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The Caterer

Stage dialogue

13 December 2004 by
Stage dialogue

Last July Andrew Jones became the envy of many a previous Roux Scholar when, as the current holder of the title, he set off to do a three-month stage in France. Why? Because the kitchen that the Claridge's sous chef was headed for was that of renowned French chef, Michel Bras.

Bras is one of the most highly regarded chefs in Europe, famous for his use of wild herbs and local produce. His subliminal influence can be seen in the work of rising Spanish star Andoni Luis Adúriz (Caterer, 25 November, page 24) and our own Tom Aikens, in the fresh, clean and intense flavours that inform their cooking. Ask pretty much any of our leading chefs and they will talk about Bras with the greatest respect - awe, even. That's some achievement.

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Gargouillou, Michel Bras's signature warm salad of young late-summer seasonal vegetables, includes mung bean sprouts, courgettes, basil, haricot beans, peas, fennel, carrots, cauliflower, flat-leafed parsley, beetroot, cucumber, cabbage and spring onions
So, for 27-year-old Jones, who had never worked outside the UK before, to be heading to Bras's kitchen in Laguiole on France's Aubrac plateau was both a dream come true and a somewhat daunting prospect, particularly as he didn't speak French. He needn't have worried. For not only is Bras a great chef, he is also a man of humanity who runs his business with consideration for his staff, as scholarship founder Michel Roux discovered when he visited Jones towards the end of his scholar's stage in September. "I really can't fault the way I've been looked after," says Jones, as the duo sit chatting about his experiences in the light and airy dining room at Bras, as the restaurant is called. "Everybody's been really friendly and generous - from Michel Bras down. I've really learnt loads." What has impressed Jones is not just Bras's cooking, but the whole operation at the restaurant. The detail in everything - front of house, the hot kitchen, pastry, the painstaking sourcing of ingredients - is impressive. And everywhere there are links with Bras's locality. Produce is sourced from local suppliers; materials used in the design of the building include local granite; water on the table is from the Aubrac plateau; the cutlery is made in Laguiole, the restaurant's nearest town and a world-famous knife-making centre. Glancing at the knives, Roux is surprised. "I've never seen that before," he exclaims, pointing to the notch in the handle which enables the knives to be propped securely on the edge of a diner's plate, or on the chopstick-like rest that everyone is provided with so that they can retain the implement throughout a meal. "That's very clever." An earlier conversation with Bras in the latter's glass-walled office in the middle of his kitchen is still resonating with Roux. The chat not only took in aspects of Bras's food philosophy but also touched on how he interacts with his staff. Every Monday the chef and his team - who, incidentally, address him as "Michel" rather than the traditional "chef" - do something together: grape-picking, playing a game of football with another local team, it could be anything. The tradition - which doesn't impinge on the two days a week that everybody at Bras gets off anyway - has obvious team-bonding effects. But it's clear that Bras does it because he enjoys spending time with his staff, whom he looks upon as more of an extended family. "It's genuine," confirms Jones. "And he's like that with guests, too. Some people came into his office the other day to ask about a walking route and he showed them on the map and then went out and actually pointed them on their way. It doesn't matter who he's talking to, he always takes time."
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Andrew Jones and Michel Roux relax in the lounge at Bras overlooking the Aubrac plateau
A note on the kitchen bulletin board telling the brigade of the progress of a young chef who is recovering in hospital after a serious car accident underlines the family atmosphere. As does the fact that the Bras family - Michel and his wife, Ginette; his parents (Mum still cooks the family meal); his son and daughter-in-law and their own young children - always sit down to eat family meals in the kitchen. The F factor - family and fraternity - is not just for show. "A lot of people could learn from him," reflects Roux. "What you've got here is a real masterclass in how to make a successful business - it's not just about the food. You have to be wise. You have to put your soul into it." Let's get back to the other important F factor that defines Bras: the food. His cuisine is rooted in the flavours of Aubrac, be they the wild herbs (one, cistre - a kind of wild fennel - has been adopted as the logo of the restaurant; another, the bitter-edged gentian, is used to nuance a sweet white wine, the house apéritif) or the local dairy produce or meat; be they the area's fruit and veg or a simple, traditional dish such as aligot (mashed potatoes with local Laguoile cheese). His dishes play around with temperatures; he uses pur‚es and gel‚es to accent dishes; he uses powders (sometimes referred to loosely as "niacs") to add intensity to a central flavour on the plate. His food is beautifully balanced. It's musical, if you like, with no dissonant voice throwing the ingredient elements out of kilter. On Roux's visit, there isn't a dud dish in the whole of Bras's "D‚couverte & Nature" tasting menu (see panel). There is wit in abundance, too: in an amuse-bouche of what, on the face of it, looks like a boiled egg with bread soldiers. It's not as simple as that in reality, of course. The raw egg is extracted and Thermomixed with cream and butter, then put back in the shell before it starts to "scramble"; the soldiers are roasted fingers of bread flavoured with something unexpected like cumin, sprinkled with sesame seeds. Fun is in the