Anne-Sophie Pic: France's first female chef to win three Michelin stars since the 1930s

18 July 2007
Anne-Sophie Pic: France's first female chef to win three Michelin stars since the 1930s

Anne-Sophie Pic is France's first female chef to win three Michelin stars since the 1930s. Michael Raffael went to the family restaurant in south-east France to meet her

In 1934 André Pic, a chef-patron in the French town of Valence, received his third Michelin star. The award was short-lived. When his son, Jacques, took over the restaurant 17 years later it had just one, but he rebuilt the reputation and regained the lost stars. On his premature death in 1992, his son, Alain, and daughter, Anne-Sophie, inherited the business, but their partnership was fraught. One star went. Alain left. This year La Maison Pic rejoined the élite club of French "trois étoiles".

This unique family saga, one to rival Dynasty, has gone almost unnoticed. What has caught the public imagination, though, is Anne-Sophie Pic herself, the only female chef in France to win the ultimate three-star accolade since 1933.

Slender, angular, alert, still young - she's thirtysomething - she looks completely at home, which she is. The flat above the restaurant, where she grew up, is now the pâtisserie. With husband David Sinapian's support, she has overhauled every aspect of a venerable gastronomic institution. They have scrapped a dated Provençal image, replacing it with space, light and colour added a modern bistro and bedrooms and, above all, redefined the cooking. It's original, contemporary and separated from her father's grande cuisine by the gulf that is modern culinary technique.

She never cooked until she finished college. Following her mother's advice, she took a degree in business studies, a course that included spells in the USA and Japan. Nearing her finals, she took stock of her future and decided she had a vocation for cooking. "I took a step back, pictured the marketing career that was mapped out for me and told myself, this isn't me I want to do something concrete," she recalls.

Her inspiration, she admits, were the self-taught "thinking chefs" such as Michel Bras, who pushed back boundaries. If they could do it, she told herself, so could she. Returning to Valence in 1992, she confronted her parents, asked her father to induct her into the kitchen, and started her apprenticeship. Within months he had died.

Learning her craft in an all-male brigade where her elder brother had taken over as head chef was difficult. In France, the division between manual and white-collar workers is clear-cut. She was crossing that invisible line. Her peers, she believed, resented her. "If I made a mistake, it seemed worse because of my family connection," she says. After nine months, she switched to management.

Five years later, after her brother left (he now owns a restaurant near Grenoble), she moved back into the kitchen only to face the same backward glances, exaggerated because she was now both boss and apprentice. Inside herself she knew she had the potential to excel, but at the same time a lack of self-assurance pursued her long after she had mastered the technical A-Z of her craft. "If ever a customer complained, I wouldn't sleep at night," she reveals. "I was always scared of getting something wrong. Now I realise that you don't progress without making mistakes."

The French have tended to treat female cooking as intuitive, one step down from the heights to which professional male chefs aspire. It's an arbitrary distinction that Pic has exploded by applying rigorous techniques to her distinctive style. They're a framework that allows her to innovate.

Her prime asset, though, is taste. Having grown up in the school of great restaurants, meeting legends like Troisgros, Chapel, Bocuse and Guérard from her early childhood, eating their food, she has turned her palate into a laboratory. In its way it's as sophisticated as Ferran Adrià's Barcelona atelier, El Taller. Her whole approach to haute cuisine revolves around it. The new culinary tricks and the modern gadgetry are there to serve it. In her kitchens plastic teaspoons for tasting are basic equipment. Her brigade uses them continually.

