Nouvelle Cuisine is something that has forever in equal parts both pleasured and frustrated me. Growing up in the United Kingdom through the 80s and 90s much of my experience of the finer side of dining was in so many ways shaped by the influence of Nouvelle Cuisine, albeit mostly through Chefs exhibiting a more careful attention to presentation: stacked ingredients, smears of and spatters of sauces, the sudden disappearance of side dishes, microscopic portions upon oversized white plates etc., elements that provided much fertile fodder for humourists and cartoonists of the time. But it wasn’t until later in life, after doing a little reading upon the subject, that I came to realise that Nouvelle Cuisine was so much more than this, and then some.
With this in mind, I was delighted to discover that Culinary Critic (and Poet) Gerry Shikatani and Chef Jamie Kennedy were organising a gastronomic and academic celebration of all things Nouvelle with a special dinner at Jamie Kennedy Gilead on Thursday October the 24th. For tickets please click here.
Good Food Revolution: So Gerry, what is your fascination with Nouvelle Cuisine? Why do you feel that it was so important and influential?
Gerry Shikatani: I think that anyone with an interest in- or works in some way, gastronomy takes for granted and knows that in terms of cuisine in the West – now I use this – meaning not say, Asia – South Asia, Africa etc. – that French cuisine has been the foundation. So, given that, as I was in my 20’s and before I began writing about food and reviewing professionally at Toronto Life – Nouvelle was news– and it fascinated me- what I heard about it. On tv, in print — So, when I first went to France- above all, of course, Paris- the mythic city of gastronomy – I was reading about the dining scene– this is the late 70’s, and I fell upon the guides of Gault-Millau. I was smitten, to be sure. I wanted to know all about it. Sure, I’d heard about some Nouvellish things in Toronto, but I really had little experience- as an eater.
I really got a sense- oh, taste of it – in 1984 when I went to live in Paris– mainly to finish a huge book of poems I’d been working on since ”79 – 1979 was my first time to Europe, and Paris….but I went in ’84 to also try to learn how to be at least a competent critic– at least feel that I could truly contribute. I devoured Gault-Millau magazines, Cuisine et Vins mag– all those publications – and there was no doubt that Nouvelle was by then firmly established in all levels of dining establishments — in a way it never took hold in Canada as far as I saw. So to get to that next question – finally – I saw it for what it was, already over 10 years in France, saw how it had been pretty well misunderstood in Canada. As I’ve worked now as a reviewer/critic since the 80’s I see its influence in so many ways. And as one who ha been closely following developments in Spain’s vanguard cooking – have seen clearly the lineage from Nouvelle – and all the great chefs there- Adria, Berasategui, Arzak, Joan Roca have told me this. This is why I think it’s important to keep Canadians aware – that fine creative cuisine is evolutionary- and each generation of cooks, servers, hosts – must feel, know this. I don’t think unfortunately, this is that this is sufficiently the case here.
GFR: The term Nouvelle Cuisine has been applied to a number of “new” approaches to French cooking and presentation over the years. What was “new” about the Nouvelle Cuisine we are looking at here?
GS: Nouvelle – refers to La Nouvelle Grande Cuisine Francaise – the movement – and attention! a movement not a trend- away from La Grande Cuisine Classique Francaise – the high principles and ‘rules’ established by Escoffier. The short form Nouvelle Cuisine is very specific – coined by the critic team Henri Gault and Christian Millau – who announced it most loudly to the world by their book Gault et Millau se mettent a table in 1976. That news was what eventually crossed the Atlantic to us. And to get back to your first question again – in 2001 – I realized that it had been a quarter century since that publication – never published in English, incidentally- so I ended up writing a short piece on this anniversary for Saveur. I ended up inteviewing several of the chef-founders as well as Christian Millau – Monsieur Gault was already deceased – and that really got me involved in an intellectual and emotional way with Nouvelle – and helped me understand further gastronomy, so I’ve been researching a book I’ve begun ever since, watching the evolution of gastronomy and the ideas in it.
GFR: Would you be able to sum up Nouvelle Cuisine in a handy soundbite for those readers who cannot extend their attention span past 140 characters?
GS: Oh boy…! It was a rejection not of tradition but the abuse of bad quality, heavy unhealthy, industrial– and pretentious food too, rigid with the rules of Escoffier — that had swayed from the best of product-based regional cooking. It was healthier, safer, less uselessly complicated food that focused on allowing the flavours and textures of ingredients to flourish under rigours that permitted personality, invention – and new techniques, equipment.
