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.