Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Gaston Lenotre: Living Legacy

I have heard it said, “Do you consider the fact that your entire adult life is based on the decisions of a teenager?” Daunting to some, but I doubt many were as successful at what their teenage self chose to study as Gaston Lenotre, French pastry chef and innovator. He was not yet 15 years old when he passed his professional cooking exams, and was more than 70 years old when he finally retired from actively practicing his trade. His legacy left an indelible mark on modern French cuisine and on pastry production as a whole.

One could say that cooking was in Lenotre’s blood. He was, after all, born to two chefs – his parents met while both were working in Paris – so naturally he was involved in cuisine at a very early age. According to one source, he wavered between studying pastry and studying carpentry, but fortunately he chose the former. No doubt he was influenced by his parents’ love of the art.

Lenotre was merely 27 years old when he acquired his first shop in Normandy, and it was 10 years after that when he decided to open a shop in a very fashionable area of Paris, a decision that helped shoot him to fame. Lenotre’s innovations on traditional French desserts were a revelation – he took recipes that were heavy or outdated and reworked them using fresh ingredients and simple preparations, helping to usher in the “nouvelle cuisine” of the 1970’s.

After his success in his shop in Paris, Lenotre went on to open 60 boutiques in 12 countries. Of note was his attention to detail – even when catering events with thousands of guests, he prepared his items in modest batches to ensure that each item was of the utmost quality and was just as good as if he was preparing it for only a small dinner party. It was during this time as a successful caterer that he realized the importance of having a crew specially trained in his particular methods and vision. After all, he made so many changes and discoveries – for instance, using gelatin in buttercreams, or creative use of the freezer – that he needed a crew who knew what these applications entailed and enacted. He solved this problem by founding L’Ecole Lenotre.

The Lenotre School began not just as an institute for pastry chefs, but a re-training institute for people to work on his crews. He began by teaching already-knowledgeable chefs his new methods, but eventually the school opened to the public, expanding to teach both professionals and amateurs in the Lenotre style, from those under his employ and even those employed by his competitors. The school was yet another success in the Lenotre empire – one which remains as such today. Among the many notable students of Lenotre is Pierre Herme, who embraced Lenotre’s innovative style and has found success by not following the protocol of traditional flavors, inventing such unheard of treats as the ketchup macaroon, and earning himself the title of the Picasso of Pastry.

His impact on the world of pastry production is not the only legacy that Gaston Lenotre left behind. At the time of his death in 2009 at the age of 88, he had three children, eight grandchildren, and ten great-grandchildren. And at least a few of them have followed the footsteps on Lenotre and his parents into the culinary world – one of his grandsons owns a successful restaurant in the south of France, and his son Alain used the legacy his father began with Ecole Lenotre and, with the help of his wife and siblings, founded a new school, the Culinary Institute. Between the school and the nine recipe books Lenotre wrote with his daughter Sylvie, which have been translated into multiple languages and have sold over a million copies, the traditions that Lenotre began in his modest restaurant in the 1950’s continue to be studied and shared today.

Katz, Basil. Gaston Lenôtre, Who Built a Culinary Brand, Is Dead at 88. The New York Times, January 9, 1999.

Lenotre, Alain. Lenotre Family History. Culinary Institute.

Miles, Alex. Gaston Lenotre, 1920-. On Baking: A Textbook of Baking & Pastry Fundamentals. Labensky, Martel and Damme. International Culinary Schools at the Art Institute; 2009.

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