presentation of another amuse - three teaspoons (eaten in order) holding granola, mackerel, and a beef consomm‚ topped with a slice of fennel. There is sublimity in Bras's signature warm salad - or gargouillou - of young seasonal vegetables and herbs (we counted more than 20). "I'm so happy in the cooking of the vegetables," smiles a delighted Roux. "Every one is perfectly cooked." And there is surprise in the matching of a sliver of rock salt-topped foie gras with two little melon balls, one confited, the other raw, and a ginger purée. All in all there is a lot of knowledge that Jones can carry back to London with him. "Yes," he agrees, "but I'll take back techniques and elements. I don't feel it's right to take whole dishes. The way I've learnt to cook foie gras here, the method that they use to make purées - I'd like to introduce those to the kitchen back at Claridge's." n Michel Bras Michel Bras was born in 1946 in Gabriac, south-west France. His parents ran a family auberge, Lou Mazuc, in nearby Laguiole, which he and his wife, Ginette, eventually took over in 1977. Bras was at the helm in the kitchen, Ginette looked after all things front-of-house.
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Chef-patron Michel Bras
At Lou Mazuc, Bras began to develop his sophisticated take on terroir cooking, producing food that quite clearly was inspired by his region of France but was modern and challenging, too. His reputation for inventively using the wild herbs of the Aubrac plateau and the region's local produce to create ultra-fresh, clean-flavoured dishes soon brought him recognition from Michelin and Gault-Millau. Lou Mazuc garnered one Michelin star in 1978, then in 1987 won a second, along with a Gault-Millau score of 19 out of 20. Not bad for a self-taught chef who had stayed in his own back yard and eschewed the call of Paris and Lyons. His phenomenal knowledge of herbs was accumulated out of a passionate interest. "I didn't just wake up with it," he says. "I acquired it by talking to local people, by growing things myself, by reading, by life." Michel and Ginette relocated their restaurant in 1992 to a small mountain, Puech de Susquet, overlooking Laguiole. They changed its name to Michel Bras and transformed it into a 15-bedroom restaurant with rooms, creating a cutting-edge, modern building with a minimalist interior design in the process. Stone from the surrounding hills was used, timber from the nearby woods. A third Michelin star came in 1999; and earlier this year, to recognise the fact that their son, S‚bastien, and daughter-in-law, Véronique, were now playing a key role in the running of the business (Sébastien as head chef, Véronique working alongside Ginette front of house), the restaurant was renamed Bras. The 2005 Roux Scholarship When Michel and Albert Roux founded their scholarship to encourage and inspire young British-trained chefs back in 1983, they couldn't have foreseen that 22 years later it would still be one of the most sought-after titles on the competition circuit. That it has remained in the vanguard of culinary accolades is not down to chance, but to the personal involvement of the whole Roux family. Two generations of Roux chefs are involved in its organisation; its two founding fathers, Michel and Albert, plus their two sons - respectively, Alain and Michel Jnr. If the Roux family are the competition's soul, at its heart is the chance for the reigning scholar to work a three-month stage at a three-Michelin-starred restaurant of his or her choice in Europe. It's this element that has won the competition the backing of industry body the Savoy Educational Trust. If you fancy a tilt at the 2005 Roux Scholarship, you need to be aged between 22 and 30 as of 1 February 2005. You will need to submit a recipe for paper judging based around crab served out of the shell with two garnishes. At stake, apart from the European stage, are a £2,500 cash prize, a week-long expenses-paid working trip to New York, trips to AØ and Milan and £1,000-worth of state-of-the-art knives. Further information and entry forms can be obtained from roux@golleyslater.co.uk. Closing date for entries is 17 January 2005. Technical know-how Andrew Jones has taken back two techniques to the kitchens of Claridge's, where he works as senior sous chef to the London hotel's executive head chef Martyn Nail. Foie gras At Bras, foie gras is washed, seasoned, then vac-packed and cooked at a very low temperature for about an hour before being chilled. When it is needed for a dish, the liver is sliced, quickly pan-fried to colour and seal the juices, then brought up to 50-60¡C in a warming drawer before, finally, being flashed under a salamander to finish. The whole process gives a much firmer, smoother texture and keeps shrinkage through fat reduction to a minimum. Purees In the Bras kitchen, pur‚es are made in vac-packs rather than by boiling ingredients in water. This concentrates flavour, as you are reducing them in their own juices rather than dissipating the taste through another element. Decouverte & nature menu - Le gargouillou de jeunes legumes, relevé de graines germées et d'herbes champêtres - Les langoustines de casier relevées de pomme/gingembre/céleri jus de pommes et touch‚ de rau-ram - La tranche de foie gras de canard, rôtie, feuilles de para et tagettes, confit de melon épicé; du melon - vanilla et poivre - Oignon doux des Cévennes - raillolette - croût‚ aux truffes d'ici - La selle d'agneau Allaiton rôtie sur os; purée de celery-rave, touch‚ d'orange et tombée de Guinée; des poireaux et jus perl‚ à l'huile de rein-des-prés - Les fromages AOC d l'Aveyron et d'à côté: (Laguiole, Rocamadour, Roquefort, St Nectaire, Fourme d'Ambert…) et l'‚crir de l'Aubrac - Le biscuit tiède de potimarron coulant crème glacée au chocolat, caramel et réglisse - Une gaufrette de pomme de terre, crème au beurre noisette et caramel au beurre salé - D'un sorbet à l'alcool de vielle prune et d'une compotée de reines-claudes
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