This was one of my most memorable conversations of the year. The entire conversation spanning several hours with the charming Michel Troisgros was peppered with laughter and light moments. It was refreshing to meet a grand chef who is so unassuming, sans ego and down to earth.
Needless to say the dining experience at Maison Troisgros was once again superb, and the delectable salmon in sorrel sauce just as memorable. I hope to visit him and Cesar in their new location as the next chapter in the Troisgros history unfolds.
Chef Michel Troisgros: Simplicity and Refinement
by Geeta Bansal
Michel Troisgros, the famed French chef, represents the third generation of the celebrated culinary family holding court since 1930 at Maison Troisgros in the small town of Roanne, west of Lyon. The present patriarch of the family now accompanied by his two sons Cesar and Leo is carrying forth the family tradition and name not only in his operations in France but also overseas. Michel’s grandparents Jean Baptiste and his wife Marie could not have envisioned when they relocated from Burgundy and opened the doors to their small Hotel-Restaurant des Platanes across from the town’s train station that three more generations would follow in their footsteps. Their two sons Jean and Pierre grew up in the small family business and then in their teens set off to train in some of the best kitchens in Paris, Normandy, and the Basque Region. After acquiring their certification (CAP) they joined the kitchen of the acclaimed Parisian restaurant “Lucas Corton”.
By a happy coincidence living legend Paul Bocuse was in the same kitchen and there began a friendship that has influenced French gastronomy over the ensuing decades. The two brothers then returned to train with Ferdinand Point and Paul Mercier at L’Pyramid in Vienne before heading back to Paris to Maxims and the Hotel de Crillon, before family duty brought them home to Roanne. The family hostelry, which had been renamed “Hotel Moderne”, very soon began to be known as les Freres Troisgros where the brothers put their skills to work in the kitchen while their father took care of the dining room. The first Michelin star came in 1955, the second in 1965, and the third in 1968, and they have been retained since. Pierre’s delectable iconic salmon in sorrel sauce, which is believed to have earned the second star, is still the iconic dish of the house. The forward thinking Pierre Troisgros was one of the first French chefs of his time to venture into the Japanese markets where he opened several boutiques in Tokyo in 1980.
Tragedy struck with the passing away of his brother Jean in 1983 and Pierre needed his oldest son Michel by his side to continue the family legacy. Michel Troisgros accompanied by his wife Anne-Marie was then following the footsteps of his father and uncle by traveling and training in restaurants in France and beyond. Michel and Anne-Marie’s love story began at school in Lycée Technique Hotelier in Grenoble when he was just sixteen and led to a life together pursuing a mutual passion. They then settled in Roanne upon their return to raise their three children while working to modernize and expand the family business by refurbishing the Relais & Chateau listed restaurant and hotel.
First they added the “Le Central” annex to serve traditional bistro cuisine while Michel added an international flair to the formal restaurant. In 2001 they opened “Le Koumir” in Moscow and in 2004 ventured into Paris with the “Table du Lancaster”, no longer associated with them. 2006 brought “La Colline du Colombier” outside of Roanne, and in the same year the eponymous “Michel Troisgros” restaurant opened its doors at the Park Hyatt in Tokyo. The couple’s travels took them to London, Brussels, New York, Tokyo, and San Francisco among other cities, and Michel trained with the likes of Alain Chapel, Roger Verge, Michel Gerard, Michel Bourdain, and Alice Waters. Wife Anne- Marie worked in various hotels brought their international flair to the family operations. In 1993 Michel took over the reins of the kitchen from Pierre, bringing his minimalistic flair and trademark use of acidity to enhance the flavors of his compositions. Awards such as the Gault-Millau Chef de l’Annee in 2003, and the Legion d’Honneur in 2004, followed.
At Maison Troisgros, the kitchen windows overlook to lush gardens, enabling hotel and restaurant guests to watch the orchestrated ballet in the kitchen as Michel and his two sons create their magic. The operation is slated to move to its new home just a few kilometers away in the neighboring countryside in 2016. Marie-Pierre, the decorator and designer, will once again work her magic to create the perfect backdrop to her husband and sons creations. The kitchen famously utilizes the region’s bounty, benefitting from the family’s long association with producers and wine makers in the region. The famed wine cellars hold over 40,000 bottles for the pleasure of oenophiles. Longstanding fans of the house may rest assured the signature l’Escalope de saumon a l’oseille will still be served at the new location, being one of the classics of nouvelle cuisine first created in the Troisgros kitchens in 1962.
