July 1, 1998 | Vintage Insatiable

Michel Guérard Revisited

        With his fin-de-mille introduction of nutritionally correct La Cuisine Minceur Active, the inventor of calorie-canceling cuisine minceur reforms the concept that put him on the global map in 1974. Simultaneously, he dazzles sybarites with fat-be-damned three-star creations. Gael Greene, the celebrated New York restaurant critic and chronicler of modern French cuisine, sampled his latest culinary efforts in Eugénie-les-Bains and came back praising his cooking as better than ever.

       It may be “The First Slimming Village of France,” as a sign warns at the entrance to the somnolent hamlet of Eugénie-les-Bains in the Southwest of France. But all around us in Michel Guérard’s sunny dining room at Les Prés d’Eugénie, folks are tucking into the Michelin three-star chef’s carte gourmande, devouring la tourte rustique of duck and quail riddled with foie gras. Spearing asparagus, mousserons, and morels from a shallow bowl of cream, then spooning up the last droplets of sauce.

       Yes, Guérard is best known for his cuisine minceur, and grande bouffe-ists from around the globe still arrive hoping for slimming miracles. But let’s be realistic. Now that we’ve made the pilgrimage across the ocean, we’re not about to settle for a slice of cod a la planche, sauce simple, washed down with herb tea.

       His confreres and those of us who in our adolescence had regularly laid our livers on the line 25 years ago for a table at his Pot-au-Feu in a working class ‘burb of Paris were shocked when Guérard shut down the place and moved to Eugénie-les-Bains, a small town in Landes, uncharted territory – a far detour indeed. He’d fallen for Christine Barthélémy, a daughter of a thermal spa dynasty, and set up housekeeping on her turf. “I’ve lost five kilos already,” he had crowed, as he hired a canny publicist to flack his revolutionary cuisine minceur. France snickered. But Americans, torn between the delicious excess of Julia Child and the latest fad diet, embraced his butter and cream-free sanity. Here, his fish braised in seaweed, raw tomato sauce vierge, onion marmalade, broths thickened with vegetable puree, and paper-thin “tart apple tart” inspired endless imitations and delicious experimentation everywhere. 

      I stopped in for “the cure” soon after the newlyweds opened Les Prés et Les Sources d’Eugénie in 1974. Christine was hooked on Victoriana then – she dressed herself in vintage white organdy, and the small auberge in fringed lampshades, tiger-striped velour, Indian paisleys, and turn-of-the-century bric-a-brac. She and Michel had slept in each bedroom to be sure no necessity had been forgotten, they confided. I drank the ugly water, got sprayed and massaged in the spa next door, marveled at Michel’s defatted soufflés and mousses, lost five kilos, and flew home to spread the gospel. All across America, his cookbook, Michel Guérard’s La Cuisine Minceur (William Morrow, NY, 1976), sold like… rice cakes.

       But Eugénie-les-Bains is really remote, a tiny blip on the gourmand radar, and in recent years, as I concentrated on chronicling the soaring glories of New York eating, no longer requiring twice-a-year revelries in France, I lost touch. Then last summer, friends who still take their stomachs to the truffle fields with each changing season raved about their latest sojourn at Eugénie: “His cooking is better than ever.”

       And richer than in the earlier nouvelle flush, I thought, as we settled into the more elegant, distinctly grown-up dining room tended by relays of servers – men in black tie, young women in flowing faux vintage frocks. Raw langoustine, dabbed with mellowed vinegar, “almost like seviche” a la ravigote (as the menu promised) – with vegetables in the shape of peas alongside a crayfish tempura and skinny herb “spring rolls” – could not have been more contemporary in its daring fusion. But the salade de pommes de terre au caviar – thin slices of aristocratic potato smothered in cool sabayon and crowned with a small fortune in beluga – had a wicked retro bravura. I felt like I was eating butterfat soup in the creamy bathtub of his oreiller mouelleux de morilles et mousserons aux asperges. At that point, by mate’s veal shank with vegetables more perfect than Gwyneth was easier to sample than my own old-fashioned foie gras-girdled bird tourte with its almost too intensely reduced glaze and a few scattered dried cherries and favas (as if to prove the pastry hadn’t been parked in the freezer since Escoffier). “Have you retreated to ancien excesses?” I asked, citing the lush sabayon.

