Anne-Sophie Pic Flies Above The Clouds
by Geeta Bansal
One of the top chefs in the world, Anne-Sophie Pic comes from a venerated family of great French chefs in southeastern France. So far few women have confidently broken into the male dominated circle of best chefs in the world other than Carme Ruscalleda, Nadia Santini, Anne-Sophie Pic, Elena Arzak, Helen Darroze, and very few others. In 2011 Pic, who incidentally is the only woman in France with three Michelin stars to her name, was awarded the Veuve Cliquot’s Best Female chef of the year at the Restaurant Magazine’s annual World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards sponsored by San Pellegrino and Aqua Panna. Anne-Sophie Pic with five Michelin stars is one of five women with this distinction yet her restaurant has not yet earned a spot on the 50 Best Restaurants List.
Recently in a conversation with Carme Ruscalleda, the seven-starred chef from Sant Pau in Spain I gained a new perspective on the subject of gender bias when she pointed out that it is probably discriminatory to attach a male or female epithet to a chef. In the conversation about chefs it is talent and creativity that should be the focus and not their sex as perhaps we could be discriminating against men in the process. Yet with dignity and confidence these women have entered this rarefied field of international culinary stars pitting their talent against their male peers. So it is probably unfair and discriminatory to label Sophie Pic as a female chef, she is just one of the best chefs in the world, gender be damned.
It would bode well for the men in the industry to not underestimate this chef in the conversation about the future of French cuisine. The young petite 45 year old represents the new face of the house of Pic in Valence, France which since 1889 has been one of the celebrated dining destinations in France. The house or Maison Pic owes its origins to her grandfather Andre Pic, the celebrated chef who earned the first three stars for Maison Pic in 1939. Over time the stars had whittled down to one in 1950 when his son and Sophie-Pic’s father Jacques Pic took over and eventually brought the former glory of three stars back by 1973. In a continuing cycle of progression and regression the repute of the restaurant was once again at stake at the time when Jacques unexpectedly passed away at the age of 59 in 1993 leaving the future of the house to Anne Sophie and her older brother Alain. Sophie- Pic, who was twenty two at the time and had trained for barely two months with her father in the kitchen, took over the front of the house while Alain took over the reins of the kitchen. That lasted till 1995 when after the loss of the third star Alain left the kitchen in 1998 and it was left to Ann-Sophie to save the future and repute of the house. She and her husband David Sinapian took over the challenging task in 1998 and have reestablished the importance of the Pic name in the region that is identified with other formidable names like Bocuse and Troisgros.
The remarkable journey of this talented woman, who cherishes her heritage while harboring ambitions of projecting it into a totally modern version of haute cuisine, was not without challenges. Ann-Sophie as she recounted in our conversation has nostalgic memories of Maison Pic since she actually grew up in the family quarters in the old building standing on the Main Street of Valence, about a 60 mile drive from Lyon. Not only does the back of the menu have pictures of Pic, her father and grandfather but she has obviously also inherited their talent in her DNA. The new chapter in the history of Maison Pic under her wing began with a modernization of the interiors with stunning decor and updated kitchens. Pic’s time spent in the luxury and craft trade prior to joining the family business gave her a keen eye for detail and resulted in what is one of the most spectacular Relais & Chateau listed properties anywhere with a minimalist decor that mixes several periods tastefully. Glass display cases lined with of hundreds of red Michelin guides from the earliest editions where the Pic name is listed stand next to ultra-modern sleek furnishings in the reception area. The landscaped Mediterranean style gardens set off this immaculate oasis in the heart of the bustling old town with its exquisite food and perfect service in its gastronomic restaurant with its chic decor and sophisticated cuisine.
Having set the stage she focused her attention on her cuisine and it was evident fairly soon that formidable task of establishing her own culinary identity in the kitchens that she now helmed was no match for this power house of woman. She savvily took the decision to remove the dated dishes on the menus with her contemporary flavor combinations, think beets and coffee, Drome pigeon marinated in Pastis, fennel and green anise, a scallop cooked in its natural juices, truffle and rum inside a coconut, sliced open tableside as I experienced recently. In 2001 Pudlo France recognized her as the Chef of the Year and she was on her way. Pic confidentially declared that gaining the third star back was not an insurmountable obstacle and set about doing just that in the rapidly changing world of haute cuisine where until her arrival only men had reigned in France. She not only regained the third star in 2007 but set out to establish an empire that now reaches into the sky with her recent Air France collaboration on menus in their premier class. Attention to detail is her forte and on a flight to New York in February she was spotted in her chef attire surprising passengers and ensuring that her flavor combinations were on point even up in the skies.
As we sat down to talk, Ann-Sophie directed us to a seating area by the windows as she said it had better light, evidence of her take charge type A personality.