Michel’s brother Claude Troisgros, whose L’Olympe restaurant is named after their Italian mother, has established himself in Rio de Janeiro where he owns three other restaurants having also ventured into New York and more successfully into Miami. Jean Troisgros’s son George, following family tradition, is a well-known chef in New York City. Many celebrated chefs have trained in the famed kitchens over the years including Bernard Loiseau, Guy Savoy, Judy Rodgers, Traci Des Jardins, Elena Arzak, Pascal Barbot, Andre Chiang, David Burke, and many more. Michel’s older son Cesar followed in his father’s footsteps, training in the French Laundry kitchens under Chef Thomas Keller, and both father and son happily share anecdotes about their California experiences. He has also authored several cookbooks including his popular “La cuisine acidulée”.
We sat down one morning with the articulate and affable Michel Troisgros in the chic grey-toned sitting room of Maison Troisgros for a very interesting and enlightening conversation. It is not only his cuisine that speaks, as the well-read and informed chef is open to conversations about many varied subjects. We took a trip down memory lane with him to the Chez Panisse days, and he shared both the excitement and apprehensions of the future and the upcoming move to new quarters and working side by side with his sons.
In 1977 I went to work there but the first time I visited California was for a special dinner at the Mondavi Winery with my uncle Jean who was at that time a star of nouvelle cuisine Francaise .It was the era when French chefs were stars around the world. I had started cooking at seventeen and to get an opportunity to go to California was like a dream for anyone my age. I was a fan of rock n roll and many American singers. I spent a week in San Francisco and Napa Valley with my uncle and on our way back we stopped at Chez Panisse for a meal. That was the first time I met Alice Waters. I was impressed by the sensitivity of the place and at that time the idea of living and working there was very appealing as it as such a contrast to the place where I had grown up.
What was so different?
I had by that time worked with Japanese chefs, with Alain Chapel, Roger Verge, Frédy Girardet, and also worked at Taillevent. I was nineteen when I went to California and found their way of working, of considering the staff, the social connections between the people, the cuisine, being yourself, and being in the presence of a charismatic chef, going to the markets with Mark Miller, who was the chef at that time, very appealing. We very quickly became good friends and since he was in charge of the market I got to learn about the produce. In 1978 Alice was already very well-known and some very unusual people were cooking in her kitchen. Another difference was that as opposed to France where we have a colony of producers and longstanding connections, this system did not exist in California. I felt that in a new place far away from my home with new people, new language, new culture that time of my life gave me a real sense of what liberty is and what being yourself is. California is a melting pot and I met people from many different parts of the world. The diversity gives you the opportunity to explore other cultures like Chinese, Italian, American, etc. and so it was a very enriching experience for me.
It was a dream team with Jeremiah Towers, Judy Rodgers, Jean-Pierre Moulle and a fabulous pastry chef who has since passed away. The atmosphere was beautiful and Alice though not really cooking was providing a good spirit to the place, being very open to everyone, traveling, writing, thinking about what could be done to make it the best place for everyone. Prior to that experience I was a chef but with my hands and not with my mind and that was where I learnt to work with both. Talking about the cuisine I still remember a caramelized almond tart which was baked a very long time in a slow oven, resulting in something so delicious that I got a piece of it twice a day because I loved it. That dream tart is my favorite memory of Chez Panisse!
You have boutiques and a restaurant in Tokyo, but have the recent Fukushima nuclear accident and aftermath of the Tsunami affected your business there?
It is a concern but we have to live with it, though of course it is at the back of my mind for a few split seconds every day. All we can do is continue doing what we do, working with suppliers who can guarantee the ingredients are coming from a safe environment and place in Japan. My chefs, manager, and patissier are mostly French, and living there because they love it and are very involved with Japan. In fact it is not just a project for them but their life since some have Japanese spouses and are raising families there.
I do travel quite often to Tokyo and wonder if one of my sons will want to live there in the future how I will deal with it. I am not sure if I would like to see them there for a long stretch of time. Hopefully the government is doing its best to deal with safety issues. Nature is unpredictable anywhere but regardless Japan is an incredible place with a very sophisticated culture. They have strong traditions on one side and the most sophisticated technology on the other; it is a paradox in a way.
