Nouvelle cuisine, a French chef once wrote, is easier to make, requires less equipment and offers more variety than traditional fare; it consists of drawing the essences from meats, extracting light and nourishing juices, and combining them in such a way that no one element dominates and everything can be tasted. We don't know the name of the French chef in question; he signed his masterwork, "Nouveau traité de la cuisine" ("New Treatise on Cuisine"), with the pseudonym Menon. That was in 1739.
The idea that classical French ¬cuisine—with its richly layered sauces, sculpted garnishes and sometimes architectural presentations—needed to be lightened and simplified is clearly not a new (or nouvelle) one. Nonetheless, when a modern-day version of nouvelle cuisine appeared in France in the mid-1970s, it was seen as revolutionary. Advocating reduced cooking times and the use of fresh seasonal ingredients, its advocates banished strong marinades and sauces thickened with the butter-flour mixture called roux. The movement reanimated tradition-bound French kitchens, then went on to lay the groundwork for every modern Western culinary idiom from the so-called New American Cuisine to (eventually) today's avant-garde creations of Ferran Adrià, Heston Blumenthal and Wylie Dufresne.
The Complete Bocuse
By Paul Bocuse
Flammarion, 783 pages, $49.95
The cradle of nouvelle cuisine was Fernand Point's La Pyramide in Vienne, just south of Lyon. The restaurant's fare wasn't particularly light or modern, but Point saw the future, and trained and inspired young chefs like Alain Chapel, Jean and Pierre Troisgros, and Paul Bocuse in a lighter, simpler style of cooking. When these men returned to their family restaurants, nouvelle cuisine blossomed. Chapel and the Troisgros brothers, along with such other contemporary-minded chefs as Michel Guérard, Roger Vergé and Raymond Oliver, became sacred names in the culinary firmament. The star of the movement, though, was always Paul Bocuse.
Mr. Bocuse is a physically imposing man, with a big round head and an aristocrat's carriage; he is only about 6 feet tall but is almost always photographed wearing a foot-high toque—the starched, pleated chef's hat that is a symbol of authority in the professional kitchen—that seems to elevate him heavenward. He has a commanding personality, a resonant voice and a famous ego. The food critics Henri Gault and Christian Millau are usually credited with coining the name and codifying the principles of nouvelle cuisine in their Gault/Millau magazine, beginning in 1973. But Mr. Bocuse has always claimed that the term was first used to describe a meal that he and some other chefs created for the maiden flight of the Concorde in 1969.
Mr. Bocuse was long known as what the French call a "phallocrat" (that wonderfully evocative term usually translated as "male chauvinist pig"). In 1975 he told the New York Times that "women lack the instinct for great cooking." Doubtless inspired by this philosophy, and by his penchant for practical jokes—as a young cook, he was known to crouch below a table in the kitchen and whitewash the heels of distinguished visitors—he once showed up to give an award to a female chef accompanied by a bevy of scantily clad showgirls.
Now 86, Mr. Bocuse seems to have become somewhat more enlightened in recent years. He has also long since ceased being "relevant" to the world of gastronomy. But he remains enormously respected—an icon not just in France but in high-level culinary circles world-wide. Last year, the Culinary Institute of America named him Chef of the Century.
All this is far more than you will learn about Mr. Bocuse from his "The Complete Bocuse," described by its publisher as "the unequivocal reference tome on the full spectrum of twentieth-century French cooking, interpreted and revised by master chef Paul Bocuse for the home cook." A tome it certainly is, offering some 500 recipes, many illustrated by bright if literal-minded photos by Jean-Charles Vaillant, spread over 782 pages. This is not a book that you would want to drop on your foot.
Neither is it a book you'd be likely to actually cook from very often, unless you're truly accomplished in the kitchen. You won't find any kitchen tricks or techniques from this larger-than-life chef. There is no foreword or introduction, and with rare exception the recipes don't even have explanatory headnotes. We're probably spoiled as American cookbook readers, used to having everything spelled out, expecting definitions and mail-order sources and step-by-step diagrams for unfamiliar techniques. But what is the "home cook," even a reasonably accomplished one, to make of the instruction, in Mr. Bocuse's recipe for Oriental-style small red mullets, to "remove the gills from the mullet but do not gut them"? In the recipe for hare in red wine, we are told to "ensure that the blood accumulated around the lungs and throat [of the hare] is collected . . . [and] that the bile pouch has been removed." As for that white chicken stock called for in two of the recipes (including the one for Joannès Nandron's truffled Bresse hen in a pouch, which also calls for "1 pork bladder, plus salt and vinegar for soaking"), the nearest thing to a recipe offered here is: "White stock is made with white meat and bones (or poultry) that are boiled with aromatic ingredients and then filtered." And how long does that baked cod stay in the oven? Paul Bocuse doesn't want to hold your hand.
This is not to say that "The Complete Bocuse" is of no use. If you're a reasonably experienced cook and have the time, ambition and disposable income needed to tackle most of these recipes, you will find much here to reward you. Dishes like Mr. Bocuse's hot freshwater trout mousse with crayfish coulis are the kind of silly, wonderful, old-style dish—full of eggs, cream and butter (adieu, nouvelle cuisine!)—that helped give French cooking its reputation for elegance and seductive richness in the first place. The famous Troisgros recipe for escalope of salmon with sorrel sauce is here, as is Fernand Point's fabled gratin of crayfish tails. I'd stay away from the risottos (cooked undisturbed in a covered saucepan instead of stirred constantly in the Italian manner) and the gazpacho (lacking the essential bread thickening)—but those aren't French dishes anyway.
If you want to learn how to make classic French onion soup or tournedos in red wine sauce or cherry clafoutis or almost anything else that's purely Gallic—nouvelle or traditional or anything in between—you'll find the formulas here. It will definitely help, though, if you have "the instinct for good cooking." Even if you're a woman.—Mr. Andrews is the editorial director of TheDailyMeal.com.