I first won my spurs as a “dietary cook” back in 1968, at an elegant hairdressing salon in the Avenue Montaigne in Paris, run by the famous - and truly inspired - hairdresser Antonio, who took luxury so seriously that he would drive his lady customers back home in a Rolls-Royce.
At the time he had asked me to set up a refined snack bar with dietetic tendencies inside the salon, and I called it “La Ligne” (which, in French has connotations of retaining a slim figure).
A few years later, in 1972, I met my future wife Christine who persuaded me to leave my little restaurant “Le Pot au Feu” in Paris, which had twice been awarded Michelin stars, to go and join her in the Landes region.
On leaving HEC business school, she had asked her father, who was the founder of « La Chaîne Thermale du Soleil » spa chain, if she could manage the little spa resort of Eugénie-les-Bains.
This resort, which offered medical cures, had already begun specialising in looking after people suffering from metabolic diseases, in other words those who were overweight or suffered from obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.
It was as I watched visitors to the spa, who had all come hoping to lose weight, sitting down to eat large plates of hastily grated and cursorily seasoned carrots, that I had what was a very natural idea for a cook. Why not try to use my professional knowledge to combat this dietary despair?
Very quickly, a way of cooking which ran parallel to the one I had learned began to take shape in my mind, this was a way of cooking which, at the time, was based solely on the principle of calories. Although it involved reducing sugars and fats, taste and enjoyment were still very important even at this early stage.
In 1976, my wife and I wrote a Grande Cuisine Minceur® recipe book, the first part of which set out to teach the reader very practically about the physical and chemical phenomena which govern the way that we cook.
As a direct result, that same year I met the International Chairman of the Nestlé Group, who came to Eugénie-les-Bains to offer me a role as the group’s international culinary consultant, a job which covered more or less everything they produced, but especially their frozen foods which had a very bad reputation back then.
This partnership lasted for 27 years, during which time I had the enormous good fortune to work alongside Nestlé’s research department.
This is how I learned what should be understood by nutrients, what lipids, simple or complex carbohydrates and lactic proteins were, all about the Maillard reaction, as well as transformation and alternative techniques allowing traditional cuisine to be implemented on an industrial scale. Not only that, but working with researchers, nutritionists, sanitary engineers, biologists, sociologists, anthropologists, behavioural scientists and even visual artists also taught me about the obligation to be thorough.
Working with and learning from all these people helped to strengthen the framework for my own ideas and, at the same time, it helped me to develop our own Health Cuisine® for more than 35 years.
This means that I have never moved one iota from my own creed, which is that “it doesn’t matter whether you’re dealing with classic cooking or nouvelle cuisine, whether it involves local produce, whether it’s food cooked at a bistro or a luxury hotel, or whether it’s all about health – the key to all cooking is taste and its immediate result, enjoyment”.
This is true even though, by definition, tastes are constantly changing – and, although we may wonder “what would a meal have tasted like in the first century BC – or in the first century AD?”, enjoyment, which feeds on emotions and the imagination, remains the same.
So it is crucial for taste and enjoyment to remain at the heart of any attempt to persuade people to change their dietary habits
– whether or not these habits are a conscious choice. Unless we can keep to this manifesto, any kind of diet – and this applies particularly to health-related diets – is doomed to failure.
The Frenchman’s relationship with his diet is rather like that of an old married couple, eating is one of the easiest ways of giving himself a treat and to him this enjoyment feels almost like a social birthright which cannot be taken away from him.
He does not want to have to choose between health and pleasure - he wants to have his cake and eat it! .
This is why our Health Cuisine® lays such emphasis on traditional recipes, what I call “nostalgic cuisine” and which our fellow citizens love – these recipes have names such as “béarnaise”, “mayonnaise”, “vinaigrette”, “cassoulet”, “hachis Parmentier”, “magret of duck”, “soufflé chocolate cake” and “Paris-Brest”. By using the right techniques we can reduce the calorie content of recipes to a fifth or a sixth of the usual amount.
Obviously we’re serving this kind of food in Eugénie every day, but we have also exclusively introduced it into the range of catering provided by our spas – last year alone they served more than 110,000 meals. Those patients who decide to bolster a medical cure with this kind of cuisine undergo biological, clinical and dietetic monitoring by their spa doctor, who liaises with our dieticians.
For people who are at risk of cardiovascular diseases, suffering from diabetes or high blood pressure, this kind of cuisine can help to achieve significant results, and the whole of the village of Eugénie-les-Bains is now involved in welcoming patients of this kind. The restaurateurs and caterers are trained in Health Cuisine®, by both the staff at our restaurant and our establishment’s dietetics team, which means they can share the benefits with their own guests.
Between 2008 and 2009, our spa carried out a pilot study, led by the Medical School of Bordeaux, which aimed to measure improvements to the metabolic syndrome, after one year, taking on board spa treatments, Health Cuisine®, dietary education and physical activities. The study’s conclusions are highly positive as, one year on, 75% of patients recruited could still see a significant decline in their metabolic syndrome.