Master Chef Roger Vergé, a founding father of nouvelle cuisine and owner of restaurant Le Moulin de Mougins near Cannes, France, who developed a highly influential version of Provençal cooking, which he called “the cuisine of the sun,” died on Friday, June 5 at his home in Mougins. He was 85, and according to his daughter Cordélia the cause of his death was a complication of diabetes. 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. He retired in 2003.
Master Chef Roger Vergé
One of the most memorable experiences of my life was meeting with Roger Vergé at a private party in the Beverly Hills Bel-Air Hotel, which was a celebration of the 25th Anniversary of the “Moulin.” Rod Stewart and his model wife Rachel Hunter were seated next to me as an amazing sit down ‘California light’ dinner menu was prepared and presented by renowned LA area chefs who had studied or worked with Vergé at the “Moulin.” Below is a photo of my hand written invitation, which I had autographed by Roger Vergé and later included a copy of the photo I took of him that evening. It has hung in my kitchen for years, and always brings a smile of remembrance.
Following the dessert presentation; a chocolate replica of the “Moulin,” Vergé thanked the chefs and organizers for the event, and caused uproarious laughter when he asked the chefs “where’s the butter”? He was a charming Frenchman, who sported a perfectly manicured mustache, and spoke to me with a twinkle in his eye. He was to the French culinary world what Maurice Chevalier was to French cinema. He will be missed by many chefs who enjoyed his friendship and greatly respected his culinary skill, but more so by ‘foodies’ who adored his innovative style. Some of the chefs who studied with him at the “Moulin” include Emeril Lagasse, Michel Richard, Alian Llorca, Alain Ducasse, Daniel Boulud, David Bouley, Jacques Maximum, Patrick Le Notre and Hubert Keller. The Vergé kitchen was considered by some to be a nursery for upcoming star chefs.
He visited America in the mid-1970s when he and other leading practitioners of the new French gastronomy gave classes in Napa Valley in California. Chef Vergé, along with 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, that was very well received in California.
Chef 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. The Moulin de Mougins is located across the street from one of Pablo Picasso’s homes, in a converted 16th century olive mill.
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, dishes 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.” 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.”
Cuisine of the Sun
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 Vergé open restaurants in Brazil and San Francisco.
Roger Vergé was born on April 7, 1930, 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, which was his simple beginning to become a world renowned chef. A chef who was admired and loved by fellow chefs, including Daniel Boulud, who spoke of Vergé during a press interview I participated in prior to accepting an award at the 3rd Annual Wine & Food Festival Cancun-Riviera Maya Secrets The Vine Gala in 2014. Boulud shared stories of their work together and considered him a friend and a man for whom he had great affection and respect.
Chef Daniel Boulud
Although as a young man he dreamed of becoming a pilot 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.
Moulin de Mougins
In June 1969, Chef Vergé and his second wife, Denise, opened the Moulin de Mougins (the Mill at Mougins). A year later the restaurant earned its first Michelin star, with a second in 1972 and a third in 1974. Widely recognized as one of France’s pre-eminent restaurants, it trained a small army of future culinary. The restaurant’s proximity to Cannes ensured it a stream of celebrity guest patrons who attended the annual Cannes Film Festival.
In 1977, Roger and Denise 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. He also joined forces with Chef 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, Florida in 1982. 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).
History will be kind to him, if only for the reason given in Conran’s (Caroline Conran adapted and translated his book 1979) preface to her adaptation of Cuisine of the Sun: “Roger Vergé, of all the master-chefs working in France today, is probably the one whose ideas are most accessible to home cooks… he has never lost sight of the fact that cooking should be a pleasure – a celebration of wonderful ingredients, cooked in a simple and practical way that will not overtax the cook and leave her (or him) too exhausted to enjoy the meal.” Visit www.moulindemougins.com.
Rest in peace dear Roger Vergé!
About Bonnie Carroll
Bonnie Carroll has been a food/travel/lifestyle writer since 1983. She is the founder & publisher of Bonnie Carroll’s Life Bites News, and does travel and food reporting on local radio/TV, she also contributes to a variety of national and international travel/lifestyle publications, and is a member of IFWTWA and NATJA. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.