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A pilgrimage to Michel Bras's restaurant

11 May 2006
A pilgrimage to Michel Bras's restaurant

"God, this is good - don't you think this bread is good?" says Bruce Poole, munching on a saucisson butty. We're in south-west France, sitting in a café in Espalion, halfway between Rodez and Laguiole, and we're trying not to eat too much. Dinner is in four hours, and we've just flown 500 miles for one night. Our destination? Bras.

The three-Michelin-starred hotel-restaurant in the Aubrac hills is a destination for chefs and gourmands alike, such is the reputation of its chef-proprietor Michel Bras. His thing? Wild herbs (cistre, a sort of fennel, is used on the company logo) and painstakingly sourced local produce, from the marbled perfection of the local Aubrac beef to his signature warm salad of young seasonal vegetables (gargouillou).

Poole, of London's Chez Bruce, is not here just for the food - he's interested in the whole operation; while fellow traveller, Bristol chef-restaurateur Barny Haughton, of Quartier Vert, is particularly fascinated by the famed produce; for Kevin Mangeolles, executive chef at the George, in Yarmouth on the Isle of Wight, it is Bras's technique, as showcased in his book Essential Cuisine, that has drawn him to Laguiole.

On reaching Laguiole we dump our bags at the B&B, the rather gorgeous and significantly cheaper Ferme de Moulhac (Tel: 00 33 5 65 44 33 25, from 50/£34), and head up the hill to the Restaurant Bras. We can just make it out in the distance, perched on the Puech de Susquet, looking away from the cutesy - thanks to a booming knife-making industry - town of Laguiole.

Its rather bunker-like appearance makes sense as you draw closer. The squat, grey slate roof of the restaurant with separate hotel rooms below tries its best not to interfere with the awe-inspiring landscape or the huge glass windows that wrap around the building. Even the kitchen gets a view.

"It's disturbingly calm, isn't it?" remarks Haughton, as we're led past the hot kitchen and pastry section to Bras's glass-walled office an hour before service. Four chairs are lined up in a row in front of the man himself, who has horn-rimmed specs perched on the end of his nose. He is busy scribbling in a large notebook as we enter. We clock at least six of them, one lying open to reveal sketches of future dishes.

Poole dives straight in with questions about the set-up. There are 20 chefs, for 60 covers, and a total of 60 kitchen staff in all, with 80% returning the following year (the restaurant is closed from the end of October to the beginning of April).

The 39-hour week, which has governed the French hospitality industry in recent years, is enforced rigorously here. Maybe that's why the kitchen is so calm? "The big advantage with it is that everyone is more relaxed - and I never have a problem finding staff," explains Bras, with a shy smile.

One of Bras's key things, aside from the food, is how he fosters a team spirit in his brigade. The British visitors are intrigued by the staff bonding sessions, which he organises every Monday when the restaurant is closed. "We do all kinds of things together. Last week we picked grapes; next week we're having a feijoada party," explains Bras, whom everybody calls Michel, not chef, boss or sir. His brigade is his extended family, he explains.

The chefs ask him about his menu. "It's not about creating a new dish every day - I have 40 years' experience; but elements of the dishes change regularly, sometimes twice a day, depending on what's good at the market," explains Bras. "If I see some nice haricot beans, I put them on with the lamb, but it could just as easily be courgettes, if that's what is looking best."

Family auberge

Bras credits his mother for his acute sense of taste. "From my father, I get precision," he adds. His parents used to run a family auberge, Lou Mazuc, in Laguiole, before Michel and his wife, Ginette, took it over in 1977. It was there that Bras developed his particular terroir-focused style of cooking, gaining recognition from Michelin with one star in 1978, then winning a second in 1987. In 1992 the restaurant relocated to its present site, scooping a third Michelin star in 1999. It was originally called Michel Bras, but the chef's first name was dropped two years ago in recognition of the fact that his son, Sébastien, had taken over as head chef.

Bras also has a restaurant in northern Japan, in the Windsor Toya Resort & Spa, Hokkaido, which opened in 2002. And this is where he heads when he closes up in Laguiole at the end of each season.

It's time for dinner. A pre-dinner nibble of boiled egg and soldiers gets a universal thumbs-up. Bras had told us a little story earlier about the joys of stealing the neighbour's eggs and eating them raw when he was a kid. And here the eggs are - not quite raw - but extracted, thermo-mixed with cream and butter, and put back in the shell before they start to scramble; the soldiers are toasted fingers of seed-laden bread. A perfect cèpe tart follows - crisp pastry loaded with headily scented slices of mushrooms picked that morning from the surrounding hills.

Instead of ordering the signature Découvert & Nature menu (152/£104), we go off piste with the à la carte. There's four of us, we reason - between us we can try even more dishes, making one concession to the tasting menu by ordering an extra dish of the famous "gargouillou" of young vegetables.

It was everything we'd imagined - served warm, to bring out just the right amount of flavour, while still retaining texture. We counted nearly 20 different herbs and vegetables on the plate, from carrots, black radish, celeriac and butternut squash, to chanterelles, amaranth, spinach and leeks. To finish, a slice of sweet proscuitto, dried crumbled black olive, and hazelnut vinaigrette.

I won with my starter - a heart-stopping white potato soup with black truffle chantilly and olive oil, which came, oddly, in two servings. Haughton got the cèpe tart again, only not quite as good as the one we had earlier - "Limp pastry," he declared; Mangeolles ordered a rather "heftily portioned" mi-cuit tuna with shellfish jus, which he felt was a tad overdone; Poole an intriguing but, for him, ultimately disappointing cheese "charlotte" with onion confit - "The bread crust was too thick and there was not enough cheese." Oh dear.

The main courses perked up again. There was no disputing the quality of the produce, served with startling simplicity. A huge côte de boeuf Aubrac (140/£96 for two - I shared with Poole) was served rare and in two servings - too rare for the men (though not this bloodsucker), with a perfectly roasted shallot, beurre mousseux with lard and garlic, and green beans. The sleek, black, lethally sharp Japanese carbon knives given to cut our meat created even more discussion. They were selling for £150 each in the Bras shop adjacent.

Mangeolles chose young Aubrac venison, with butternut squash purée, lemon and turnip; while Haughton went for Aveyronnaise lamb, potato purée with gomasio (sesame salt) and subtle curry leaf-infused jus. All came with regional classic aligot - mashed potatoes with Aubrac tomme and cream.

After a long break to let our stomachs recover, we tucked into the puds we'd ordered at the beginning of the meal. I chose Bras's famous chocolate coulant - a fondant to beat them all; while Mangeolles went for a "brilliant" butter nougat millefeuille; Haughton, a "sublime" fig tart; and Poole, what he deemed a "clumsily executed" waffle with butternut squash and coffee, the squash being fibrously lumpy.

"I don't think I was being overly critical," declares Poole later. "Bras has three Michelin stars and 19/20 in Gault-Millau. What was really fascinating for me to see was how these guys operate. Anyone would want to work in that kitchen - you can see why the design is so important. Everything is back to front in London; the kitchen is usually an afterthought. Mine is like a submarine!"

Mangeolles is equally struck by the serenity of the work environment. "No one was running about like a headless chicken. It was all so relaxed - even the service. But the food wasn't quite what I expected - it was all rather more rustic than the book."

"I'd call it idiosyncratic," sums up Haughton. "They do what they do and if you ignore the fact that it has three Michelin stars, it all starts to make sense." Would they come again? "Yes, but next time we'll have the tasting menu," they chorus. Roll on next April.

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