It goes way back in the past and there is a culinary bridge with exchange of knowledge between the French and Japanese chefs. Just after WWII French chefs traveled there doing promotions and discovering new ingredients and at that same time many young Japanese chefs came here to learn. There was sharing of passion for the table on both sides along with a mutual pleasure of creating great cuisine.
You spoke in San Sebastián a few years ago about how the plating style changed in France after the Grand Chefs traveled to Japan. Can you elaborate on that?
It happened over a long period between the sixties and continuing until today. It has been the influence of the aesthetic the French chefs imbibed from Japanese cuisine. Not kaiseki cuisine but everyday Japanese cuisine and sushi. A caricature of this could be “Less is More”. The simplicity of composing a plate with fewer ingredients, but these ingredients are chosen with a clever vision to create a perfect balance. French cuisine was all about techniques and memories and was too elaborate and hard to perfect. The Japanese influence resulted in simplicity and some Japanese techniques like marinating with soy , ginger, yuzu, sake, wasabi etc. which came into use making the French cuisine what it is today.
Yes, simplicity is the hardest point to reach. Simplicity along with refinement, especially when no one has done it before, is difficult. Simplicity is also the representation of your true opinion in an institution like ours here at Troisgros. It looks simple to the guest but it is complex and hard to achieve, since you need to have the capacity to communicate your concept, be proud of it and stand by it. You have to consider not only the time to create, but the time to compose, to elaborate and express. Picasso or other abstract artists after painting landscapes, figures went gradually towards monochromes and abstractions. Refinements and paring down continued in their concepts and work and I think that is what is happening in cuisine.
Does this process get easier with age and maturity?
I do believe that it does and experience and maturity have enabled me to move and express myself better. The other aspect of my life that has changed me is my children. The transmission of ideas between us has had an influence on me.
It was a big decision considering the history, economy and social connections. We have a sentimental attachment here and on the other hand there is also risk involved in this decision too. Since I look at the future with the knowledge of the past I decided to go ahead for my children. I want them to breathe new air, not be bound by the weight of tradition and the past. I know how that feels since it was my life, not that I did not appreciate it or feel very lucky to have that. Today I am free but for many years I was bound by family history, tradition and even guests who expected that from me. It makes your life feel heavy without freedom to imagine or be dynamic.
In this context the choice of moving makes sense. We are only moving the location but still staying in our familiar region. It is only seven kilometers from here and the restaurant and hotel will be in the center of the parcel of land with gardens and capacity to plant fruit, vegetables etc. We are moving from a station to a garden (laughing). Initially it will be hard with nostalgia about the past but I am aware of it and anticipate that will happen after leaving this place.
My son Cesar is very involved in this project, in the design, circulation etc. and since it is an old farm we have to organize everything with respect to the future. Cesar is very mature for his age, maybe more than I was at 28. At that age I was a chef but still playing and not so focused and not thinking about the future. I am sure the first year will be a period of adjustment. I am also aware that it will change the way I cook and will certainly change my daily life. So I anticipate change within myself in this period.
These days a chef has to be in this position of doing it all and besides cooking also organizing the culture around him. I am a chef who still cooks and not the kind that opens a new restaurant every year. I am a chef who likes being in his home and welcoming guests to give them our best as a family. I am doing that here but at the new place I want my sons involved and besides me. I feel that they should be free and not be weighed down by the Troisgros legacy. It will be a new beginning for all of us.
(Laughing) You must ask her if she thinks that way but for me it is. We are fifty-fifty in this equation and my only advantage is that I am the son of Pierre Troisgros and (laughing) it can give a good impression especially on my visiting card! I have to say since the beginning of our life she has been doing everything and managing everything but the cooking. She was more mature and thinking ahead than I was when we started probably because all women are that way. I am so lucky to have her by my side. I think my Italian grandmother Olympe gave me this heritage of life. In fact I remember her telling me once that I will be lucky in my life. As for me I believe in an old French proverb that says when you don’t know that something is impossible, then you do it!
“Pas qu il n save pas c’est impossible qu’il long fait”
Where did your love story begin, and when did you start working together?
