flour based roux, in favor of seasoning their dishes with fresh herbs, and sauces featuring high quality butter, lemon juice, and vinegar.
- An emphasis on regional traditions for inspiration.
- An interest in new techniques and equipment.
- An acknowledgment and incorporation of — and interest in — dietary and nutritional concerns.
- A new emphasis on creativity including a focus on artful plating.
As codified by Gault and Millau — and looking back from the comfortable viewpoint of almost half a century later — the tenets of Nouvelle Cuisine seem so obvious as to hardly merit mention. This was a “revolution?” But it was, and a glorious one at that. The victory of the Nouvelle Cuisine insurgents was so complete, so total that we now ask: “Really?” But those ten points were shocking at the time. They turned the world of high cuisine on its head with a suddenness and completeness that is all the more shocking the more one examines it.
Of course, some of these “innovations” that came to characterize both the value and the caricatures of Nouvelle Cuisine were hardly new. Beurre Blanc, for example, was a sauce that had been popular in the Loire Valley of France since its invention in the first years of the 20th century. It had been missed by Escoffier mainly because it was a regional delicacy rather than part of the grand tradition inherited from the cuisine of Carême. And it is not as if patés and terrines had been outside the haute cuisine of Escoffier. Recipes for various patés and terrines were contained in every edition of Le Guide Culinaire.
As quickly as la nouvelle cuisine took over France it was, perhaps, even more readily adopted in an America that had essentially no high cuisine tradition of its own. Chefs as diverse as Alice Waters and Jeremiah Tower at Chez Panisse in Berkeley and Larry Forgione at River Café in Brooklyn (and many others) latched onto aspects of the nouvelle cuisine ethos, made it their own. With no Escoffier and no Carême there was little institutionalized resistance to this “new” cuisine. There also may have been little comprehension for what made it “new,” and at times little perspective on its limitations. In the hands of ill-trained practitioners the very things that freed French cuisine from the straight jacket of the rules of Escoffier also made it easier to serve an ill-considered if artistically plated mess for top dollar.
And so, within only a few years Nouvelle Cuisine became something of a parody of itself. While the departure from the sauces of classic French haute cuisine in favor of lighter alternatives was billed as, perhaps, the essence of Nouvelle Cuisine, the reality is that what happened was replacing a “cream sauce” made from roux with a myriad of variations on Beurre Blanc, the ultimate butter sauce. Lighter? On the tongue, sure. On the gut, not so much.
Then there was the focus on artistic plating. Classic haute cuisine had involved elaborate tableside service performed mostly by waiters. This, in its turn, was an innovation as compared to Carême’s unbelievably elaborate and grandiose Greco-Roman faux architectural banquet creations. Nouvelle Cuisine made the plate the canvas and the chefs the painters – or, worse yet, the sculputors — and left the diners wondering how to deal with precariously engineered vertical food or why they were paying for so much white plate. Three leaves of lettuce artfully arranged may have been a bit of an exaggeration, but not by much. It was, however, at least a bit better than trying to figure out how to carve a bite out of a six inch stack of food.
Another of the points that went from innovation to cliché with shocking speed was the focus on technological innovation. When Bocuse let it be known that he was using a microwave oven it sent shock waves through the world of high cuisine. And microwave ovens were not the only new-fangled inventions on evidence in the kitchens of those chefs. They had food processors too! And, after a few years, it seemed that anything put in a food processor was fodder for the plate. Patés and terrines went, in the blink of an eye, from labor and — perhaps, more importantly — skill intensive, to easily within the skill set of every home cook. What had not changed in that eye blink was every home cook’s culinary judgment. As a result, a lot of meat loafs began masquerading as pates and home cooks throughout America gave many a vegetable mush field promotions to “terrine.”
But the bottom line is that Nouvelle Cuisine was a true revolution in cuisine. Its principals – as articulated by Gault and Millau in words and by Paul Bocuse and his collegues on the plate – are the foundation of all high cuisine that has followed, whether expressly called “nouvelle cuisine” or not. Neither Thomas Keller nor Ferran Adria would be doing what they are doing if Nouvelle Cuisine had not gone before.
I am, most certainly, no Thomas Keller, no Ferran Adria and Chef of the Week honors are far beyond me. But using some of the basic principles of Nouvelle Cuisine – freshness of ingredients, preservation of the natural flavors of those ingredients, use of technology, and attention to presentation – will make anyone a better cook. For this vegetable terrine – one of the supposed clichés of Nouvelle Cuisine – we acquired the ingredients at the Mercato farmer’s market in Little Italy and at the incomparable The Vegetable Shop at Chino Farms (quite possibly the best farm stand on the rock). Played off against a Sauce Ravigotte – a classic, Escoffier-era sauce rendered in the form of a more Nouvelle-style vinaigrette – this simple and direct dish would not have been out of place in Bocuse’s kitchen and is easy enough for mine. And I do not charge a cent more than its worth.
Terrine of Celeriac, Carrots and Gai Lan with Sauce Ravigotte
For the Terrine:
- 2 pounds Gai Lan (Chinese Broccoli)
- 1 pound carrots, peeled and grated
- 1 pound celery root (celeriac), peeled and grated
- 4 eggs (2 separated)
- 6 tablespoons crème fraîche
- 1 lemon, juiced
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 3 tablespoons Grapeseed or Canola Oil
For the Sauce:
- 3 tablespoons capers
- 2 large shallots, chopped
- 1 bunch fresh chervil, chopped
- 2 bunch fresh Italian parsley, chopped
- Several sprigs fresh thyme, chopped
- 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
- 8 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1. Prepare the Carrots. Peel and grate the carrots using the large grater attachment of your food processor (or a box grater). Sauté the carrots in one tablespoon of canola or grapeseed oil until tender. Remove from the heat. In a large mixing bowl add two tablespoons of crème fraîche, two egg yolks (reserving the whites), and a dash of salt, pepper and freshly grated nutmeg to the grated carrots. Pour into an oiled terrine, smooth out and flatten the layer.
2. Prepare the Celeriac. Peel and grate the celeriac using the large grater attachment of your food processor (or a box grater). Add the lemon juice and sauté in one tablespoon of canola or grapeseed oil until tender. Remove from the heat. In a large mixing bowl add two tablespoons of crème fraîche, two whole eggs, and a dash of salt and pepper. Pour the mixture into the terrine on top of the carrots, smooth out and flatten the layer.
3. Prepare the Gai Lan. Trim the Gai Lan, reserving the florets for another purpose. Grate the Gai Lan stalks using the large grater attachment of your food processor (or a box grater). Sauté the carrots in one tablespoon of canola or grapeseed oil until tender. Add two tablespoons crème fraîche and two beaten egg whites. Pour on top of the other vegetables in the terrine.
4. Cook the Terrine. Bake the terrine in a bain-marie for 30 minutes at 400°F. Remove the terrine from oven, cool and place it in the refrigerator overnight.
5. Make the Sauce. Combine all of the sauce ingredients in the bowl of a food processor and purée. Re-purée, if possible, in a high speed blender.