Who was Fernand Point?

Few of us in America have ever heard of the man, however all of us are the beneficiaries of his thinking about food. How so? First we need to flash back about 200 years…

If you consider that French high cuisine was once a very, very involved affair — sauces served at the grand tables of the nobility could contain dozens of ingredients and might take days to prepare — for the last 200 years or so it’s been on an overall trajectory of simplification. That process began in the Napoleonic Era with Antonin Carême and was continued by Auguste Escoffier around the turn of the last century. But while Escoffier’s cooking might have been “simple” by the standards of court chefs to Louis the 14th, most of us today would still consider it bewilderingly complex. That’s where Fernand Point came in. Instead of thick and syrupy eternally-reduced sauces, Point’s were freshly made, light and flowing. Instead of long-cooked meats and vegetables, Point served his prepared just to the point of doneness. Instead of making his components days in advance, Point made them fresh each day, a practice that was unheard of at the time. Indeed it was Point’s concept of freshness, not just fresh sauces but the freshest possible vegetables, meats and fish, that was at the heart of his style.

It was something he taught to the young chefs he trained. Who were they? Oh just a buncha nobodies. Alain Chapel. Paul Bocuse. People like that. In other words, the generation of chefs that are now credited with the invention of nouvelle cuisine. So then did Point invent nouvelle cuisine? Not really. He was more like a middleman between the old and the new, though it’s safe to say that he’s the one who had the “big idea” that bridged the two. That’s probably why Point is so revered by people like Thomas Keller, one of America’s most highly regarded chefs, and by no coincidence whatsoever, one of its best-known crusaders for fresh, local ingredients.

Why do I personally love Fernand Point? Clearly, because of his most famous maxim: “Butter, give me butter, always butter!” Sure, that way of looking at the world is a large part of what got him his famous 66-inch waist. But a little little less obsessiveness about grams of fat and a little more love of great butter would, I believe, create a more joyous world.

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