food

Surprise! The French Invented Healthy Cuisine

Today, embracing a “wellness lifestyle” seems omnipresent in our lives . People don’t want to simply go to yoga; they want to live well in every area of their lives, especially when it comes to food and travel. Nutritious eats aren’t relegated to a few juice places; high-end, even Michelin Star restaurants, are serving up gourmet food with a nod to wellness. But fit foodies might be surprised to learn that nutritious eating has its roots in the most unlikely place—France!

The top culinary country of the world, known for its decadent, butter-laden cuisine, seems like a surprising place for nutritious eating to originate, but it did begin in Lyon. While Paris grabs the headlines, it’s actually Lyon that is France’s true gastronomic center. For more than 100 years, France’s “second” city, nestled between Burgundy’s vineyards, the Alpine pastures, and the Mediterranean Sea, has turned out the country’s best bites.

While Paris grabs the headlines, it’s actually Lyon that is France’s true gastronomic center.

Historically, Lyon had its bouchons, local family-run bistros featuring very rustic, very hearty and decidedly un-nutritious eats. Then along came Paul Bocuse, who turned Lyon’s food scene, and eventually the world’s tastes, on its collective head with the introduction of nouvelle cuisine in the late 1960s. Bocuse lightened up the butter and sauces, cut portion size and calories, and let the raw ingredients shine in a way that wasn’t seen before. The Culinary Institute of America and the French restaurant guide, Gault et Millau, named him “Chef of the Century.”

As a travel journalist and certified health coach, I recently went to Lyon to explore the start of the legitimacy of gourmet restaurants serving nutritious food. I made the centrally-located Mercure Lyon Centre Chateau Perrache hotel my base. The recently-restored Art Nouveau hotel is the only UNESCO-recognized hotel in the area and its privilege rooms and suites are stately by French standards.

Although Bocuse died last year at age 91 (a testament to nutritious eating?), epicureans make pilgrimages to his three-star Paul Bocuse restaurant on the outskirts of the city. The Auberge hits on all points, from setting to service, local wines and, of course, cuisine. There is a variety of set menu and à la carte options, but whatever you do don’t miss trying the iconic Red Mullet dressed in potato scales or the truffle soup V.G.E.

The French master likened his cuisine to a “slender young girl in a see-through blouse” compared with the “heavily corseted 1900 beauties” of grand French cuisine.

Bocuse didn’t want to keep nouvelle cuisine from the masses so he created a collection of four bistros at a lower price point, including Bistro Le Sud, which highlights the natural marriage of nouvelle cuisine with Mediterranean food. The kitchen is known for its chicken pastilla, a traditional sweet and spicy Moroccan dish.

I wanted to try a Bouchon Lyonnais, but was it possible to find one that had modernized a bit and added a few nouvelle cuisine touches? Thankfully Marta, the general manager at my hotel, knew of Daniel & Denise, run by another illustrious French chef, Joseph Viola, who in 2004 became a Meilleur Ouvrier de France (one of France’s best crafts-persons).

The bouchon is on the Michelin Guide’s Bib Gourmand, and while it features bouchon staples like offal and tripe, it also has fish à la plancha, and a roasted fish of the day that are on the healthy side. While it has a strong wine list, I recommend going local with a traditional pot de Lyonnais, which holds about three-fourths of a bottle of wine from the area.

Nouvelle cuisine revolutionized the culinary world, nowhere more so than in the United States, where chefs were experimental and open to new ways of doing things. The first restaurants (The Spotted Dove and An American Place) to feature the new way of eating were in New York, but soon it was California that became synonymous with nutritious eating.

In 1971, Chef Alice Waters opened the revolutionary Chez Panisse. Her menu expanded on nouvelle cuisine by continuing to focus on lighter food preparation, but also putting emphasis on organic and seasonal ingredients. The restaurant is now an American culinary institution.

In his book, It’s All American Food, food critic David Rosengarten says, “Today, if you go to an American restaurant in New York such as Union Pacific or in Chicago such as Charlie Trotter’s, you’re getting in essence an American spin on a set of ideas that came from France.”

As the popularity of wellness as a lifestyle rose in the last decade, more and more restaurants began to embrace nutritious cooking. Today, there are Michelin-star vegetarian eateries like Tian in Vienna or Jaan in Singapore that serve up haute-nutritious bites, and chains like True Food Kitchen and Seasons 52 that all continue to build on the ideas developed by Bocuse in Lyon.

Our French Faves for Nutritious Eats

Photo by Oksana Mizina / Shutterstock

Ratatouille

This colorful dish is easy on the eyes, and the palate. Stewed veggies are the star of this dish, which originated in Nice.

Photo by Larik Malasha / Shutterstock

Salade Niçoise

Hailing from the French region of Nice, this tuna salad typically features olives, hard-boiled eggs, tomatoes and an olive oil dressing.

Photo by White78 / Shutterstock

Bouillabaisse

A comfort food classic, this elegant fish stew originates from Marseille. Recipes vary, but typically include a variety of fresh fish, shellfish and herbs served with a crisp baguette.

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