Roger Vergé, a Founder of Nouvelle Cuisine, Dies at 85
Roger Vergé preparing a lobster dish in 1979.
JUNE 8, 2015
Roger Vergé, a founding father of nouvelle cuisine who developed a highly influential version of Provençal cooking, which he called “the cuisine of the sun,” at his renowned restaurant Le Moulin de Mougins near Cannes, France, died on Friday at his home in Mougins. He was 85.
The cause was complications of diabetes, his daughter Cordélia Vergé said.
In the 1960s, Mr. Vergé, along with chefs like Paul Bocuse, the Troisgros brothers and Michel Guérard, helped blaze the trail for nouvelle cuisine, a pared-down internationalized version of French cooking that placed a premium on fresh ingredients prepared in a lighter style and presented artistically on the plate.
Mr. Vergé brought to Provençal cuisine many of the flavors and ingredients that he had encountered on his extensive culinary travels, which took him from Africa and Jamaica to Mougins. While cooking in North Africa, for example, he developed a fondness for fruit in savory dishes, reflected in one of the signature appetizers at the Moulin de Mougins: hot oysters on the half shell with orange sections and orange butter.
Unlike many of the nouvelle cuisine chefs who came after him, Mr. Vergé steered clear of trickery and sensation-seeking. The key to his culinary style, he often liked to say, could be found in the simple but artfully prepared dishes — the “happy cuisine,” as he put it — served by his mother and his Aunt Célestine, to whom he dedicated several of his cookbooks.
“The ‘cuisine heureuse’ is the antithesis of cooking to impress — rich and pretentious,” he wrote in the preface to his first cookbook, “Cuisine of the Sun.” “It is a lighthearted, healthy and natural way of cooking which combines the products of the earth like a bouquet of wild flowers from the garden.”
Its appeal, he wrote, “consists in marrying natural products with one another, of finding simple harmonies and enhancing the flavor of each ingredient by contact with another with a complementary flavor.” The secret to his signature fish soup, he told The New York Times in 1974, was “little fish from rock habitats, as well as teeny crabs popped in alive at the last minute to add the full measure of their flavor.”
Audacity was part of his repertory. Without hesitation, he offered diners humble ingredients previously unthinkable in a three-star restaurant. “He had the guts to take a pig’s foot and raise it to a level that made people drive from all over to taste it,” said Hubert Keller, who started out as a saucier at the Moulin de Mougins in the 1970s and later helped Mr. Vergé open restaurants in Brazil and San Francisco.
Roger Vergé was born on April 7, 1930, in Commentry, in central France, where his father was a blacksmith. For his fifth birthday, his aunt gave him a wooden bench so he could stand next to her at the stove and watch as she prepared Sunday meals for the Vergé clan.
Although he dreamed of becoming a pilot and retained a zest for travel throughout his life, Mr. Vergé apprenticed at a local restaurant, Le Bourbonnais, at 17. He went on to Paris for stints at the Tour d’Argent and Plaza Athénée before traveling to Africa, where he worked at Mansour de Casablanca in Morocco and L’Oasis in Algiers.
After working for an airline catering service in Kenya, he returned to Europe, where he cooked at the Hôtel de Paris in Monte Carlo and the two-star Club de Cavalière in Le Lavandou, France, while spending several months each year at the Plantation Inn in Ocho Rios, Jamaica.
In June 1969, Mr. Vergé and his second wife, Denise, opened the Moulin de Mougins (the Mill at Mougins) in a 16th-century olive-pressing mill. A year later the restaurant earned its first Michelin star. A second followed in 1972 and a third in 1974. Widely recognized as one of France’s pre-eminent restaurants, it trained a small army of future stars, including Alain Ducasse, David Bouley and Daniel Boulud. The restaurant’s proximity to Cannes ensured it a stream of celebrity guests in town for the annual film festival.
In 1977, the couple opened a companion restaurant, L’Amandier de Mougins (the Almond Tree at Mougins), with a cooking school on the ground floor, l’École de Cuisine du Soleil Roger Vergé.
In 1982, Mr. Vergé teamed up with Mr. Bocuse and Gaston Lenôtre, the celebrated pastry chef and caterer, to open two restaurants at the France Pavilion at Disney’s Epcot Center near Orlando, Fla. On the ground floor, Les Chefs de France offered the homey style known as cuisine bourgeoise. Upstairs was the fancier Bistro de Paris (now Monsieur Paul). The partnership ended in 2009.
In addition to “Cuisine of the Sun” (published in the United States as “Roger Vergé’s Cuisine of the South of France”), his many cookbooks include “Entertaining in the French Style” and “Roger Vergé’s Vegetables in the French Style.”
His first marriage ended in divorce. He is survived by his second wife, Denise, and, in addition to their daughter Cordélia, two daughters by his first marriage, Chantal Vergé and Brigitte Blangéro, and three grandchildren.
Like many of the pioneers of nouvelle cuisine, Mr. Vergé, who retired in 2003, deplored the excesses of the movement. “It is a joke,” he told Nation’s Restaurant News in 1985. “It is nothing serious. Now it looks Japanese: large dishes, small portions, no taste, but very expensive.”
His remarks touched off a furor in the restaurant world, and in a later interview with the magazine he tried to clarify his remarks. “We experimented with lighter sauces, new vegetables, fruit and meat combinations,” he said, speaking of the early days of nouvelle cuisine. “But we already understood the basics. We had learned early. Our palates had already been conditioned.”
An earlier version of a picture caption with this obituary misstated the year that the photo, of Mr. Vergé preparing a lobster fricassee, was taken. It was 1979, not 2008.
An obituary on Tuesday about the chef Roger Vergé misstated the date of his birth in 1930. It was April 7, not April 30.