FOR SOME time the term nouvelle cuisine has been waved about like a bullfighter's red cape. Very clever, very pretty, this French-style new cooking, but does it please people or outrage them? What is it anyway?
Just as those of us who still think of chocolate mousse as a light dessert were beginning to learn the rules, it turns out nouvelle cuisine is passe. Not the style of cooking, whatever that is, but the term itself.
"We've been doing the same thing for 25 years," says Chef Jean Troisgros in the most recent issue of Bon Appetit. "Now the headlines say 'nouvelle cuisine.' The people who come to my restaurant just want to eat; they don't care what it's called."
Henri Gault, the French food journalist who coined the term several years ago, now regrets the choice of language. "It would have been better to call it cuisine libre (free cooking)," he said during a recent visit to Washington. "We had a lot of trouble from the traditional cooks and by writing the "Ten Commandments of New Cuisine,' I set strictures.
"But the change was real: mixing together ingredients and flavors that had not been combined before, eating foods raw that used to be cooked, new techniques that gave as much importance to the degree of cooking of vegetables and fish as once was given only to beef, renewing traditional recipes by finding lighter ways to interpret them. All this is not a mode, a fashion, it's a new conception and the fact it has been picked up by all the first cooks of France is proof that it is a good idea."
One of those first cooks was in town this past week, Andre Daguin, chef and owner of the Hotel de France in Auch, ranked with two stars in the Michelin Guide, was in residence at the Four Seasons Hotel with a team of chefs. They were involved in an unusual experiment, preparing dinner for the public and invited guests each evening and sharing techniques and concepts with key members of the staff during the day.
"Nouvelle Cuisine?" he said. "Everybody speaks about it, but nobody knows what it is. Every century there are one or maybe even two revolutions in cooking. But this is the first time a food revolution has been covered by journalists, so this one is very famous. I would prefer 'free cuisine' if that means we can cook what we like the way we like it.
"A revolution is never quiet, so there is still much noise. But the fakes are going out of our movement. Those who are open to all the possibilities, who are flexible ('who dare,' as Gault put it) will stay on. The ideas will last, I think because there is more sharing now. Cooks are friends. We often work in teams."
Daguin is preaching a gospel that must make the cynical think of Rousseau the painter and his idyllic visions of the jungle: He wants a restaurant where there is concern from top to bottom, where the waiters and busboys taste the food each day and know the wines, where a cook will personally deliver his creation to the customer, where cooks will function as creators rather than "engines." At the Hotel de France, he has a "4-4-4" system, with four appetizers, four main courses and four desserts each day. At least two offerings in each category are decided on only after the day's shopping and food deliveries are done. He has been highly praised for preserving the regional spirit of Gascony through imaginative use of some of the region's most famous products, among them ducks, prunes and Armagnac brandy.
"It's the only way to keep a kitchen staff alive," he said. "I told the general managers of the Four Seasons hotels that I see hotel cooks dying because they don't really live. They are smothered by heaviness, by menus with 60 items on them. You must use local products. You must challenge them to use their imaginations. You must change the thinking of the waiters, the cooks and the customers.
"The Americans who come to us in Auch are curious. They taste, they compare. They do much cooking at home and they experiment. But it is more difficult for chefs here. They will find new customers with the new style cooking, but first they have to be willing to lose some of their old customers. People who want their steak well done and won't sample anything they don't know are stultifying. One complaint from the, one dish sent back because the meat is too pink and the cooks will overcook everything again."
Not that all the problems are in the dining room. Daguin acknowledges that making dishes to order rather than reheating partially cooked foods -- a standard practice of traditional French restaurant cooking -- takes "more cooks and more time from each cook." He agrees that mistakes are readily apparent in dishes of the new, or simplified, cooking and sometimes magnified by their experimental nature. "Often a dish doesn't come out the same way twice," he said.
Therefore customers who go to a restaurant looking for flaws are likely to find some. Somehow they have to be encouraged to be understanding, to be willing to support (and sometimes endure) the chef's experiments. It's not just a matter of adapting to unfamiliar recipes and presentations. Henri Gault had pointed out two other troublesome aspects: The high cost of much that is sold in the name of nouvelle cuisine and the fad of making small portions, thus making the food appear to be less than it is.) A caveat of my own: Too often the dishes of nouvelle cuisine are exciting visually but boring. The food must taste as good as it looks.
But Daguin's most dramatic challenge was to America's professional cooks:
"It's time for you to get rid of us [French chefs]," he said. "Forget the idea that the best thing to do is imitate the recipe of Troisgros or Bocuse in France. In France we talk and taste, and we may interpret, but we don't imitate any more. You should use the ingredients you have at hand here. There are not a lot of real cooks here yet, but it's coming and the interest is tremendous. I would like to be the first one to wake up your people. To say, 'You are ready!' to make your own cooking. Look at your own old recipes, not ours. Maybe even go back to the Indians.
"Study and experiment, but think about what you have experienced in Japanese or Mexican cookery and make it your own."