The po­etry of flavours

Neue Luxury - - Front Page - By Shirine Saad

On Av­enue Vic­tor Hugo in the quaint town of Va­lence, tucked be­tween Lyon and the Provence, perched on the banks of the Rhône and its golden vine­yards, the ven­er­a­ble Mai­son Pic is known only by fine gas­tronomes and con­nois­seurs. Some jour­ney from afar to savour the del­i­cate, ro­bust cui­sine of chef An­neSo­phie Pic, widely known as one of the great­est chefs in the world. Time is sus­pended at the Mai­son, where the suc­ces­sion of lux­u­ri­ous rooms en­velop vis­i­tors with lan­guorous el­e­gance—invit­ing them to linger in a plush leather sofa or in the court­yard un­der a lin­den tree for an apéri­tif and a long con­ver­sa­tion— sur­rounded with both con­tem­po­rary de­sign and the an­tiques of typ­i­cal French man­sions. Be­tween the Mai­son’s glo­ri­ous past and Anne- So­phie Pic’s re­fined spirit, guests are in­vited to an ex­pe­ri­ence solely de­voted to the pur­suit of plea­sure.

The grand­daugh­ter and daugh­ter of two Miche­lin-starred chefs, Pic hails from the great tra­di­tion of south-west­ern French cui­sine, with its ro­bust gratins, veni­son feasts, black blood pud­dings, pun­gent cheeses and dra­matic wines. She cooks with the re­gion’s bounty of fruits, veg­eta­bles, herbs and flow­ers, us­ing more fish than meats to con­coct dishes that are as com­plex— but lighter and sub­tler—than the re­gional clas­sics. Rather than seek­ing to im­press with cut­ting edge tech­niques, as many of her male coun­ter­parts do, she chan­nels her sen­si­bil­ity into a cui­sine that is a gen­uine re­flec­tion of her sen­ti­men­tal­ity.

In­spired by child­hood mem­o­ries, trips around the world, mu­sic, books and paint­ings, each dish is a poem cel­e­brat­ing ter­roir and the sub­lime emo­tion of a shared meal. For hol­i­days, Pic fa­vors beets sautéed in cof­fee but­ter and served over tart berries, rather than the cliche truf­fles and lob­ster. For spe­cial oc­ca­sions, she con­cocts her spe­cialty dish: a sin­gle ravi­oli filled with smoked cheese and im­mersed in a wa­ter­cress, ginger and berg­amot con­sommé, which is named af­ter a Prous­tian French candy: les Ber­lin­gots. On any ca­sual night her favourite sand­wich is a French bistro clas­sic: a melt­ing Croque Madame, swathed in unc­tu­ous Bechamel—ide­ally at home, with her fam­ily.

The fourth woman in France to be awarded three Miche­lin stars since the leg­endary Mère Bra­zier in 1933, and the only liv­ing Miche­lin-starred fe­male chef, Pic has faced many chal­lenges through­out her ca­reer, par­tic­u­larly in a field dom­i­nated by testos­terone-fueled com­pe­ti­tion. But she has grace­fully carved her po­si­tion in the world of gastronomy, bal­anc­ing her roles at the Mai­son, and run­ning both the ho­tel, gas­tro­nomic restau­rant, café and cook­ing school at Lau­sanne’s Beau Ri­vage Palace and at La Dame de Pic in Paris. Her cui­sine is both mas­cu­line and fem­i­nine, steeped in tra­di­tion and in­no­va­tion, com­plex, un­ex­pected, some­times provoca­tive, but ever del­i­cate, sen­sual, in­tu­itive and never brash.

“Tra­di­tion im­plies tem­po­ral­ity and I’m very sen­si­tive to that,” ex­plains the chef. “I be­lieve that a cui­sine needs time to take shape, to be imag­ined. Tra­di­tion equally sends me back to the no­tion of her­itage and trans­mis­sion from my fa­ther and grand­fa­ther. At the same time, my first emo­tions and culi­nary dis­cov­er­ies are associated to the fam­ily cook­ing, of my mother and grand­mother. These emo­tions gave birth to my re­search around the quin­tes­sence of taste, of strik­ing the right note, of bal­ance.”

The fam­ily’s his­tory in gastronomy was pi­o­neered by Pic’s great grand­mother, So­phie, who es­tab­lished her restau­rant, L’auberge des Pins, in the Ardèche re­gion and de­lighted diners with poul­try fric­as­sées, gratins and rab­bit stews. Her son, An­dré, took over and won three Miche­lin stars in 1934; in 1936, moved to the Na­tionale 7 road that slices through the coun­try’s north-south axis from Paris to Men­ton— es­tab­lish­ing the Mai­son Pic— and whip­ping up spe­cial­ties like the ‘poularde en vessie,’ ‘gratin de queues d’écrevisses’ or ‘boudin de bro­chet à la Riche­lieu.’ In 1956, his son Jac­ques main­tained the maisons three-star rank­ing with an avant-garde take on the clas­sics—with novel com­bi­na­tions such as seabass filet with caviar or sweet­breads and mint.

“For me tra­di­tion and moder­nity are two faces of the same coin,” con­tin­ues Pic. “Rather than op­pose them, I bring them to­gether. We shouldn’t for­get where we come from, but that doesn’t mean we can’t keep mov­ing. As Jean Cocteau put it, ‘tra­di­tion is per­pet­ual move­ment. It moves for­ward, it changes, it lives’.”