It also sought to attack the dirty and pest-infested kitchens of establishments.
GFR: Would it be fair to say that Chef Fernand Point (1897 – 1955) was the Patron Saint of the movement, and in many ways a man before his time, having trained an entire generation of French Master Chefs such as Paul Bocuse, Alain Chapel, Louis Outhier, Jean and Pierre, the Brothers Troisgros, Francois Bise, Michel Guérard, and Roger Vérge?
GS: Certainly, this is the conventional wisdom – you’ve read the same stuff I have Jamie!
GFR: And how did the French fooderati respond to this sea change at first?… as that’s a pretty serious diversion from what they were used to!
GS: I can’t in any way pretend to have insight here Jamie – as I have not followed that much on what you’re asking. But yes, of course it went against the grain of tradition. Their guide and biases where clear – although they always respected properly executed tradition. But, I can guess that many -fooderati, the public were in some ways ready for change- my observation is that this was another fallout from the Soixante-huit – the Sorbonne riots – and social change. We must remember this is culinary culture – that is culture- and cuisine and wine, so fundamental to French society – is huge. And intellectual thinking, evaluation is so integral to French society. Food is not ‘I know what I like!’ that simplistic disrespectful approach which in spite of progressive change – is still a deeply rooted reflex in Canada.
GFR: Was this exclusively a French thing? Surely other countries in Europe took some notice?
GS: Sure. Here in Canada- we began to hear about Nuova Cucina Italiana – I think in reference to Italian restaurants here – although I am not sure how much of that was true. That did bring some places that served more than your stereotypical Italian restaurants – but now I think it mainly was some more true regional variety. Oddly, the very extreme stuff today by Carlo Cracco is called the same name- so, really not sure. What we do know is that elsewhere things were changing – like in Germany – which is what brought us Michael Stadtlander– and also at The Corner House, chefs like Herbert Barnsteiner who came via Movenpick to Toronto. And in Spain, you cannot talk about any of the great chefs, Ruscalleda, Adria, Berasategui (who worked at Guerard’s), Arbelaitz- if you ignore Nouvelle. That will also be in my theme this week.
GFR: It has been said that Nouvelle Cuisine took many of its cues from Asian cuisine, most importantly that of Japan?
GS: Undoubtedly. Go to any serious fine restaurant the last 5-10 years, and I could say– “hmmm….Japanese influence, that….” and I don’t just mean raw fish.
GFR: A number of culinary academics have spoken of Nouvelle Cuisine being the gateway that allowed French Chefs to shed any regional restraints that they previously had, making for a more homogenized French cuisine across the nation (at the high end). In some ways I see this to be the downside of such a culinary revolution.
GS: I actually don’t agree with the premise – off the top of my head– otherwise I’d probably agree with you. If the restraints were those of alienating, full-of-yourself male cuisine that became the French if not the French-cuisine-abroad dictum- those restraints hurt regional cuisine. When it became focused and ideally the local was foregrounded – simply to do the freshest – then already, the virtues of the close at hand were becoming the principles of quality interantional cuisine at any price point.
GFR: I’d like to throw you a quote from “Dining in France” by Gault-Millau…
“Nouvelle cuisine advocated a few simple practices that seemed to correspond to changing tastes. People began to demand lighter food in keeping with their concern for health and fitness. “
So how exactly did Nouvelle Cuisine differ from Chef Michel Guérard’s spa-favoured Cuisine Minceur (“thin cooking”)?
GS: I’ve never eaten there. Don’t forget, I’ve always been a poor Canadian writer etc. etc.– but I must say, I do have a written invitation from there! Suitable for framing! Okay, Guerard was an exponent of – creator of Minceur- but it was always a part of, one of the routes possible in Nouvelle Cuisine. Minceur really did look carefully at calorie-count – but always shared Nouvelle cuisine’s vision of maximum pleasure, maximum flavour extraction of pure quality, additive-free ingredients etc. It’s a question of what ingredients you use- and use with the same creativity. Minceur is thus connected to much of the most innovative Spanish cuisine.
GFR: And how long did it take North Americans to catch on? When did it become fashionable in North America? I can certainly see how it would ally itself with the proverbial Californian lifestyle… well that spa-driven Cuisine Minceur would, that is for sure.
GS: I think we get into some of this later — I think it started to be prepared or in ‘name’ if not reality in the 70’s and certainly early ’80s – in Canada late 70’s 80’s. Overall – it had already become media-cuisine in many respects. I don’t think I really knew it, really understood it – until I went to Paris.
