SUNDAY lunch in south west France: carpaccio of langoustines, followed by roasted milk-fed lamb and peach melba. It is as delicious as you would expect from the hands of venerated French chef Michel Guérard. But the clincher: three courses under 630 calories. Sacré bleu! And that’s a blow-out – Saturday’s lunch of crab with grapefruit, roasted pigeon and wild strawberries “Miss Dior”, came to 515 calories.
Guérard, 81, is a gastronomic legend for two good reasons: he invented Grande Cuisine Minceur, or slimming cuisine, back in the 1970s, keeping all the finesse and flavour of elite French cooking but making it lighter and healthier (and unlike meagre nouvelle cuisine, the portions are just right). Second, he has held three Michelin stars for 37 consecutive years for his fine-dining restaurant here on his country estate, Les Près d’Eugenie. Quite a badge of honour, not to mention intense pressure every year to keep them.
He has trained and inspired generations of star chefs, among them his great friend Hélène Darroze of The Connaught who is originally from this part of Gascony, Alain Ducasse, who also holds three Michelin stars at The Dorchester and the Scot Andrew Fairlie. After 20 years of teaching in the restaurant kitchen, the cookery school L’Institut Michel Guérard has airy new premises on the estate and is this summer running its first course in English for amateur cooks.
Where Ramsay and Heston spread themselves as thin as French toast, Michel Guérard is ever-present in his two restaurants, bistro, the cookery school, hotel and spa. He is the picture of health himself, exuding bonhomie, with a shock of white hair, twinkling eyes and wide grin. Over a long weekend he popped up all over the place. He scurries about in chef whites, always with a ready handshake and a cheery word. He is surrounded by a loyal, long-serving team; his wife Christine manages all the interior design – relaxed chic, wooden beams, antiques – and his two daughters are directors. No wonder he has never been tempted to open other outlets. Perhaps that’s how you retain three Michelin stars.
Teaching the first English cookery class in June is the 27-year-old Belgian Lieven Van Aken. He is tall, with a thick mop of styled black hair. He has been a chef here for three years. To give him some practice, I donned my apron and chef’s hat.
It looked very ambitious, I thought, looking at recipes for fresh scallops in orange blossom sauce, chicken breasts stuffed with creamy herbs and smokey bacon, followed by apple and lime soufflé. The instruction kitchen has space for 10 workstations and everyone is given a tray of colourful ingredients – 12 for the orange-blossom sauce alone – neatly prepped by our young sous-chef for the morning.
The picture windows are thrown open to the sunshine and birdsong of the estate garden, but we try to ignore the bucolic setting to focus on the challenge. Lieven takes us through the correct chopping techniques to retain moisture and freshness as we assemble the rich, fragrant sauce. While it was simmering I embarked on the main.
Out came the eight-month-old chickens raised on corn in the Landes region to the north. They are yellow from the corn, plucked, their long necks and dead-eyed heads flopping. This roast chicken recipe – one that we sampled in the fine-dining restaurant the night before – requires the chicken breasts to be wrapped in their own skin, and the only way to achieve a complete parcel is to accurately butcher the chicken, removing the legs, wings, head, innards, wishbone and then the rest of the carcass, so that you are left with the breasts and, importantly for wrapping and roasting, all of the skin intact. Pulling the legs out of the skin is a bit like taking a child’s pyjamas off.
I realise that my 23 years as a pescatarian, now lapsed, has not been adequate preparation for these butchery skills. I gingerly have a go at slitting the skin along the breasts, but falter as the knife slides up the neck. I bow out, grateful that my cooking partner grew up on a farm.
Once I get my tidy breast and pile of excess skin, I’m back in the game, and neatly stuff it with herby cheese, foie gras and a sliver of smoked streaky bacon. There is an art to wrapping the skin and “pinning” it with cocktail sticks. I manage to snap four sticks, muttering little curses, before my parcel is ready for browning and slow roasting.
The “open oven” is a signature of Michel Guérard’s cooking style. “For the chefs, the open oven is another way of cooking, we are adding to our skills,” says Lieven. “The slimming cuisine here, too, is a part of that.”
I was running out of time, so Lieven showed us how to make the buttery puréed mashed potato. Issued with disposable tasting spoons, I dug in and wholeheartedly agreed that the mash was a winner.
The dessert was also demo’d (the butchering was slow going). Then, the morning’s class was at an end. I slapped my fellow chefs on the back, thinking, “We are now Michelin-starred chefs. Kind of.”
Michel enters and gives us all a “Très bien!”. After all that mash, I’m thankful that our three-course lunch will punch in at just 530 calories.
The first five-day cookery course in English at L’Institut Michel Guérard takes place 23-27 June, £720. Easyjet flies Gatwick to Bordeaux from £41 one-way (easyjet.com/en). Eat Well and Stay Slim is out now, £25. Double rooms at Les Près d’Eugenie from £210 (michelguerard.com).