Gaston Lenôtre makes an interesting subject for a post in light of the discussions going on in the comment fields down in the They Ain’t What They Used to Be post. Allow me to explain.
The name Lenôtre is legendary in France, and in food industry circles around the globe. It stands for a man — an exacting and genial fellow who was both respected and loved — but also for a global empire of schools, pastry shops, restaurants and catering facilities. I think of him as the first truly modern master pâtissier, a man who not only had formidable culinary and leadership skills, but an instinctive grasp of the potential of modern techniques, technologies and brands. He embraced it all while still staying true to his quality and craft ideals.
Perhaps it was his teenage experiences peddling homemade chocolates by bicycle that gave Lenôtre a lifelong fascination with the concepts of finished food delivery and scalability of production. He built the first chain of bakery boutiques Paris had ever seen. He was the first Frenchman to put a bakery/café in a shopping mall, the first to create a national brand of frozen desserts and the first person ever to create an international chain of bakery franchises. For all that, he never abandoned his commitment to perfect quality and execution. In time he expanded into full-menu restaurants and catering. With the help of large-scale production facilities and — gasp — freezers, Lenôtre was able to deliver perfectly crafted meals to any size crowd virtually anywhere in the world. Need a seven-course French meal for 10,000 served hot in Indonesia? Lenôtre was your man. In 1998 he catered the World Cup in France, attended by an estimated 800,000 fans.
Certainly he could not have achieved what he did had he not been a first-class practitioner of the culinary arts. He is often credited with introducing “nouvelle cuisine” concepts to the craft of pastry. That’s not strictly true if your definition of nouvelle cuisine is small portions and hyper-artsy presentations. If however when someone says the words “nouvelle cuisine” you think of freshness, lightness, simplicity and creativity of presentation, then the label fits. His books are filled with recipes whose simplicity belies their sophistication and excellence. Grab them where you can since most are now out of print in English. They’re true treasures.
Still, to me Lenôtre’s achievements as a practitioner pale in comparison to what he accomplished in the realm of food production and operations. He showed the world is that modern tools, when used thoughtfully, can be wonderful things; that technology isn’t inherently evil; that newfangled machines can make better food available to more people; and, that just because something is big it isn’t necessarily bad. No wonder that when Lenôtre celebrated his 80th birthday in 2000 his students made him a 35-foot-tall cake. Lenôtre died in January of 2009. He will be remembered as one of the century’s most creative and consequential chefs.