The U.S.? full of interest – there were many reports on the national news shows and the like — things happening across major cities in the U.S. and of course California. In Chicago like in the kitchens of Michael Foley where I once had a meal in the late 80’s. A book came out about Nouvelle Cuisine in America–in the 70’s too– I’ll talk about that this week.
GFR: If I were to thank Nouvelle Cuisine for one thing it would be that it had British Chefs reconsider the way they cooked vegetables. Rather than reduce them to a grey slurry through overcooking, those carrots and broccoli had a bit of a bite to them, a touch of texture… saying that, the Brits took it a little too far… there’s a difference betwixt al denté (what is that is French? – GS) and straight up undercooked.
GS: Canadians took it too far, too. But so did bad French restaurants – so wrote Messieurs G & M.
GFR: Can you recall your very first experience of Nouvelle Cuisine?
GS: It’s very hard — so long ago. It’s vague but I do remember having certain dishes– before I was getting paid to dine out – hmm perhaps at the Hazelton Cafe – simply cooked fish with fresh vegetable purée — in Toronto there was a lot of veg or fruit purees I think – and salads with raspberry vinaigrette — can’t remember when I went to Fenton’s. So, sure, places in the late-ish 70’s. The Courtyard Café also changed things – a fresher and more open approach, a place I went to wearing a leather jacket, jeans, carrying an army surplus rucksack and got treated same as the well-heeled…But for me personally, especially- the most impact were two of the best French chefs ever to cook in Canada – Patrick Alleguede – who now has his Ma Maison patisserie/fine prepared foods shop out by Royal York Rd.– who I met through a brother who was working with him – . He did things as slightly warmed oysters in lightly creamed pools of vegetable/seafood sauce – sort of Guerard/Troisgros influence I now see– and magret in the early 80’s- two decades before it caught on here – because he was from Southwest France at the time their regional Nouvelle emerged via Lucien Vanel, Andre Daguin and Palladin who later came to the U.S. and Alleguede’s close friend Dominique Toulousey.
Finally, in the early 80’s the amazing late Jean-Francois Casari – who brought fine minimalist aesthetics but pure flavours – and had a Japanese chef in his kitchen at the King Edward. But– truly- I got a steady diet of it in 1984 – in Paris – where I experienced and understood the breathtaking flavours of very rich yet liquid saucing with barely cooked fish. Light fragrant consommes with such delicate small ravioli, fine parsely – simplicity — that was Michel Rostang…
I will add too that either before or after my stay in Paris, while writing a dining column, Glossops- on Prince Arthur had a wonderful chef from Paris– who had worked in one of that city’s old traditional restaurants– he, Calude Pecqueur presented me with one of the signature dishes of Nouvelle– Bocuse’s contribution to a State Dinner for Valerie Giscard d’Estaing– I was blown away by it: Soupe aux truffes– a puff pastry dome that broken revealed the aromas of black truffles in a duck consomme, with tiny pieces of foie gras.
I will recall Allen Groom who cooked for — the Dunkelman’s who then of course opened Scaramouche. Of course it was Morden Yolles at Scaramouche who wanted to create a place for Nouvelle Cuisine — and yes, Claude Bouillet had come – and that amazing and still amazing front of the house legend, Georges Gournon- as you know, at Pastis. That hospitality style was also a part of the dictum of Nouvelle Cuisine.
GFR: And where did Chef Jamie Kennedy fit in to all of this?
GS: Yes, Jamie, Stadtlander — both had exposure to Nouvelle, as they came out of French rigorous technique – and Jamie told me this was the ownership’s vision… What you see now in the GTA, across the province – they were pioneers…
GFR: The harsher critics of Nouvelle Cuisine spoke of it allowing less that scrupulous Restaurateurs and Chefs to charge exorbitant prices for the tiniest of portions, something that became a common joke in my teen years actually… “A replacement for food, consisting of ‘modern art’ on a plate.” … Hmmm… yes, I blame all of that Jackson Pollock-esque sauce splashing firmly at the feet of Nouvelle Cuisine…
Whilst I believe there to be some truth in this and that many a shyster amassed a pretty penny through this practice, I’d love to hear your take?
GS: To be brief — this was a natural course of affairs — that all the founders knew would happen – that they feared as creators and visionaries know will happen — that has happened with the vanguard contemporary cuisine of today.