How many elements should there be in a good dish?
In the beginning I used to think three and then I entered the world of perfumers and my work and my feelings and inspiration were all affected. When you start eating the dish it has to move, all the flavors have to balance. It does not have to be very linear and you should get all the favors in little increments. In the sauce there could be four or five different flavors, for example if you have matcha tea. bergamot, ginger, the taste of the pasta, the cheese, citrus and all the vegetables. You have to bring out in something very deep and light at the same time. Very strong flavor can overpower everything.
Your food has an emotional feel; it’s beautiful in essence, flavor, and technique. It evokes sentiments, so do you feel as a woman you have an advantage in expressing or projecting feelings in your food?
Probably yes, as you are a woman and you are a chef so you can understand that. I think I focus mainly on mixing tastes and flavors with one another, combination of flavors is very important in my way of cooking. So I try to work at creating the best sauces because to me sauce is the link between all the elements on a plate. The sauces can be complex with identifiable ingredients and with simplicity in the taste. A sauce balances everything and gives the diner emotion too. When I think of making a new dish it has to be strong because as I am getting older there is an influence in my cuisine from my maturity. When you begin working you are more shy and even though you have good ideas sometimes you are too shy and don’t really elevate the taste enough. As I got more confidence I pushed the taste quotient up on a plate. For me the visual of the plate is as important as the taste. I feel all the senses are involved and linked together and should be balanced.
That balance is hard to achieve, so how do you do it?
It means tasting at every stage, evaluate it sincerely, to be very involved in the process and give it your all.
Since you come from such a well-known culinary family and had a long succession to follow, did you have to work even harder to prove yourself?
Yes it is always harder coming from such a background but I think of each generation as a new birth. My grandfather was one of the first chefs in France to get three Michelin stars during the beginning of the French gastronomy as you know it now. When my father came and began working with him it was only one star at that time and he worked step by step to recover the level by adding his own energy and feelings for the cuisine and it’s the same for me.
I began working here two months before my father passed away, so I had to start afresh with my own energy and feelings based on my memories of what I had eaten as a child and my link with my past with my family. From the beginning I put a lot of sincerity into my job and this art because of the weight of my history and story.
I was born in this house and grew up in this house so a part of my heart is in this house. Eventually I opened my mind to the world and now I have a restaurant in Lausanne, in Paris and now the restaurants in New York. It is good to be out of the house as it gives me more influences, inspirations, new people to meet and learn from, find new suppliers, products, etc. So while it is important to feel well and content in the place where I was born, it is also important also to be able to leave it sometimes and venture out into the world.
When you took over the kitchen, there were some very iconic dishes at Maison Pic, so was it harder to put your own stamp and change the direction of the cuisine to reflect your creativity?
Yes of course it was very hard. As a result in the past year and half I have decided to have only my own dishes in the house. The reason behind this presentation of menus is because I want people to experiment more and experience more of my own dishes. Some of popular dishes like the sea bass with caviar from my father I don’t have any more on the menu because it does not fit into my own style of cuisine. I love the dish and probably at some time in the future I will have it back. And then I also have to assume responsibility for my own cuisine.
You have expanded skywards with Air France as I saw in a recent film clip. How did that come about?
Yes they approached me to start this venture with them. It’s not really cuisine, but assemblage as it is a different way of preparing and plating food. I didn’t know the clip was already showing and I haven’t seen it yet and I am curious to see it now. (This was late March)
So now you are traveling to New York to open two more restaurants, so is your English language improving?
Yes! (laughing) Now I have to practice more with spending time in New York and improve my accent.
In a comparatively short time you have expanded your businesses and become a recognized name in the world of gastronomy. Are you competitive by nature?
Yes, you said it. I am very competitive, a perfectionist and impatient .I am never satisfied with anything. Never, never.
So are you constantly tweaking your dishes?
Of course, I do it all the time. I need to keep improving the level.
How does your typical day begin?
I always take my son to school every morning. Nathan is almost ten now so that time is important to me and then I come to work and just concentrate on all the aspects of my work. I also have a very wonderful man as a husband who supports me totally.
What are your other passions besides cooking?
I love to read, and it is also very important for me to feel spiritual.
Did the interest in spirituality come with age and feeling more comfortable with yourself?
Perfectly said, because then you know who you are.
You are not seen at any international food events, so do you travel to any at all?
Not so much as I am busy at work but I did go to Copenhagen in August to MAD4 last year. I wanted to see what it looks like and what transpires there. It was very interesting and you come back a much stronger person and it opened my mind to new things. Otherwise I do not take a lot of time for these things though I probably should go more often but with my restaurants and my new openings I try to be very focused on my cuisine.