      “Oh, it’s mostly a concentration of potato water and asparagus juice,” he insisted.

       The next morning, after a bracing jolt of coffee in a local café, we toured the compound to see Guérard’s bustling empire. Exquisite let-them-eat-cake luxury country suites have been installed in a former convent, Le Couvent des Herbes, next to the rosebush-encircled herb garden. A few hundred meters from the original inn, Maison Rose, a less posh but equally stylish discount guesthouse, welcomes budgeters. Its neighboring auberge, La Ferme aux Grives, is a stunning stage set for his simpler country cooking, where the lunch and supper prix fixe is just FF170 (about $35), compared with the $100 or so you might spend a la carte before wine on the three-star menu.

       And there in a grassy field stood a Landaise farmhouse complete with rickety little birdhouses hanging from the roof – just cobbled together from salvaged beams and boards, rotting window frames, and ancient hardware collected by Christine Guérard in her usual obsessed-collector mode. It was the new private spa filled with antique sleigh beds and trompe l’oeil paintings, electrically heated marble treatment tables, and tiled mini-pools. In its own tiny kitchen, one of a team of fervent pamperers would brew herb teas and whip up herb sorbets for the cosseted clients, no longer forced to share facilities at the communal quarters next door. Guests can work out in the brand-new gym on the stationary bike, the step machine, or a rowing device with the sound of waves splashing.

       But the news that Guérard was bursting to reveal was that he had reformed his minceur theories. He’d been communing with the dieticians in the Nestlé labs, plumbed all the hot-off-the-griddle diet research and invented La Cuisine Minceur Active®. (I could hear the capital letters in his voice.) For this regimen, designed to protect the arteries as well as the waistline, he would serve no more red meat, only fish – just a little fish – with the emphasis on vegetables, fruits, grains, and legumes. The spa’s mythic waters would replace normal H2O in blanching and braising. He might even grind up a few bones to add calcium. He couldn’t have been more excited if he’d just found a way to cultivate truffles.

       So at lunch, as most everyone wallows in foie gras confit dans sa graisse (cooked in its fat) with fig marmalade and turbot au lard or suckling pig en cocotte, we join Michel and Christine to sample a few diététique creations. Surely the starter – a jewel-like poached egg on tartare de tomate ringed with parsley/cilantro coulis – must be a holdover from la cuisine minceur not-so-active, I suggest, pointing out that American fat-phobes almost never eat eggs unless they are hidden in bread, mayonnaise, or dessert.

      The chef’s eyebrows fly up to his hairline. “But of course. We eliminate the egg,” he agrees, ever eager to please.

      But we are already won over by his gossamer ventre de thon (tuna belly) with its intense chicken stock reduction with a tart vinegar kick. Impeccably cooked, tender and rare, it’s served in slices on a rise of vegetables, each a paragon of just-picked perfection, smokily fragrant from the grill. “You could put this on the gourmand menu and who would know?” I cry.

       Christine purrs something into her husband’s ear. He makes a clown face and extends his hand. She kisses it. “You are married to a genius,” he announces, fluttering his eyelashes so she will know (or certainly think) he exaggerates.

       That night we share supper in the dramatic, almost Disney-like recreation of a farmhouse that is La Ferme aux Grives – white-cheese croutons, splendid vegetable tart, and roasted lamb shoulder with creamy baked noodles. A gift arrives from Guérard’s kitchen, and it’s delicious: the new minceur risotto, laced with more perfect vegetables and something that is crunchy. Nuts is my guess. An irresistible fillip of gratuitous fat. No, says Guérard. No nuts at all. Just a few toasted kernels of rice. That leaves the last triumphant “aha” to the chef.

Les Prés d’Eugénie, 40320, Eugénie-les-Bains, France; (011) 33.5.58-05-06-07, fax (011) 33.5.58-51-10-10

Food Arts July/August 1998

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