Pierre Troisgros, a towering figure in the history of 20th century French cooking and the godfather of the nouvelle cuisine movement, passed away last week at 92. He was the last of a generation of chefs who transformed French cuisine in the modern era, including his brother Jean and his great friend Paul Bocuse.
The Troisgros saga began in 1930 when Jean-Baptiste and his wife Marie, parents of Pierre and Jean, took over the Hotel Moderne in the town of Roanne in France’s Loire Valley. After completing their apprenticeships, the two brothers came home to work in the restaurant in 1953. The won their first Michelin star two years later, and the second in 1965; in 1968 they received the ultimate accolade of a third star, which the restaurant has held ever since.
The hallmark of nouvelle cuisine was a rejection of the heavy, butter and cream-laden dishes of classic French cooking in favor of a lighter and fresher style. While culinary historians will endlessly debate the origins of the movement, many of them attribute the beginning to a single dish from the Troisgros brothers: their salmon in sorrel sauce. With characteristic modesty, Pierre maintained that it was the invention of the Teflon-coated pan that made the dish possible.
Teflon aside, nouvelle cuisine was revolutionary in the sense that it allowed chefs to take the dietary needs of their guests into account. The basic tenets were simple: shortening the cooking time for meat and fish to preserve the flavors of the ingredients; replacing heavy sauces with natural reductions based on fresh herbs and white wine; abandoning the use of marinades; shorter menus, new and unusual combinations of ingredients, and a reliance on regional dishes.
Prior to nouvelle cuisine, just about every aspect of French cooking had been codified in the 19th century by Escoffier. Considering their classical training at some of the country’s greatest restaurants, the Troisgros brothers were unlikely pioneers, and their isolated location in the provinces made their chances of success even slimmer. Today, many of the concepts of nouvelle cuisine have been assimilated into restaurant kitchens around the world, and the legacy of Jean and Pierre is either forgotten or widely misunderstood. It’s fitting that they achieved stardom during the 1960s, since their basic outlook mirrored the mindset of the decade: “Question authority.”
Mark Spivak specializes in wine, spirits, food, restaurants and culinary travel. He is the author of several books on distilled spirits and the cocktail culture. His first two novels, Friend of the Devil and The American Crusade, are available on Amazon; his third novel, Impeachment, will be released on October 15.