Millau, this is how Nouvelle Cuisine was born

The man who in 1973 revolutionised world cuisine with Henri Gault passed away on the 5th August. Ten incredibly current points

26-08-2017

A beautiful portrait of a very elegant Christian Millau, the culinary critic who founded the Gault&Millau guide, together with Henri Gault. They revolutionised the restaurant industry with the Nouvelle Cuisine manifesto published in 1973. While Gault died at 70 in July 2000, Millau passed away at 88, on the 5th of August 2017 in Paris

He kept his first name Christian with great affection, though his surname was a pen name. Indeed, the person everyone knew as Christian Millau had in fact a very different, and double, surname: Dubois-Millot. We owe him and Henri Gault (born Gaudichon) one of the most important guides ever, especially in the past, the Gault&Millau. But most of all we owe them the intuition, definition and explosion of the Nouvelle Cuisine in the Seventies. Whether one likes it or not, it changed the restaurant industry just like Ferran Adrià and the Spanish chefs did in between the two centuries, between the Nineties and the Zero years.

Millau passed away on the 5th of August, at 88, 18 years after Gault, who died at 70, in July 2000. In a bare press release, the guide’s publishers defined Millau as «an impertinent and independent author». For sure, he was intelligent and forward-looking. As legend goes, votes out of twenty, much more flexible than those out of ten, were invented almost by chance, by summing the votes each one gave out of ten. Then came the “hats” acting as a counterpart to the Michelin stars, the guide par excellence, which they always felt rigid and mostly dedicated to celebrating France the way it was, without leaving space or paying attention to new talents.

A shot from Christian Millau’s funeral on the 16th of August in Paris

A shot from Christian Millau’s funeral on the 16th of August in Paris

They started in 1961 when Millau, a political journalist at Le Monde, and Gault, who had studied medicine but was working as a crime reporter were respectively 31 and 30. The following year the first Guide to Paris they curated was out, «a small two-headed and two-stomached monster» in the words of Christian Bourgois, editor in chief at  Julliard, who first  believed and invested in them. Two years later, in 1965, they started their solo business, step by step until the debut in 1969.

In the  Gault&Millau website there’s an enlightening paragraph dedicated to their debut: «They first settled in an unassuming flat in Rue Montmartre, then in the back of a shop close to Place Maubert. The chaos was immense, visitors sat on boxes of Bordeaux wine. Indeed it was among those dirty glasses and that chaos that in March 1969 the Nouveau Guide was born. Poverty was a good thing because it had to apply to cooking too. There was too much butter, too much cream and even the best dishes ended up being worthless. Real talent must aim for simplicity. And this is the hardest part».

Henri Gault and Christian Millau in a photo taken in 1977 (Keystone archive)

Henri Gault and Christian Millau in a photo taken in 1977 (Keystone archive)

Butter… simplicity... few words enclosed the soul of the New Cuisine. The guide sold 100,000 copies in its first edition and become the voice of a movement that the two critics perfectly summed up in 1973 in a decalogue worth quoting because too many people mention Nouvelle Cuisine these days without understanding it:

1.    "Don’t cook too much."
2.    "Use fresh and high quality products."
3.    "Make the menu lighter."
4.    "Don’t be systematically modernist."
5.    "But do look for the contribution of new techniques."
6.    "Avoid marinading, hanging, fermenting, etc."
7.    "Cut out sauces and rich condiments."
8.    "Don’t ignore dietetics."
9.    "Don’t trick your dishes’ presentation."
10. "Be inventive."

An anthology of some types of cuisine by Gianluca Biscalchin

An anthology of some types of cuisine by Gianluca Biscalchin

I believe these points are still current, though the way in which we interpret and apply them does make the difference. There are parts that have been long established, and then there’s number four, suggesting one shouldn’t be «systematically modernist», which encloses the danger that soon mined what they had noticed and amplified. Too many imitations, too much lack of preparation, too many improvisers who were later rejected by more serious and well prepared chefs, starting from Paul Bocuse. As a movement, Nouvelle Cuisine had a short life. Great chefs abandoned it not to be mixed with the mass. However, it did win in essence. Just look at number eight: Don’t ignore dietetics. Written 44 years ago. Today we say the same, just like  Auguste Escoffier encouraged his colleague chefs not to be afraid of new techniques when introducing his Guide to Great Cuisine. Indeed, he encouraged them to use techniques so as to work and live better. This was in the Thirties.

In Italy, however, it’s still an insult. There’s nothing worse than saying of a chef that he’s «the one who does nuvel cusin». But this goes well beyond two important figures such as Gault and Millau.


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