Who was Gaston Lenôtre?

In France and in most food industry circles, the name Lenôtre is legendary. 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 Japan? Lenôtre was your man. In 1998 he catered the World Cup in France, attended by an estimated 800,000 fans.

Of course none of this could have been achieved (at least, not in a country like France) had he not been a first-class practitioner of the pastry arts. At the level of craft he is often credited with introducing “nouvelle cuisine” concepts to pastry. That’s not strictly true if you buy in to the idea that “nouvelle” is all about small portions and hyper-artsy presentations. If you adhere to the idea that nouvelle cuisine means freshness, lightness, simplicity and creativity of presentation, then the label fits. His books are filled with recipes whose simplicity belies their sophistication and excellence. They are true treasures.

From my own vantage point, I think that one of the key things that Lenôtre 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.

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