Health-conscious wine lovers may be familiar with the French Paradox—the observation that the French, though hearty consumers of red wine and high-fat foods, experience low rates of heart disease. But French chef Michel Guérard nonetheless sees cause for concern in the eating habits of his countrymen. In the 1970s, the classically trained pastry chef, alongside luminaries such as Paul Bocuse and Roger Vergé, helped define French nouvelle cuisine—lighter, delicate fare, with an eye toward visual appeal. Nouvelle cuisine marked a stark departure from classical French cooking and precipitated the culinary style of today.
But Guérard, who first received three Michelin stars for his Pot-au-Feu restaurant in Paris, took light cooking in an even more extreme direction than his culinary peers. In 1974, the newly married Guérard found himself helping his bride manage her family’s health spa in Eugénie-les-Bains, where many guests suffered from obesity, diabetes, heart disease or other metabolic conditions. The chef set to work developing a healthy cooking regimen for the spa’s patients called cuisine minceur (“slimming cooking”).
For the Frenchman, Guérard has written, the enjoyment of food “feels almost like a social birthright which cannot be taken away from him.” With his cuisine minceur, Guérard aims to prepare traditional French dishes—think cassoulet and chocolate soufflé—with a fraction of their typical calorie content. The spa restaurant, Les Pres d’Eugenie, has held three Michelin stars for 37 years and is famous for serving dishes suitable for both gourmands and dieters. Guérard, 81, and his wife also make wine from the spa’s small estate vineyard, planted primarily to varieties native to southwest France, such as Petit Manseng and Tannat, which is extremely rich in polyphenols.
Last year, Guérard opened a cooking school dedicated to combining nutritional research with culinary training. Having just published a new cookbook, Eat Well and Stay Slim: The Essential Cuisine Minceur (Frances Lincoln, April 2014, $40), the chef spoke with Wine Spectator about his views on healthy eating and the challenges of introducing dietary constraints to an indulgent populace. (Chef Guérard also shared a healthy summer menu with wine pairings from his new cookbook.)
Wine Spectator: How did you get started as a chef?
Michel Guérard: As a child, I wanted to become a doctor. But after World War II, our family’s financial situation was delicate, and I had to choose a job for which I could start right away. I chose the pastry path, as I remember very well my grandmother during the Occupation: [She] managed to cook some extraordinary things given the fact she didn’t have much to cook with. She instilled in us the meaning of gourmandize, [which] was all the more vibrant in a time of dire straits. I became a very eager pastry chef, then a cooking chef, because of this.
WS: What kind of cuisine did you cook early in your career? Was it healthy?
MG: I always had a thing for healthy cuisine. In 1968, a very famous hairdresser who had his boutique [on] Avenue Montaigne in Paris had asked me if I could create for him a sort of snack bar for his clients, which would take into account the calorie side of things.
WS: How would you characterize eating habits in France? Are French people health-conscious or hedonists?
MG: Eating habits in France are not very good, dietarily speaking. French people are real hedonists. They definitely don’t want to have to choose between health and pleasure; they want both at the same time. This is why I created cuisine minceur.
I guess the main difference with the U.S. is the caloric density of food. It is true we eat less fast food, the sauces are not as fat and we eat less of it. Food is part of our culture, and French people have a sort of instinct that makes them eat a bit better than others. There is also a huge difference in [U.S.] serving sizes: [They are] twice as big as what we have in France.
WS: In your experience, are food lovers interested in eating healthily, or is it a challenge to introduce healthy options to them?
MG: People are generally not interested in what imposes constraints, so healthy eating is difficult to abide by. This is why we created a cuisine that is not frustrating for people: because it is not possible for anyone to feel deprived every day.
WS: What is one of the biggest misconceptions about healthy eating?
MG: Olive oil! People think that as it is part of the Mediterranean diet, you have to practically drink it. But it is still oil, the food containing the most calories!