Gaston Lenotre: Pastry chef who brought patisserie into the modern age
Thursday 15 January 2009
Gaston Lenôtre was the most celebrated pastry chef since Antonin Carême (who notoriously said that the fine arts were five, including architecture, "the principal branch of which is pastry-making"). It was Lenôtre's good fortune to become successful as a pastry cook just as nouvelle cuisine, with its fetish for fresh ingredients, its liking for lighter dishes, and its Japanese-inspired emphasis on the appearance of food, was in the ascendant in the restaurants of France.
Pâtisserie was never in any danger of being lost to the French, but it had become literally stodgy. Lenôtre whipped some air into it and reduced the quantities of sugar and flour used, so shunned crème pâtissière and replaced it with airy mousses and un-floury creams, introducing bright new fruit flavours. Remember the kiwi? Along with it went lots of other tropical fruit essences, such as passion fruit, guava, lime and mango. Pâtisserie has always been the most visual part of haute cuisine, and Lenôtre, who had a good eye allied to a scientific temperament, managed to keep the visual drama and appeal of his desserts while making them more suitable for the modern palate.
Lenôtre made himself into a brand. Paul Bocuse, the leader of the chefs of that generation, said that Lenôtre's signature on his Opéra, the chocolate-covered almond-cake and coffee-cream confection that was his best-known creation, was as important "as the Christian Dior name on a dress." Even President Sarkozy felt moved to comment on Lenôtre's passing, and said: "He succeeded with his talent and his creativity, his rigour and his high standards, in raising pâtisserie to the rank of an art."
But he also represented the success of French foodie-biz: last year Lenôtre's group revenues were $162m. The livery, with its gold lettering onan electric blue background, is a familiar sight in shops all over the world. Among his most popular inventions were his Succès, almond-flavoured meringue with almond-pralineand nougatine – and his Feuilled'Automne, almond and vanilla-perfumed meringue layered with dark chocolate mousse, and he began the craze for prettily coloured, fruit-flavoured macaroons.
Lenôtre was destined to work in food: he was born in 1920 on a small farm in Normandy; both his parents had worked as cooks in Paris (his mother Eléanor, had cooked for the Rothschilds and for the banker Baron Pereire.) An illness had forced his father (the chef saucier at the Grand Hôtel in Paris) to return to Normandy. A family story says that before the outbreak of the war, he used to cycle to Paris to sell his own chocolates.
Having shown early talent, Gaston at first had difficulty finding an apprenticeship immediately following the war. But his gifts were recognised, and in 1947 he opened his first bakery in Bernay, a small town in Normandy. Ten years later he had made enoughof a success to buy, with his firstwife, Colette, a small Paris bakerythat was having financial troubles but was well located in the fashionable 16th arrondissement.
His new approach, with its lightness, fresher flavours and insistence on, for example, using the best butter in his pastry (not something commercial pastry cooks were famous for), was an instant hit with Parisians, and in 1964 he branched out into savoury foods and outside catering. Some technical innovations, especially flash-freezing and using gelatine in his butter-creams to make mousses hold better, made it possible for the business to move from catering for family events and weddings to dealing with thousands of guests at once. The New York Times said his "worldwide group of 60 boutiques in 12 countries" was capable of catering anything from 25,000 guests "to a banquet for the Queen of England, all with French flair, service and decorum".
His only failure came in 1974, when he sent Michel Richard (now a successful restaurateur in the US) to open Château France on Manhattan's East 59th Street, which closed after a year. But Lenôtre bounced back and opened in Berlin in 1975, expanding rapidly to Japan and the Middle East.
As the nouvelle cuisine gang, the "bande à Bocuse", became more conscious of their common interests and identity, Lenôtre was more and more often mentioned in the same breath (or in the same paragraph) as Michel Guérard, Roger Vergé, the Troisgros brothers, Alain Chapel and all the rest of them as they were awarded their third Michelin stars; and, more importantly perhaps for their businesses, points in the Gault-Millau guide, in which the two journalist partners had spotted the nouvelle cuisine revolution while Michelin dozed for another dozen years.
In 1971 Lenôtre started a school in the appropriately named town of Plaisir, in Yvelines, west of Paris, where he trained professional pâtissiers. It was a rigorous training, and Lenôtre-trained chef-pâtissiers are now the backbone of the industry in France, and in some other countries as well. A well-known New York chef, David Bouley, said that what he recalled most of his attendance at the school was "four intense days" devoted entirely to egg whites. Like Carême, Lenôtre insisted that pastry was the best training for chefs, as it taught precision and perfectionism, and he trained many of the best-known names in gastronomy.
In 1976 Lenôtre joined the ranksof the nouvelle cuisine restaurateurs and bought Paris's prettiest restaurant, Le Pré Catelan, a Second Empire building in the Bois de Boulogne.He was good enough to regainthe three Michelin stars it had once held. Then in 1985, he opened LePavillon Elysée on the Champs-Elysée. Soon after its opening I remember Lenôtre, a handsome presence anda social charmer, greeting us at abook-launch party and beaming with pleasure as a head-turningly fit,good-looking Jean Marais – Cocteau's former boyfriend was then 82, but looked only middle-aged – joined our table for lunch.
In 1985 there were business difficulties and he sold the company to the Accor hotel group, but stayed on running the various businesses, and won contracts for some high-profile occasions, including the 1998 World Cup, at which he catered meals for 800,000 French fans. For his 80th birthday in 2000, a veritable army of trainee chefs celebrated by constructing a 33-foot high cake at the Trocadéro gardens, where its height could be compared to the nearby Eiffel Tower.
Gaston Albert Célestin Lenôtre, chef-pâtissier and businessman: born Saint-Nicolas-du-Bosc, France 28 May 1920; married twice (one son, two daughters); died Sennely, France 8 January 2009.
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