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France's celebrity chefs: out of the kitchen, into the limelight

By William EchiksonSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / December 23, 1985

Eug'enie-les-Bains, France

A decade ago, Michel Gu'erard helped invent ``nouvelle cuisine.'' Today, he sells Michel Gu'erard cookbooks. Michel Gu'erard vacations. Michel Gu'erard chocolates. Even Michel Gu'erard frozen food.

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France's great chefs no longer toil in the obscurity of dungeon-like kitchens. Like Mr. Gu'erard, they have become celebrities as well known as many movie stars. Like Gu'erard, too, they have turned their celebrity into big business.

In the process, some critics complain that gastronomy has suffered. But Gu'erard reflects the needs of a new France. In one short generation, a rural, backward country has urbanized, industrialized, and modernized.

``Before, only the elite could enjoy haute cuisine,'' explains Yves Bridault, editor in chief of the culinary magazine Gault and Millau. ``Now the masses want to taste -- and they can afford it.''

These trends can be spotted throughout the French food industry. While neighborhood ``patisserie'' and ``boucherie'' continue to exist, mass-made quality goods are becoming more popular.

Famous pastry chef Gaston Len^otre, for example, now bakes in a large factory on the outskirts of Paris, producing edibles for his 12 Paris outlets. And baker Lionel Poil^ane turned his father's small bakery into a computerized operation with 120 employees which exports Paris's best bread as far afield as Tokyo and New York.

``You can't let tradition imprison you,'' Poil^ane asserts. ``Modern techniques are necessary.''

Gu'erard, speaking in the luxurious lounge of his spa-hotel here in rural southwestern France, agrees. A small, compact man with a boyish face, Gu'erard wears jeans and a casual open-collar shirt to the interview instead of the expected chef's hat. While he speaks softly, his manner reveals an enthusiasm for his work.

When he started working, he says, the chef was a low-status employee, required to produce dishes as he was told -- and paid poorly. Only 20 years ago, he recalls, the director of Maxim's prize-winning kitchen earned a mere 2,000 francs a month (then about $250).

Like many famous chefs, Gu'erard, the son of a butcher, comes from a working-class family. He never attended college. Instead, he followed the age-old route into the profession, starting by peeling potatoes and washing strawberries in a small restaurant, and then embarking on a so-called ``Tour de France.'' For a decade, he served a series of one- and two-year internships at the best restaurants throughout the country.

After completing this grueling process, Gu'erard opened his own restaurant, a small bistro in a working-class Paris suburb. Watching his friend Paul Bocuse shoot to culinary stardom, though, Gu'erard says he became fired with ambition.

He embarked on a public relations campaign of his own. After appearing on several television shows, he convinced Laffont publishers to put out his recipe books, ``La Cuisine Gourmande'' and ``La Cuisine Minceur.'' Both sold well, going through several printings and being translated into about a dozen foreign languages.