Pic’s cre­ations al­ways fol­low the rhythm of na­ture and sea­sonal pro­duce. She reg­u­larly meets with farm­ers, fish­er­men, butch­ers and pur­vey­ors of rare in­gre­di­ents to source the best pro­duce avail­able from the re­gion. Work­ing with raw prod­ucts, she lets her palate lead, seek­ing to con­trast un­fa­mil­iar tastes such as acid­ity, bit­ter­ness, tor­refac­tion, io­din­ity and smok­i­ness. Fear­less, she se­lects for­got­ten roots such as turnip and cab­bage, cin­na­mon leaf rather than pow­der, tea and ca­cao grind as condi­ments, dashi broths, in­fused but­ters and smoked meats.

Pic cre­ates visual po­ems with these in­gre­di­ents, re­ly­ing on her imag­i­na­tion to cre­ate new flavour pair­ings. She com­pares this cog­ni­tion to a com­poser play­ing with mu­si­cal notes. The chef then heads to the kitchen of her cook­ing school to re­search and pre­pare test dishes, recre­at­ing a dish at least six times be­fore set­tling on a recipe. Metic­u­lous, she jots down notes on every test, every im­pres­sion to help process and re­solve her ideas. Each dish must reach visual per­fec­tion: Pic uses tweez­ers to dis­pose every el­e­ment, painstak­ingly lay­er­ing flavours, tex­tures and colours. Her ‘to­mate plurielle’ is a burst of raw toma­toes, iced con­sommé tinged with black­cur­rant and el­der­flower bur­rata ice cream. The blue lob­ster, roasted with lob­ster-flavoured but­ter and doused in red fruit dashi, is served with cherry chut­ney and beets. Co­conut shells are used to cook a freshly shucked co­quille st jac­ques while john do­rys are cov­ered in sweet Tahi­tian vanilla sauce. Her bread is spiked with ce­re­als and gen­maicha tea, cof­fee or voat­siper­ifery pep­per.

“My cui­sine is an ex­pres­sion of my emo­tion and my in­tu­ition,” muses Pic. “As a self-taught chef, I’ve heav­ily re­lied on my in­stinct to cre­ate. Now my cui­sine is filled with the un­ex­pected, even dif­fi­cult flavours—i work hard on the aro­matic com­plex­ity of my dishes. I en­joy pow­er­ful flavours.”

Pic walked into the kitchen af­ter study­ing lux­ury man­age­ment in Paris and work­ing at Moët & Chan­don (New York) and Cartier (Tokyo). Home­sick, she re­turned to Va­lence in 1992 de­ter­mined to learn about gastronomy and hos­pi­tal­ity. Her fa­ther as­signed her to the kitchen and trained her, but passed away a few short months later, leav­ing 23 year old Pic alone to run the re­cep­tion of the pres­ti­gious in­sti­tu­tion. She gave the ad­min­is­tra­tive side to her hus­band David Si­napian, whom she met at busi­ness school. Af­ter the restau­rant lost a Miche­lin star in 1995, she de­cided to re­turn to the kitchen. A few years later Pic re­ceived the Che­va­lier des Arts et des Let­tres dis­tinc­tion; while the restau­rant earned back its three Miche­lin stars (2007) and a host of cov­eted awards in­clud­ing the Che­va­lier de la Lé­gion d’hon­neur in 2012. In 2009 Pic opened a restau­rant at Lau­sanne’s Beau Ri­vage Palace; in 2012 she in­au­gu­rated La Dame de Pic in Paris. And this year, trav­el­ers of Air France’s first class will savour her dishes on board.

“Anne- So­phie is per­pet­u­at­ing the great tra­di­tion of her fa­ther and grand­fa­ther,” says Paul Bo­cuse, who men­tored the young chef when she found her­self alone in the kitchen. “Be­hind her frag­ile ap­pear­ance is a truly great chef.”

What drives Pic is not glory or fame. Re­served, del­i­cate, gen­er­ous, she prefers to be re­ferred to as a cook, not a chef, and val­ues time with her fam­ily over in­dus­try cer­e­monies. She is ma­ter­nal and firm in the kitchen. The first to taste every­thing and the last to check a dish be­fore it leave the pass. Above all, Pic is driven by the quest for the ac­tiv­ity that the French have so per­fectly cul­ti­vated and pre­served: plea­sure.

“I as­so­ci­ate gastronomy with plea­sure and taste,” she says. “I was for­tu­nate to be born into a fam­ily where we ate for plea­sure’s sake. I have nu­mer­ous and mov­ing mem­o­ries of fam­ily meals where every­thing was an ex­cuse for the dis- cov­ery of new sen­sa­tions and savours. I’m try­ing to trans­mit this emo­tion with my cui­sine and to of­fer it to my guests.”

Ul­ti­mately, Pic’s is a poet’s work: cre­at­ing a fleet­ing, over­whelm­ing sense of aes­thetic, sen­sual and emo­tional de­light. “A meal at my restau­rant must be a unique, mag­i­cal mo­ment, out­side [of] time,” con­cludes the chef. “I love this idea that a meal is ephemeral in a so­ci­ety some­times too fo­cused on pos­ses­sion. From the mo­ment spent at the restau­rant, the diner keeps noth­ing but mem­o­ries. My job con­sists of mak­ing sure that those mem­o­ries are un­for­get­table, and con­sti­tute a mo­ment of eter­nity.”

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