Roger Vergé and la cuisine du soleil
As you may or may not know, I am back in school this fall. I am 9 weeks into a 40-week French culinary program in Boulder, Colorado. I am going through a particularly rough patch at the moment—trying to figure out if this is the right school for me or if this is the time to reevaluated my situation and look for a school with better facilities and more dedicated, serious students. It has been an exhilarating, challenging, terrifying and frustrating 2 months.
Yesterday I stormed out of class early so completely frustrated with our tiny under-stocked and overcrowded kitchen and my unmotivated classmates. I couldn’t bring myself to go back today. The class has worn me down. I needed to take a day to breathe and get my bearings back.
I spent the day cooking things I wanted to cook: healthy vegetarian food—no clarified butter, heavy cream or “mother sauces”. Nothing deep-fried, shallow-fried, pan-fried, or even sautéed. No flourless chocolate cakes, crème brûlées, Swiss buttercreams, or chocolate ganache. I needed to remember why I like cooking and re-convince myself that I am actually good at it.
This program has shaken me to the core and made me question my culinary abilities. It has also made me ponder my “Francophilia” and frazzled my faith in this young, up-and-coming generation…but those are story for another day…
To compliment my day of healthy cooking and remind myself why I chose to turn my life upside down and attend a French culinary school, I decided to do a little research on one famous French chef: Roger Vergé—the chef who was brave enough to distance himself from the traditional cuisine classique and introduced the world to cuisine du soleil, a variation of Provençal cuisine favoring fresh, local ingredients and unpretentious preparation and presentation.
Vergé explained his nouvelle cuisine as “a lighthearted, healthy and natural way of cooking which combines the products of the earth like a bouquet of wild flowers from the garden.” Also know as cuisine heureuse’, Vergé saw his culinary style as the “antithesis of cooking to impress”. His “happy cooking” transformed French gastronomy, and changed and the way generations of French chefs have approached food and fine dining since.
Born in 1930, Vergé grew up in Commentry in the center of France. Perched on a “small wooden bench”, he learned to cook from his aunt Célestine and was inspired by his father, a blacksmith by day and farmer by night, who “in the evenings…tilled God’s earth and brought his mother flavorful, aromatic vegetable for the table.” At 17, he apprenticed to a local chef at Restaurant le Bourbonnais and then moved on to trained at several Michelin-starred restaurants including Tour d’Argent in Paris. He spent time in Morocco, Algeria and Kenya learning and working in the kitchen of the Mansour de Casablanca and L’Oasis which undoubtedly inspired and informed his cuisine of the sun. Upon returning to France he worked in the restaurants Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo and Le Club de Cavaliere in Le Lavandou where he was exposed to the bright colors and fresh flavors of southern French food.
In 1969, Vergé opened his famous Michelin 3-star restaurant Moulin de Mougins near Cannes. Although French cuisine was still characterized by its heavy use of animal fat —butter, cream, and lard, Vergé’s cuisine of the sun — Mediterranean fare enhanced with vegetable essences and fruit reductions — elevated and celebrated lighter and healthier food, and quickly changed the landscape of French cookery.
He prided himself in serving Provençal dishes highlighted by the flavors of his travels and Moulin de Mougins quickly became one of France’s most well known restaurants. A kind and sincere man, the master chef was eager to share his knowledge with future generations of chefs. “He was one of the few chefs of that era who saw that sharing his skill set would benefit the cooking world as a whole.” To that end, Vergé trained up many of today’s great French chefs including Alain Ducasse, Jacques Maximin, Jacques Chibois, David Bouley and Daniel Boulud. Vergé once said, “the more knowledge we share, the more the cuisine is enriched; we succeed if we make what we love popular.”
By 1974, Moulin de Mougins had won three Michelin stars. A second restaurant, L’Amandier de Mougins, earned another two stars. By the mid-1970s, Vergé held the most number of Michelin stars of any single chef in France. To promote his cooking style, he founded l’École de Cuisine du Soleil Roger Vergé in Mougins. He was the collaborator and head of several other restaurants throughout France and in the US, and he also wrote dozens of cookbooks in both French and English making his ideas and cuisine accessible to home cooks.
Roger Vergé died this past June at his home in Mougins at the age of 85. Thankfully his legacy lives on.
So…as I contemplate my future journey from home cook to a trained professional cook, and the extreme ups and downs of culinary school, I am encouraged by the wisdom of Caroline Conran in her buoyant preface to the adaptation of Vergé’s Cuisine of the Sun:
“Roger Vergé never lost sight of the fact that cooking should be a pleasure – a celebration of wonderful ingredients, cooked in a simple and practical way that will not overtax the cook and leave her (or him) too exhausted to enjoy the meal.”
…and that is the goal of this whole “happy cooking” thing, isn’t it? Good ingredients, good food, good times…enjoying the process and to never forgetting to taste, smell and see that “bouquet of wild flowers from the garden.”