Recipes from Anne-Sophie Pic - Iced melon soup with a minted goats' cheese bavarois >>]( - [Mediterranean red mullet, roast tropical banana with garam masala and a pressed bone jus >>]( - [Fresh peas with aquitaine caviar, jellied pea broth, caviar and onion ice-cream >>](
[]( Reliance on flavourHer reliance on flavour contrasts with those chemist-chefs who have shifted their focus towards texture. It has led her to a challenging conclusion: "Anything can go with anything so long as the balance is right." She undermines classic notions of what is sweet, what is savoury. "Rouget de petits bâteaux, fressinette rôtie au garam masala, jus pressé à l'arête" translates roughly into red mullet, banana roasted with garam masala, and a jus from the fishes' bones. It gives scant impression of the subtlety with which it's composed. Finger-sized fillets sit on firm slices of spiced tropical banana, with streaks of concentrated balsamic-coloured fish essence. In theory, it could be a throwback to the bad old excesses of nouvelle cuisine. In practice, it's outstanding. Pic is conscious of how close she sails to the wind: "My father hated nouvelle cuisine. He found the tiny portions on a plate ridiculous. I ask myself how he would react to me if he could see me." The best compliment anyone can pay her, she says, is to call her cooking original. It hasn't been borrowed from other chefs and disguised. Each dish on her menu has been conceived, developed and refined by her. Her husband used to tax her with taking dishes that her customers loved off the carte. She responded that she had to move on. Now a favourite one season may reappear the next, but only if it's been improved. A plated lobster, tomato water and saffron jelly from last year is now served in two stages so that the distinctive tastes stand apart and complement each other better. This summer's chilled, shimmering green pea jus, with a sweet onion crème glacée and Aquitaine caviar will have vanished next year, unless she can take it to another level. So will the rhubarb emulsion with spiced streusel and tarragon sorbet… and the grilled duck liver with a cherry compote and a Flor de Selva tobacco pepper jus. What Michelin trois étoiles share as a body is consistency. The kitchens (20 chefs at La Maison Pic) depend on precise recipes, accurate cooking times, streamlined mise en place. Instead of an inspired maestro performing his culinary wizardry every meal, the kitchen has to run like a machine. According to Pic, "Cooking is getting more like pâtisserie." Partly for this reason, partly from personal temperament, she doesn't dominate her brigade by aggression. "I've never felt the need to shout," she says. "For a woman to earn respect, she has to be fair. It takes a lot to make me raise my voice, and if I do, it's with good cause." In control Until the award of the third star she liked to involve herself on the stove. Now she controls the pass, because she feels it's the best place to link up with the front of house while staying in control of the kitchen's output. It frustrates her that she's cooking less than she'd like, but it helps her to orchestrate the service. Stellar chefs such as Ducasse, Ramsay, Robuchon and Guy Savoy have used their status to build mini-empires. To date, Pic hasn't extended her gaze beyond her front entrance. Alongside the restaurant is the 7 bistro, Sinapian's idea. The name comes from the RN7 main highway passing through Valence that links Paris to the South of France. It's simply a relaxed place to eat the house cuisine at a fraction of the gastronomique price. The two set bistro menus at €17 (£11.50) and €30 (£20) compare with €135 (£91.50) and €185 (£125) in the main restaurant. In its own right, the cooking is as good, fresh and modern, using the same ingredients and depending on the same kitchen staff as its illustrious sister. For the moment the couple remain focused on La Maison Pic. Although offers for new projects have landed on their doorstep like confetti, they have held back. Like her father before her, Pic doesn't put herself about. She limits herself to two trips away per year, not only for her business but also her family's sake. She has a young son, Nathan, for whom she is determined to make time. Motherhood has changed her outlook. Until he was born, she confesses, she channeled all her energy into work. Now she has another perspective. She can detach herself from her professional persona. As a result, she finds that she is more creative, less stressed. Happy family Writing in *The Great Chefs of France* (1978), author Quentin Crewe described the Pic family as happy and closely knit. It's a quality that is almost tangible in the restaurant today. "We are a happy family again," she agrees, "but one that has suffered. Having lived through a bad period we've emerged stronger." That strength has been reinforced by the Michelin accolade. It fulfilled an ambition that was clearly defined in Pic's mind. It has also brought her a measure of serenity. For the guests who arrive chez Pic without knowing, there are few hints as to whether there's a man or woman at the helm. Even the cooking isn't noticeably feminine. A cube of aubergine caviar with a salty basil glaze, or melting ball of St Marcellin cheese in a hazelnut crust, or a quenelle of avocado bavarois painted with a Worcester sauce chaudfroid, offered as amuse-bouche, pretty and delicate, are the only slight clues. In the end, it doesn't matter. Pic, as the Michelin Guide liked to say, is again "one of the best tables in France". [
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