We have lost a legend of world cuisine
Reflecting on the influence of Nouvelle Cuisine on Italian cooking - and on the dangers we face today.
The French chef Alain Senderens, who famously invented Nouvelle Cuisine in the 1970s, passed away this June in Corrèze, France, at the age of 77. During the Seventies, a handful of young chefs, including Paul Bocuse, Alain Chapel, the Troisgrois brothers, Michel Guerard and Alain Senderens, rebelled against an archaic cuisine based on sauces, long and arduous preparation methods, sauce bases prepared in advance, and heavy fats, and inaugurated a light cooking style with fresh and simple ingredients, advocating a ‘new cuisine’. They were ardently supported and encouraged in this by two French food critics and journalists, Henri Gault and Christian Millau (authors of an innovative restaurant guide later introduced to Italy by the newspaper L’Espresso), and in 1973 they even launched a manifesto for this ‘new cuisine’, a more modern, swift and seasonal style which would reinstate regional variety.
Though these concepts appear obvious today, at the time Nouvelle Cuisine was highly innovative and sensational: its cooks became famous, their names and fame independent of their recipes, in a culinary paradigm shift which continues to influence how we eat: the ‘farm to fork’ idea has its origins there. That new fashion, alongside many benefits, also brought several distortions including tiny portions, high prices, counterintuitive combinations and excessively elaborate plating. Senderens was among the first to combine contrasting flavours, such as sweet and salty: his signature dishes include vanilla lobster and roast duck in the manner of Apicius. He was also the first to pair each menu item with a wine. L’Archestrate, Senderens’ restaurant in Rue de Varenne in Paris, earned three Michelin stars in 1978, a recognition shared at the time with only three other Parisian restaurants (Tour d’Argent, Taillevent and Joël Robuchon). In 1985, the chef assumed command of the Lucas Carton restaurant in Place de la Madeleine, where he maintained the three-star rating until 2005. He caused quite a stir at the time when he asked to be removed from the Michelin guide, having decided to transform his restaurant into a luxury bistro. It was demoted to two stars! But his new dishes, prepared with soya sauce and oriental spices, were greatly appreciated; prices were drastically reduced and earnings rose significantly. This monument to the refined cooking of France and beyond, signalling a rupture with the haute cuisine of the early twentieth century, subsequently influenced legions of chefs including several in Italy, of whom the most famous was Gualtiero Marchesi. Other Italian chefs were very young apprentices of Sanderens, notably Carlo Cracco and Riccardo Monco, who is now the chef at the Enoteca Pinchiorri.
Cracco worked at the Lucas Carton in 1991, having already had experience with Marchesi; he remembers the relentless pace: “We’d arrive at work at 7:30 and leave at 1:30 in the morning. A hundred lunch customers, 120 for dinner. Always fully booked. Seventy people worked in the kitchen and the dining room, and three entire teams were dedicated to meats”. “[Senderens] was a true gentleman. He had an impressive, charismatic bearing and appreciated Gualtiero Marchesi, knowing that I’d worked with him: he asked me to make saffron risotto. It was not classically creamy in texture, but more like a timbale”.
It is with great pleasure that we have reminisced about this eminent chef who left an indelible mark on culinary history; but it has also been an opportunity to revisit a past which feels recent, but in fact is almost half a century old. This is a legacy which the Academy has always resisted forcefully, since the so-called Nouvelle Cuisine tainted our tables. Founded on correct and easily endorsed goals, it subsequently, often because of clumsy copycats, degenerated into an affected, vapid cuisine designed only for its effect on eyes and purse strings. We must be vigilant lest the damage wrought by our home-grown emulators in the Seventies and Eighties be perpetrated again by today’s rising stars. Absurd combinations, minuscule portions, inflated prices: a dangerous return to a regrettable past which we would rather not relive.