But this was hardly what the reality of Nouvelle Cuisine was, is- what set the direction of what is now contemporary cuisine – and ended up in good honest bistros in France. Media as always was a problem — especially here- where they were/are not interested in serious gastronomy but superficial stories– that then gave ideas and motivation to faux cooks and proprietors. One thing: about the portions– this was coming to a country and continent where we still continue to have a notion that a big hunk of meat that’s fork-tender is the great gastronomic meal. We are the continent of– now I love good barbecue on occasion – the grill as dominant – charred flavour then sweet or salty sauces to cloak natural flavours– I remember John Higgins commenting on this in my book – about the barbie chefs — the disappearance of real cooks — And Alleguede once saying that cooks were doing strong sauces because chickens used in kitchens had no real flavour.The best cooks would love to work the very best ingredients and do something that celebrates the ingredients and honours the producers–serve smaller portions of the best, but in general, that does not please the hotel management, the accountant. I’ve never had a lot of income – but I respect the honest cook who strives for the best quality in small sensible portion and brings rigorous invention that is also value.
GFR: The name that many first associate with the Nouvelle Cuisine movement would be that of Chef Paul Bocuse. Part of the “formula” of Nouvelle Cuisine was the embracing of new technologies, much like the Modernist Cuisine of the past decade or so. Bocuse was most enthusiastic about the use of the Microwave oven in his kitchen. I’d love to hear your thoughts upon that?
GS: A short comment. Yes, new tech, as I previously stated — and although he was the figurehead– he was also quite a traditionalist. He hated how kitchens were buying and cooking meats off the bone, say. But this was not about trend, but a movement by thinking chefs who sought to do the best food they could do, serve as many people they could without losing the integrity of ingredients. So new technologies were embraced- as they are now with things like Thermomix and pacojets etc….that are de rigeur in European kitchens and culinary schools…
GFR: The whole Locavore movement is perhaps not as recently gestated as some may think, with Chef Roland Mazere of “Le Centenaire” in the Dordogne being both an strident advocate of local produce and meats, as well as being one of the leading lights in the Nouvelle Cuisine world back in the 1960s. I’m thinking that Nouvelle Cuisine’s obsession with the very best ingredients led to the procurement of local ingredients that would not require days of transport before arriving upon your plate?
GS: Sure it did.
GFR: How do you feel that Nouvelle Cuisine has influenced today’s culinary landscape? Many of the components that the philosophy shunned (alcohol, flour, butter, cream and fat) now seem to be de rigour on so many menus, non?
GS: Much of what I’ve spoken about addresses the first question – diners at Jamie’s will get a full rundown on the tenets of Nouvelle – and it will be evident. As to those ingredients– As one says about life– in moderation. There are uses for the glories of all those things- and depending on the kind of establishment- all had their role — they were never abandoned altogether. A good silky light beurre blanc or beurre rouge was always part of Nouvelle. Mmmmm– I still love those
GFR: And so, this dinner at Jamie Kennedy Gilead… what’s the plan?
GS: Jamie will speak a bit– he’s then headed back to the kitchen with the brigade – so I guess with Ken Steele and team — to do a Tasting menu that will highlight his take and perspective of Nouvelle — perhaps a few dishes from his past — we’ll see. And of course this is part of his series of dinners featuring local producers– so it’s the epitome of his role in creating a Canadian and regional personal cuisine – and our Movement. I will then follow with a talk on the roots of Nouvelle– and this comes with I hope some sound bites of voices of the likes of Bocuse and Christian Millau as well as a very recent talk with Michel Troisgros….There are stories that perhaps no one in Canada has heard about Nouvelle…and put this into the context of contemporary cuisine – bridging cultures across the globe. Later, I will be available to answer questions and visit tables to informally chat– with diners.
GFR: Thank you so much Gerry. Your time is most appreciated.
GS: My pleasure Jamie…thanks.
Ontario-based culinary critic and author Gerry Shikatani has appeared in publications throughout North America and in Europe and been a contributor for CBC Radio. After covering dining in Toronto, Montreal and Paris, he has focused on Japan’s regional gastronomy and above all the foods and wines of Spain for which he was decorated with El Cruz Oficial de la Orden del Merito Civil, granted by King Juan Carlos. He is equally a poet, prose writer and performance artist.
His writing can be found at www.gerryshikatani.com
Edinburgh-born/Toronto-based Sommelier, consultant, writer, judge, and educator Jamie Drummond is the Director of Programs/Editor of Good Food Revolution… And he could learn a thing or two from Gerry Shikatani, that’s for sure.