On the Nouvelle and the Ancienne

A couple of readers wrote in yesterday to say, in effect, I thought “nouvelle cuisine” was all about tiny portions and raw vegetables…where do they come in? I’m no expert on this subject, however I do know that the stereotypes of nouvelle cuisine are mostly incorrect. Today, almost all the food we eat in finer restaurants would be considered “nouvelle” relative to what people were eating 100 years ago. Then, even the very best establishments served a bill of fare that would be considered impossibly heavy today. Look at some period menus from classic Gilded Age eateries like Delmonico’s in Manhattan and you’ll find lots of long-cooked stews and roasts, steaks and vegetables swimming in rich sauces, and signature dishes like Eggs Benedict (eggs, hollandaise, bacon) and Lobster Newburg (Lobster, eggs, butter, cream, sherry and cognac). People don’t eat like that very much now, except on trips to New Orleans, so most of us today don’t have a real basis of comparison.

The fact is that while nouvelle cuisine was “proclaimed” as a movement in the very early seventies by French food writers/critics Henri Gault and Christian Millau, dining trends, especially in major cities, had been moving in that general direction for decades by then. Fernand Point’s ideas about freshness and presenting food in a more natural state were taking hold across the Western world. Gone were the heaping servings of beef bourguignon sitting atop small mountains of buttered noodles. In their place were smaller portions of lighter meats that had been steamed, grilled or quickly sautéed to preserve more of their natural flavor and texture. Instead of all-butter sauces, light broths made from the meat’s natural juices became popular. The same rule was applied to vegetables, many of which were cooked to near mush under haute cuisine. The fact that some chefs in the 70’s and 80’s took a good idea too far has led to the myth that all nouvelle vegetables are served virtually raw. Not true.

I think today most cooks would argue that the essence of nouvelle cuisine is really simplicity, not the stereotypical mostly-empty plate festooned with tiny heaps of sculpted raw vegetables. Not that you never see those, mind you, but I think most of the chefs I know would argue that they represent a sort of contemporary perversion of a down-to-Earth idea that’s been with since Point’s day. But I’ll let people who really know what they’re talking about comment on this if they want. Any of you professionals out there care to weigh in?

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