French Legend Pushes Haute Cuisine To Healthy Heights

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in: Chefs

Michel Guérard in the kitchen of his cooking school. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Before the advent of TV’s “MasterChef,” master chef Michel Guérard was already on the gastronomic front lines. He was one of the key activators of the nouvelle cuisine movement in France in the 1970s, which refreshed France’s culture of heavy, rich dishes, and has been pushing for light, healthy, seasonal food ever since.

Today, he continues that commitment in the cooking school he’s recently opened on his estate.

Teaching chefs to cook for health

Les Prés d'Eugénie, the hotel and restaurant. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Les Prés d’Eugénie, the hotel and restaurant. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Once a pioneer, always a pioneer. At an age (over 80) when most of his contemporaries have long since hung up their chef’s whites, Guérard is still cooking. His recently opened Ecole de Cuisine de Santé  (School of Healthy Cooking) is so innovative that it puts him once again at the avant-garde of world food. This long-dreamed-of project is located in the spectacular setting of Eugénie-les-Bains, a thermal spa near Biarritz, in southwestern France near the border with Spain.

At Les Prés d’Eugénie, Guérard also runs several hotels, restaurants and a treatment center.

Food as a cure for what ails us

The culinary school from outside. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

The culinary school from outside. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Guérard has always believed that we truly are what we eat, and that food — fresh, light food — can cure us from many of the illnesses that beset the modern world.

The cooking school is aimed at professional chefs and at people preparing food in schools, hospitals, homes for the elderly and for others with special dietary requirements. It brings together current knowledge on key medical problems – such as diabetes, obesity and heart disease — and proposes eating plans for each. The teaching focuses on cuisine that is both healthy — with reduced calories, fats and sugar — and pleasurable, in what Guérard calls cuisine minceur.

“You must never compromise on flavor,” says Guérard. Situated in a luminous, state-of-the-art kitchen overlooking the gardens of Les Prés d’Eugénie, l’Ecole de Cuisine de Santé offers professional courses for groups of up to 10 cooks for one or two weeks.

Beyond a diet of grated carrots

Spiced crab on grapefruit jelly with citrus mousse. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Spiced crab on grapefruit jelly with citrus mousse. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

“When I started observing what the patients who came for the thermal cures were eating, I too was depressed by the heaps of grated carrots that were placed before them, topped at the last moment with improvised dressings,” Guérard says.

“I saw an opening for a new kind of healthy cuisine that could inspire people with special needs in their diets to look forward to eating, and to make profound changes in their eating habits that would remain with them for life.”

In his spiced crab on grapefruit jelly with citrus mousse, Guérard demonstrates some of his core principles: that seafood and meats can be cooked without fats, butters or creams to produce vibrant dishes. Even dishes on the three-star Michelin Grand Table menu are cooked with natural flair and a light touch. For example, fresh herbs and citrus notes add zest and flavor to shellfish without leaving the diner feeling heavy.

Slimming cuisine based on research

Pigeon is cooked with shrimp, bay leaf and tangerine. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Pigeon is cooked with shrimp, bay leaf and tangerine. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Cuisine minceur is not achieved by simply reducing fats, sugars and calories. It is based on experience and nutritional research. After Guérard published his first book on the subject in the mid-1970s, “La Grande Cuisine Minceur,” he was approached by the Nestlé group to help them develop a line of frozen foods that would reflect the healthy approach of his new cuisine.

“I was fortunate to continue this consultancy for 27 years, and thus to have access to the latest scientific research into diet, nutrition, physical exercise, thermal treatments and every aspect of this discipline,” he says. “And throughout, I never lost my conviction that pleasure must always play an important part in eating, no matter what the calorie count!”

You can eat dessert on a diet

A strawberry dessert. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

A strawberry dessert. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

The desserts at the restaurant and in the cuisine minceur cookbooks ­have also been overhauled. (No surprise there, for Guérard is a master pastry chef who won the Meilleur Ouvrier de France, which honors the creative trade professions, for pâtisserie in 1958). Each dessert recipe comes with a calorie count that varies depending on which sweetener has been used, be it sugar, honey, fructose, xylitol or aspartame. Most three-course meal combinations total less than 600 calories, so they are well suited to those who are cooking for the popular 5:2 diet (in which people are limited to 500-600 calories for two days out of seven). For those who want to learn more about Guérard’s cuisine, his seminal cookbook has recently been translated into English. “Eat Well and Stay Slim: The Essential Cuisine Minceur” offers full instructions for dozens of his delicious dishes.

A dynamic and lasting legacy

The restaurant dining room. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

The restaurant dining room. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Guérard has never abandoned his commitment to lighter, healthier food, as the new cooking school attests. Today, his philosophy is bearing fruit as the word about cuisine minceur and its methods spreads within the food community in France and beyond. It’s a fitting legacy for such a dynamic grand master, whose revolutions in the kitchen continue to impact on our eating habits, every day.

Main photo: Chef Michel Guérard. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo


Zester Daily contributor Carla Capalbo is an award-winning food, wine and travel writer who has been based in Italy for more than 20 years. Her book "Collio: Fine Wines and Foods From Italy's Northeast" recently won the André Simon prize for best wine book, and her website is carlacapalbo.com.

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