Lean French cuisine

Michelin-three-star chef Michel Guérard’s slimline dishes give a guilt-free spin to French favourites. He offers Zoë McIntyre a lesson in lightening up

The richness of France’s culinary heritage is known far and wide. Decadently creamy cheeses, deliciously buttery pastries, heady, wine-laden stews; most of us acknowledge that to indulge in the quintessential carte du jour often means sacrificing a couple of belt buckles before the holiday (or even the meal) is over.

Yet, in an increasingly health-conscious world, the offer of a lighter alternative seems ever more appealing. In France, this was translated into nouvelle cuisine, in which delicate, palate-teasing dishes prevail over plate-brimming classics. One of France’s most highly respected chefs, Michel Guérard, took this idea one step further by creating cuisine minceur – ‘slimming food’.

Guérard began his career working in various venerated Parisian institutions, including Hôtel de Crillon, La Pelouse and Maxim’s, before opening his own restaurant, Le Pot-au-Feu, in the suburbs of Paris. “The restaurant soon became hugely successful,” Guérard reminisces. “French and foreign politicians, artists and journalists were all rushing to dine there.” He won his first Michelin star in 1967, followed by a second in 1971 and, along with chefs such as Paul Bocuse and Roger Vergé, became a driving force in popularising nouvelle cuisine.

In 1972, Guérard met his future wife Christine Barthélémy – daughter of the founder of luxury skincare company Biotherm, who was running a spa focusing on dietary therapy in the thermal station of Eugénie-les-Bains, in the Landes département of south-west France.

He moved there two years later and began developing his waistline-friendly gourmet cuisine. Guérard says: “As I watched visitors to the spa – who had all come hoping to lose weight – eating large plates of hastily grated and cursorily seasoned carrots, I had what was a very natural idea for a cook.”

Opening his on-site restaurant, Les Prés d’Eugénie, Guérard began serving spa guests calorie-conscious dishes that still held true to the French culinary principles of freshness, flavour and enjoyment. “Health matters as much as pleasure when eating,” he maintains. By 1977, the chef had earned three Michelin stars – an accolade that he has retained to this day.

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In 1976, Guérard published his definitive cookbook La Grande Cuisine Minceur, which sold more than a million copies and earned him worldwide acclaim, not to mention a place on the cover of Time magazine. Now, 40 years later, Guérard is reinventing his mantra for a new generation with his book, Eat Well and Stay Slim.

Guérard covers all aspects of food preparation and techniques in cuisine minceur, showing, for example, how to make fat¬reduced mayonnaise, vinaigrettes and Chantilly cream. There are 140 recipes, with many of the savoury plates showcasing vegetables or fish. Desserts often call for the clever use of natural fruits, egg whites and gelling agents – think poached pears and lime soufflé.

Like any French chef, pleasure in eating remains at the heart of Guérard’s cooking and his dishes are high in traditional French flavours and restaurant-style finesse – the difference being that most of the recipes contain fewer than 300 calories per person (and some are as low as 70).

The cookbook is just a morsel of Guérard’s culinary empire. The original family-run spa has grown into an eight-hectare health resort that incorporates three types of luxury accommodation, 20 hectares of vineyards, three gourmet restaurants and a new cookery school. Attracting guests from around the world, the estate has turned Eugénie-les-Bains into a thriving health-tourism destination.

Despite its success, the place remains a family affair, with Guérard’s two daughters Adeline and Éléonore and their son-in-law Jauffray among the 180 staff keeping the grounds and their guests in tip-top condition. At a time when diet preoccupations are high on the agenda, the family’s success story gives hope that there is a way to be healthy and enjoy fine dining – you really can have your cake and eat it.

For more information on visiting Michel Guérard at Eugénie-les-Bains phone (Fr) 5 58 05 06 07 or visit the website www.michelguerard.com.

Guérard’s book Eat Well and Stay Slim: The Essential Cuisine Minceur is published by Frances Lincoln, priced £25. Find examples of his recipes here