Christian Millau, a French editor and food critic who championed the modern cooking style of nouvelle cuisine, a term he coined with writer Henri Gault and enshrined in a popular monthly magazine and series of feisty guide books, died Aug. 5 at 88.
Gault & Millau, the publishing house he co-founded, announced his death but did not provide additional details.
For the better part of three decades, Millau (mee-YO) and Gault, who died in 2000, were the most prominent food critics in the world’s most food-besotted nation. First in Paris, then across France, Europe and eventually in cities stretching from Japan to the United States, they offered colorful reviews of restaurants, hotels, shops and nightspots, collected in works that aimed to supplant Michelin Guides as the world’s preeminent arbiter of haute cuisine.
Millau and Gault, who published their first guidebook — “The Julliard Guide to Paris” — in 1963 and collaborated for the next 20 years, never quite dethroned Michelin, their red-covered rival.
But their books and monthly magazine, Nouveau Guide, succeeded in redefining modern French cuisine and popularizing young chefs such as Paul Bocuse, brothers Pierre and Jean Troisgros, Joël Robuchon and Alain Senderens, who died in June and was hailed by Gault and Millau as “the Picasso of French cooking.”
The result was nothing less than a “gastronomic revolution,” New York Times food critic Mimi Sheraton wrote in 1979, with restaurants throughout Europe and the United States mimicking the “verdant brightness and herbaceous freshness” of dishes that Millau and Gault christened nouvelle cuisine.
According to a 2016 account in Le Monde, it was Millau who devised the name, which recalled the New Left of French politics and the New Wave of French cinema. It was first attached to a list of “10 commandments” that Gault wrote for Nouveau Guide in October 1973, exhorting chefs to “explore new techniques,” emphasize fresh ingredients and steer clear of heavy marinades or sauces.
The article began with a declaration in keeping with the searing tone that Millau and Gault sometimes adopted in their books:
“Down with the old-fashioned picture of the typical bon vivant, that puffy personage with his napkin tucked under his chin, his lips dripping veal stock, béchamel sauce and vol-au-vent financière. Singer of mighty drinking songs, pincher of pretty party girls, festooned with medals and knighted by every wine and food society in Christendom, it is his very image we want to wipe from memory.”
Christian Dubois-Millot was born in Paris on Dec. 30, 1928, according to Le Monde, though some biographical sources list his birth date as Jan. 1, 1929.
He worked as a reporter for French newspapers, including Le Monde and L’Express, before becoming an editor at the now-defunct Paris-Presse. It was there that Millau joined with Gault, a reporter who took to writing a leisure column about his walks around Paris.
The column, featuring recommendations on everything from truffles and wine to astrologists and hairdressers, was a success and resulted in the duo’s first book with the publishing house Julliard. By 1972 they were releasing guidebooks under the name Gault-Millau, sometimes styled GaultMillau, with the aim of surpassing Michelin.
Unlike Michelin, which Millau likened to a “telephone directory,” the Gault-Millau books focused on a restaurant’s food, rather than its appearance or service. They relished piquant, often irreverent descriptions.
“The widely spread custom in Anglo-Saxon countries of pouring brandy on the dishes and then setting them afire is meant to make an establishment famous,” the critics wrote in their first guidebook to New York. “In our opinion, this practice is very reprehensible … spoils the taste and makes the dining room resemble a city bombarded with napalm. Only the salad has not yet been flambéed.”
Millau and Gault bestowed three chef hats on the very finest restaurants, awarding black toques to restaurants that still practiced traditional French cooking and red toques to those that represented nouvelle cuisine.
It was obvious which sort of restaurant the critics preferred.
“Dieu!” they wrote in a review of l’Auberge du Père Bise, a restaurant in Talloires that had earned the Michelin Guide’s highest rating, three stars. “How can one refuse to experiment, to perfect, and to share with one’s clients the creative adventure?” Millau and Gault advised diners to avoid the restaurant until its chef “understood” the new movement.
A list of surviving family members was not immediately available.
While Millau and Gault became celebrities through their criticism, appearing on television and in photo spreads in Life magazine, their relationship fractured in the mid-1980s. “We did not agree on anything,” Millau later told Le Monde. “Neither on politics, nor on religion, nor on music. Nothing, except taste.”
They sold their publishing empire to the magazine Le Point in 1983, and both critics continued publishing guidebooks on their own for many years while maintaining an indelible connection with nouvelle cuisine.
“We have suggested the formula, and it has caught on like a superb mayonnaise, but that’s all,” Millau once said, downplaying his and Gault’s contributions. “The rest — that is to say, the most important thing — is the business of the chefs themselves. We are and we remain observers.”