Don't take it to heart if you don't know what a kiwi is: 99 percent of the French think it's a bird from New Zealand--it is--and 99 percent of Americans think it's a brand of shoe polish--it is. But the kiwi in question--enfant terrible of the nouvelle cuisine--is a fruit that hails from northern China: it's kelly green inside, brown and furry outside. Now kiwis aren't all that bad. In fact, they might be downright tasty if they hadn't come to symbolize the self-consciously exotic nature of much of what is being dished up today in the name of nouvelle cuisine.
Don't get me wrong. There's still much to be said for the culinary closet-cleaning now under way in France. But the trick these days is not where to find nouvelle cuisine, but how to tell the genuine article from the myriad malodorous mélanges being served in restaurants from Bordeaux to Bligny-sur-Ouche.
When a group of Lyonnaise chefs commonly referred to as la bande à Bocuse announced that they were launching a new style of French cooking a few years back, even cautious connoisseurs agreed that French cuisine could use a bit of shaking up. For decades it had staggered along, buried in béchamel, drowned in demiglace, sagging under the weight of Escoffier's elaborate directives. French chefs were judged on their ability to reproduce the classic repertoire, not on imagination.
The nouvelle cuisine, as the chefs called it, was to be the first real change in French cooking since Escoffier. Its tenets included lighter, flour-free sauces, shorter cooking times and combinations such as sweet and sour and fruit with meat, inspired by the Orient and heretofore heresy in France. The presentation--small bits of fish, meat, vegetables and fruit set in quasi-geometric arrangements on large plates--also revealed an Eastern influence.
It sounded easy. With vegetable purees suddenly in fashion, for example, all you had to do was plug in a processor to be king. Less was More, the press proclaimed, and with that, the Emperor's New Clothes Syndrome came to France. There was just one hitch. Like abstract art, la nouvelle cuisine required a chef to be the master of basic techniques before he could go his own way. (All would-be Picassos must first prove they can draw.) Or, as Raymond Oliver put it, "You must know how to make a béchamel even if you never use it."
The problem was that only 20 or so chefs in France had acquired the combination of skill, imagination and common sense that the grande aventure de la nouvelle cuisine required. And so, just as they had diligently duplicated the dishes of Escoffier, half the chefs in France now set about copying the nouvelle cuisine as fast as Ohrbach's copies Cardin. Culinary espionage took on James Bondian proportions. In a town 300 miles from Lyons, you'd find Bocuse's sea bass en croûte. Two hundred miles from Paris they were serving Jacques Manière's salade folle. On a trip from Bordeaux to Burgundy last year, I was served the same salade folle (al dente green beans, foie gras, truffles and an occasional crayfish tail) five nights in a row. Where were the great regional dishes of France?
The list of culinary clichés soon included poached fish with julienned vegetables, salmon with sorrel à la Troisgros, cold fish terrines, vegetable purees and whole garlic cloves (ail doux) served as a vegetable. Chicken wings were big. So was duck, on condition that it be served practically raw, as magret--a duck steak whose main claim to fame is that no one can tell it's duck--or as aiguillettes, curly slivers from under the wing. "Raw duck! Raw duck!" complained surfeited visitors to Paris, begging for addresses of restaurants where they could get a rack of lamb.
Then, in their 1977 Guide de la France, food critics Henri Gault and Christian Millau began handing out bright red chefs' hats or toques--toques are their equivalent of Michelin stars--to nouvelle cuisine restaurants, while those serving classic French dishes got run-of-the-mill black toques. Some Gault-Millau readers were for the new system; some were not. There hadn't been such brouhaha over the red and the black in Paris since Stendhal. Restaurants that had served traditional food of the southwest, Normandy or Lyons now switched to nouvelle cuisine in a last-ditch attempt to trade in tired black toques for shiny new red ones.
From salade folle to cuisine folle was a short step as ingredients became increasingly exotic and recherché. Suddenly there was a kiwi in every cocotte. Duck with kiwis. Lamb with kiwis. Candied kiwis. Kiwi sherbet. Chefs rushed to be the first on their block to sauté radishes or poach cucumbers. Parisians compared the stampede to the '30s, when cocktails were la mode. "Then you could put anything in a glass and people would drink it," says chef Jacques Manière or Dodin-Bouffant. "It was the same with the nouvelle cuisine."
It began to be helpful to know the right peasants: half the chefs in Paris were on a waiting list for a Basque shepherd who could find them a Pyrenees cheese no one else served. If kiwis were everywhere, it was ditto for mangoes, passion fruits, kumquats and limes. Any fruit was fine as long as it had arrived by jet. Peanut oil, traditionally responsible for France's best vinaigrettes, was soon replaced by walnut oil, hazelnut oil, even truffle oil. Nor would good old wine vinegar suffice. It had to be vinaigre de vin de Xérès, sherry vinegar. White pepper was banished, green peppercorns exalted. All of a sudden the peripatetic poivre vert was everywhere.
Chefs now cooked not to feed but to astonish. People tasted rather than ate as nouvelle cuisine became the latest Parisian parlor game. "Guess what we had for dinner last night?" fashionable Parisians queried. It got so you were afraid to ask. Would there soon be a return to the days of Carême, when thousands of larks' tongues were consumed at a sitting?
What would they dream up next? The debate raged on. The one thing no one was debating, however, was that Less was More MONEY. Prices in the nouvelle temples of antigastronomy were astronomical, and gradually, the question changed from "Guess what we ate?" to "Guess what we paid?"
The new pretentiousness was also evident in the names with which the chefs baptized their concoctions: salade folle became salade exquise, melon arrived under a "necklace" of Parma ham, fish was garnished with "filaments" of saffron. Plat de journee began to replace the humble plat du jour.
But there are no revolutions without excès--as Robespierre found out--and today it looks as if the nouvelle cuisine is at last coming into its own. Its incontestable contributions--shorter cooking times for fish, the rehabilitation of the vegetable, emphasis on color and design--are here to stay, while many of the most flagrant abuses are on the wane.
The best nouvelle cuisine chefs have already abandoned such culinary clichés as vegetable purees and cold fish terrines. Delectable reworkings such as silver-dollar-sized crêpes of corn or green beans have appeared, and commonly available fruits such as currants seem to be edging out the kiwi. These days I only see ail doux on occasion, about as often as last year's espadrilles.
And, in place of such once de rigueur luxury ingredients as crayfish, foie gras and truffles--among the reasons why the nouvelle cuisine costs so much--imaginative chefs are adapting the less expensive foods and lightening such delicious but leaden dishes as cassoulet. "You can make anyone happy with truffles and foie gras," says chef Jean-Pierre Morot-Gaudry, who has invented a nouvelle cuisine version of boeuf bourguignon using the once-scorned joue de boeuf, cow's cheek. Worried that the great regional dishes of France may die out, some chefs are considering putting a few of the specialties of their home towns back on their menus.
Paradoxically, the best nouvelle cuisine chefs today are circumspect about using such a label. They prefer cuisine nouvelle which, in French, implies adaptation and interpretation rather than the invention and creation that are suggested when the adjective comes first. They are careful to point out that this is not a revolution but an evolution. "To be honest," says Jacques Manière, "I've only created five or six dishes in my life. And four of them, I didn't like."