The characterization of Nouvelle cuisine as light is misleading. If you think of Bocuse, Robuchon, Senderens, Guérard, even Loiseau, Winkler, or Passard. All rely heavily on butter and sometimes cream. One hardly leaves these places feeling light, eventhough there are degrees.
The main reason for butter is, that nothing replaces it to capture the flavors. Thanks to butter you can make mono-taste sauces that emphasize the complexity and richness of one ingredients: for instance a thyme or a tarragon butter sauce, served on the side of a fish cooked à l’unilatérale are very typical nouvelle cuisine dishes, still served by Winkler. Today, Passard’s Gratin d’oignon is an example of that mono-ingredient approach, which relies on butter to capture the flavours during the slow cooking and aims at demonstrating that a simple onion can be a grande cuisine dish, and not only some aromatic sidekick in a stock.
|Winkler's seabass, cooked in salt,|
with a tarragon and mustard sauce, parsley purée, potatoes
Technologies for capturing clear, pure tastes have been refined from the traditional to butter to more surprising infusions, mousses, etc. You could consider that the latest in pure nouvelle cuisine was reached in the early 90s, with Loiseau, Robuchon and Veyrat. And water.
The other day, Pti made a traditional nettle soup – I had no idea that it would have potatoes and leeks in there and cook for fourty minutes. To me, educated by Loiseau, a nettle soup was only water, salt and nettles, the nettles cooked à l’anglaise for a few minutes, stopped in ice, then blended with the water they cooked in. Same deal with the parsley sauce, for instance.
|Loiseau's Jerusalemen artichoke soup|
De Loiseau, 26 oct 2007
More than lightness, Nouvelle Cuisine can be characterized by a focus on ingredients and the clarity of their taste. By comparison, traditional cuisine, the Escoffier style, is more about transformation of ingredients, the magic of the act of cooking. Turning stuff that grows in or on the soil into delicious food. It's not that they did not use the best ingredients they have. Cooks always knew that you can't make good food without good ingredients. But in the traditional cuisine, cooking was about the transformation, the recipe, and how to create a taste. Stews, quenelles, are examples of long transformative processes creating pleasant and arguably artificial feelings in mouth. In nouvelle cuisine, it is about emphasising a taste more than about creating one. There is both a more natural and a more artistic approach in a way.
You can taste the pre-nouvelle cuisine approach in places like Michel Rostang or l’Auberge Bressane. A pasta or potato gratin are good example, or crêpes Suzettes. Another comparison I like to use is that the difference between Nouvelle and Ancienne Cuisine is reflected in the difference between Chinese and Vietnamese cuisine. Basically (no offence), in a Vietnamese Bo-Bun you can identify every ingredient clearly. In a Chinese Imperial style chicken, there is fusion of ingredients, and while it is delicious, it is actually hard to tell what exactly it is that you are eating.
|Not nouvelle. Not bad, but not nouvelle.|
There’s the same difference between nouvelle and ancienne cuisine. A classic of nouvelle cuisine, emphasized to the point of caricature, if you ask me, in Michel Bras’ Gargouillou, is the separate cooking of different vegetables. A Senderens approach to Ratatouille, a Loiseau ragout de legumes, as opposed to their traditional counterpart, all rely on separate cooking and last minute assembly.
|Passard's couscous de légumes|
Of course there has been evolution and progress inside nouvelle cuisine. The first stage was, say, Bocuse, maybe Point, and their food does not taste that distinct to our palates anymore. But if you compare Bocuse to Rostang or to your (OK, my) grandmother’s cooking, you will feel the clarity of taste, the lightening of traditional recipes not in a dietetic but in an aesthetic sense. One dish which I think is a good example of the revolution the Nouvelle Cuisine was is that salade de rougets I had the other day at Gérard Besson. Suddenly, the plate is full of colors and distinct taste, while still being, formally, the traditional salad – a salad in which everything is mixed and soaked and hardly recognizable. As far as the plating is concerned, in Nouvelle Cuisine, it is a logical consequence of the search for control of the gustative experience and the separation and purity of flavors.
|Besson's salade de rougets De Gérard Besson|
By the way, what is the difference between Nouvelle Cuisine and California cuisine? I would argue, none, essentially. Except that they rely, like all good cuisines, on local and therefore different ingredients and traditions. Traditions reinterpreted, even reinvented: from Bocuse’s chicken to Loiseau’s frogs, Nouvelle Cuisine has been exactly that.
In the Robuchon school, there even some sort of conciliation between traditional and nouvelle cuisine: some ingredients are magnified with clear tastes, but melty, fusionned, regressive tastes are also present like in his pumpkin soup or his potato purée. This Robuchon synthesis is very apparent in the contrast of his two signature dishes: the aromatic herb salad and the potato purée. Both were served on the side of a perfect roast lamb, by the way.
|So much work for this purée|
De Table de JR, 14 mai 08
When opposing Nouvelle Cuisine to the restaurants that emerged in the 90s, many of them techno-molecular-something, I think that the operating word is cuisine. In French, it is what people do at home as well as the name of the room. It is how the people prepare food. Traditional and nouvelle cuisine are both cuisines – essentially, cooks do the same things we do at home and they do the same things we do. Only they’re professionals. And indeed, while places like Rostang or l’Auberge Bressane, or even Bocuse or Besson, use very similar techniques to what we use at home, the “advanced” nouvelle cuisine is extrelly work-intensive. Robuchon’s purée require hard work for sure, so does Bocuse’s gazpacho or pea soup made from small vegetables pealed one by one. Veyrat invented fat free fries but they take 40 minutes to do instead of 10. And I mentioned earlier using ten different pots to prepare a vegetable stew. You have to have staff and a professional kitchen.
By opposition, what you eat at Adria’s, Blumenthal’s, Amador’s, even at l’Astrance, is not cuisine in the sense that it has not much to do with feeding you, it is not an extension or a modification of how you would cook at home. It just has nothing to do with it. What emerged since Nouvelle Cuisine arguably peaked is not better food but a shift or return of emphasis on other dimensions of the fine dining experience than having the best possible food. Novelty and surprise are major factors, as is the show dimension. Adria offers, it seems, an unparalleled stimulation of the mind and a unique reconsideration of the nature of the culinary experience. Amador is both playful and generous.
|Vinaigrette „en cocoon“ |
Inside the cloud is a ball of balsamic, while you inject the olive oil
in your mouth thank to the device on the right
De Amador (May 8th, 2008)
Come to think of it, what else could young chefs do to differentiate themselves? The champions of nouvelle cuisine had created a new orthodoxy and of course set their own bar for excellence. How would you make better, more intense and pure food than Robuchon or Pacaud or Senderens when they’re on? You can’t. They’ve just perfected their art the same way an Escoffier probably had before them. You just can’t beat them to their own game. But you can get tired of their game. Some people do.