A PAINTER'S EYE FOR VEGETABLES, FRUITS
LIKE many other chefs in the '70s, Georges Blanc, a fourth-generation chef and restaurateur, felt the need to lighten the traditionally rich French cuisine with all its cream, butter, and sauces. ``To do this, I realized the cooking must be personalized,'' he said in an interview at Boston's Meridien Hotel.
``I started to concentrate on the very best fruits and vegetables in my own region.
``In the countryside, in the heart of Burgundy where my family has lived for generations, there has always been a great respect for the earth.''
Mr. Blanc's new cookbook is dedicated ``to gardeners, those superb artisans whose fruits and vegetables are the essence of cooking.''
A perfectionist in the kitchen and in the dining room, this three-star chef has changed the style of cooking at his restaurant, La M`ere Blanc in Vonnas, a restaurant-inn that was founded well before the French Revolution in that part of Burgundy called Bresse, famous for its excellent chicken.
Blanc's great-grandparents became successful by feeding poultrymen who came to the town market every Thursday.
But it was Blanc's grandmother, Elisa, who made the restaurant famous by her preparations of the simple, honest country foods of the area. And it was under her supervision that the res-taurant became known as La M`ere Blanc.
So it was in 1965 that Georges Blanc returned to La M`ere Blanc to learn his mother's cooking, after studying hotel and restaurant management and serving his apprenticeship at other restaurants.
In 1968, with his wife, Jacqueline, he became owner, and the first male chef in a long line of women chefs before him.
By turning to the extraordinary produce of Burgundy, this young chef has fashioned a light, natural cuisine that remains rich in tradition and is still reminiscent of his mother's and grandmother's cooking.
In his new cookbook, ``The Natural Cuisine of Georges Blanc'' (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $45), Blanc recommends searching for the very best produce when planning to cook and when serving lighter meals that emphasize vegetables and fruits.
The book is separated into recipes for each season. Its beautifully designed format has large color photographs by Christopher Baker.
For spring there is an unusual red radish soup, a dramatic dish of zucchini and carrot spaghetti, mussels with herbed broth and vegetables, and a dessert of rhubarb compote with strawberries and candied lemon zest.
Summer dishes include dozens of ways of stuffing various fresh vegetables, with comments about the history of many.
``The French have always been great eaters and expert growers of onions of all kinds,'' Blanc says. ``And during the Middle Ages every good hostess owed it to herself to offer a dish of onions to her guests.'' These remarks appear under the photograph of an onion dish that combines tiny onions with small carrots, raisins, butter, and herbs.
There are glorious soups and delicious desserts, with a scattering of seafood such as a lime risotto with frog legs, cabbage stuffed with salmon, and cucumbers stuffed with cod mousse. Other desserts include chilled white peaches with raspberry sauce and basil, and roasted pears with meringues and blackberry sauce.
Blanc sees himself as something an artist, but feels that the role of a chef is more difficult.
``A painter leaves a work of art behind - there's something left to see. But in a restaurant it is difficult because it must be continuous.''
In 1981, at the age of 38, Blanc was the youngest chef to win the coveted three-star rating from Michelin. That same year, the Gault-Millau restaurant guide named him ``Best Chef of France.''
Blanc's two sons, Frederick, who is already a cook, and Alexandre, are preparing themselves to continue the line.
After taking over from his parents, Blanc's intention was to make La Me`re Blanc into one of the best restaurants in France.
To that end, a few changes were made. He changed the name of the restaurant to ``Georges Blanc'' and expanded the already beautiful place into a more complete dining atmosphere.
The restaurant occupies a cross-timbered, two-story building with two reception rooms - one with Blanc family photographs and another with a variety of signed notes and photos from distinguished people.
Guests may walk to the covered passageway over the river, lined with long rows of flower boxes overflowing with lovely pink blossoms.
The lounge is rustic with its stone floor and heavy beamed ceiling.
The dining room is more formal, with one huge tapestry that is reprinted on the dinner menu cover. Around the room are antique furniture pieces set off by paintings of seascapes and mountains.
Compote de Rhubarbe aux Fraises (Rhubarb Compote With Strawberries) 1 pound rhubarb stalks, trimmed, in 1-inch lengths 3 cups sugar 1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise 2 tablespoons finely julienned lemon zest 1 pint strawberries
Place rhubarb in nonreactive (stainless steel, enamel, ceramic, or non-stick) saucepan and add syrup to cover it by half. Add vanilla bean, cover, and cook over medium heat, without stirring, until tender (about 5 minutes).
Transfer to a heatproof glass bowl. Add more syrup if necessary and refrigerate until cool. While rhubarb chills, blanch julienned lemon zest in boiling water 30 seconds.
Phyllis Hanes is the Monitor's food editor.