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

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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``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.

``Gu'erard was the first great chef to put out a book,'' says Claude Lebey, director of Laffont's culinary collection.

Gu'erard then set out to change the style of French cooking. He had grown up on the tasty, heavy cooking of the peasant. The modern world required a lighter, more artistic touch, he felt. It should be a feast for the eyes as well as for the stomach. Voil`a ``nouvelle cuisine!''

In recent years, Gu'erard has pushed this approach further, haute cuisine for dieters. Gourmet-minded slimmers of all nationalities flock to Gu'erard's elegant spa here in Eug'enie-les-Bains where they find exquisite four-course meals, each containing less than 500 calories.

As economical as this formula is to the waistline, it bulges with profits. Gu'erard says he has helped make spas fashionable once again. His firm, ``Les Cha^ines Thermales de Soleil,'' accounts for 20 percent of the French spa business in its nine resorts, and he says it is considering expanding throughout Europe and even across the Atlantic.

Does such diversification interfere with dining pleasure? Critics complain that the great chefs spend too much time out of the kitchen. The reviewers at Gault and Millau, for example, downgraded Paul Bocuse's restaurant in Lyons this year because of his frequent absences.

Many younger chefs fear the profession is being lost to the lure of big business. ``Too many chefs are straying away from their art,'' says Martyn Pearn, a talented English chef at Bordeaux's highly-rated La R'eserve. ``I just want to concentrate on my own restaurant.''

But Gu'erard insists he can combine business with cuisine. To keep his ratings high -- the Michelin Guide gives him the supreme three stars and Gault and Millau the top ``super quatre toques'' rating -- he has decided to keep his restaurant open only six months a year. He spends the rest of his time on outside projects.

One of these is his frozen food line. After all, he says, ``We cannot cook just for the few who come here.''

Gu'erard says he is motivated by his desire to influence the way people eat and by the stimulus of profits. ``Creating something new is the exciting thing,'' he says. ``That means taking risks like any other businessman.''

Gu'erard's gastronomic frozen food fits this formula, producing both high profits and high praise. Food editor Brillaut praises the superb taste of such frozen creations as ``mousseline chaude de saumon fum'e sauce `a l'endive'' -- a mousse cake topped by smoked salmon and covered by a cream sauce and ``savarin de poisson `a l'oc'ean'' -- a fish terrine in vermouth sauce, decorated with four crab legs. Both products are the biggest frozen food sellers for Findus, Gu'erard's manufacturer, according to th e company's marketing director, Christian Petit.

Encouraged by the praise, Gu'erard now is dreaming up yet another culinary revolution. He is seriously considering a gourmet fast-food restaurant.

``I'm fascinated by McDonalds,'' he says. ``You can do much more than just hamburgers with fast food.''

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