Photo courtesy of Jeff Zalaznick
One rainy afternoon in early October, I sat at a long table in a private room at Restaurant Daniel in New York City, eating something I hadn't had for 30 years and never thought I'd have again. No, not Screaming Yellow Zonkers. Escalope de saumon à l'oseille, a dish invented by Jean and Pierre Troisgros at their famous restaurant in Roanne in the early 1970s—a thin square of wild salmon, barely seared, cloaked in a dense sorrel sauce that was mostly butter. I believe the technical term for it would have been: damn good.
This was course number four in a nine-course feast prepared by Daniel Boulud and his staff, pretty much just for the fun of it. Boulud and I had been reminiscing one day about French cooking in the 1970s, and specifically about the revolutionary culinary idiom called "la nouvelle cuisine". Nobody talks about nouvelle cuisine anymore, and certainly nobody cooks it—which, we agreed, was a shame, because there was much wonderful food produced under the rubric. "I would love to make some of these dishes again," said Boulud at one point, and the next thing I knew….
Nouvelle cuisine was misunderstood from the outset. It was never diet food—some people confused it with the cuisine minceur, or slimming cuisine, invented by one of nouvelle cuisine's founding fathers, Michel Guérard—and while it did away with old-style flour-thickened sauces, it positively luxuriated in butter and was no stranger to intense sauces. It wasn't based on weird combinations (despite the fact that some of its practioners served veal with kiwi fruit), and if its portions were sometimes satire-invokingly tiny, it was only because they were part of long, multi-course dégustation (tasting) menus—which, incidentally, nouvelle cuisine introduced.
The pioneers of the genre were chefs like the Troisgros brothers, Guérard, Alain Chapel, Jacques Manière, and Roger Vergé,with Paul Bocuse as a sort of elder statesman of the movement. The Gault/Millau magazine, which coined the term, once catalogued what it called nouvelle cuisine's basic principles. These included simplicity of preparation, reduced cooking times, the use of fresh seasonal ingredients, the adaptation of regional specialties into haute cuisine, and the employment of new kitchen tools and equipment. Sort of like the way a lot of chefs cook today, in other words.
But what was different about nouvelle cuisine was that, while it was simpler than classical French cuisine, it remained real cooking, not just the arranging of food on plates. It was a cuisine of elaboration; its practitioners constructed intricate taste experiences by layering flavors on top of one another. When Boulud, at our lunch, served his version of Bocuse's "soupe V.G.E."—black truffle soup under a pastry dome, created in 1965 for a state banquet given by then-president of France Valéry Giscard d'Estaing—he based it on strong game stock and included quenelles of foie gras as well as bits of truffle. The result was so lush and complex that I found myself stopping after every bite to let the flavors linger on my palate, at least partly so that I could figure them out. The creamy foie gras enrobed in black-pepper gelée that began the meal was just plain elegant; the tourte of veal cheek, tongue, and sweetbreads with cèpes seemed to offer a dozen-and-a-half flavors and textures, but they all somehow blended into one remarkable whole.
Nouvelle cuisine didn't glorify raw materials; it sought to enoble them, to discover what they could become. This wasn't farm-to-table cooking, and lord knows it wasn't heart-healthy. It wasn't food you could cook at home (but why would you try?). It was just really good food, food that gave us a lot to enjoy, a lot to think about. I doubt that dishes like those Boulud prepared are going to start showing up on menus again, here or in France; diners' tastes have moved away from this kind of food, and few young chefs—even good, well-trained ones—could reproduce it anyway. That sure was a hell of a lunch, though.