We met for the first time in class at school in Grenoble. We were both in the same section and course. She was from an area near Valence and we fell in love during that time and then we grew up together in a sense. She loved the hotel business especially, organization and operation, and wanted to travel all over the world. Subsequently every city I traveled to work she worked in a hotel, sometimes in the same house like when I was with Girardet in Lausanne, first in the bar then the delicatessen. When I was at Taillevent in Paris she worked at the hotel reception. When I went to Brussels to work in Comme Chez Soi she was at the Hilton there and also at the Connaught in London. Though she did not accompany me to California, we were both together in New York at Bloomingdales for Michel Gerard and Petrossian caviar. We have now been together for thirty two years.
We were dreaming of Australia next and we had obtained our visas in Paris but then my uncle Jean suddenly passed away at 56 years of age. So we gave up our jobs in Sydney before ever traveling there and came back home. Marie-Pierre and I decided to help my father for a short while and during that time we got married and our daughter Maria was born. Then with a baby your life changes so before we knew it time passed and here we are.
Your sons have joined you in the kitchen now, and where once Guy Savoy apprenticed with your father, your younger son Leo spent a summer in Chef Savoy’s kitchens last year. Are you enjoying this new phase of working with the next generation of Troisgros?
I am now in the kitchen with Cesar, my older son who worked at the French Laundry in Napa, as well as with my younger son Leo and we have a lot ahead as a team. I am still young with good health and good energy to continue to create. In the coming years I will work together though right now I am still the creative. Like Michel Bras has done with his son Sebastián there will come a time when I will pass on the reigns to Cesar but for now I am at the helm. We do work more like four hands with the passage of time and though he has his ideas and I have mine, we incorporate our thoughts into a dish. I have my dish and he has his and we have some together. Sometimes one begins a dish and the other one takes it further. At the proper time it is my hope that he will attain superiority in his work and take over. Time will tell.
My working together with my father before I took over was a very successful process and I hope the same will happen with my sons. Though the period, the time, the economy and the world will be all different from when I was taking over. For a long time after my father Pierre stepped away I was alone in the kitchen and that time I was not sure the boys would follow.
It’s wonderful to think that now our family legacy will continue. Life is so short and unpredictable and fifteen years ago I experienced the transmission with my father, and now my sons are in the same process. I always think about transmission in our work and how we impart to one generation, and then right away it begins all over again.
You are sharing your knowledge with your sons as your father and uncle did with you, but how important is this generosity in transmission or sharing of knowledge for all Grand Chefs?
It is a priority to share your knowledge, not just with your children but with the younger generation of chefs. It is not about only sharing your know how with people around you but with other peers as well. Communication is very important since you cannot transmit knowledge without it. I always think about transmission in life and about teaching.
Scientific processes can be creative too though for me my sensitivity is not on that side. It’s a question of interest, of talent of preference and knowledge. I am myself not involved in such scientific processes. I love creating but my creation is in my kitchen with my son or another collaborator. We still continue to work like my father and uncle did, by thinking about it, making notes and I don’t design but make the dish over and over again, maybe fifty times till it I am happy with the result.
Once you reach that stage, do you still make changes over time to the dish?
Of course, though not every day because something else is in progress but a dish is always moving. It is not like a painting that is done and sold to someone else. A dish is your own creation and it is bound to change and progress. Some of us though don’t move forward and continue every day or every season to make the same dish. It also depends on the dish, for example the salmon with sorrel sauce that is the most emblematic dish of Jean and Pierre created in 1962 in which nothing changed. I tried when I was younger but looking back I feel it was a mistake and some ideas are good without evolution. I do however have a few variations of this dish though I did stop the fantasy of changing it. It is just like the No. 5 of Chanel: a classic.
These days things move faster and we are obsessed with the idea of moving and changing. I am not sure that today I could create an emblematic dish as my father and uncle. The world is different and when they created this dish they were hailed as heroes in the profession because it was a politic position to move the boundaries of French cuisine. It was the beginning of a new movement and a new way of cooking. The Escalope de Saumon is part of my roots and always gives me inspiration.
It just like the salmon dish is my compass that points me to the correct node. It is my way of seasoning, and all of my dishes and food are colored with acidity of many different types. With variations acidity is always the base of my cuisine. It is my style and as I realized later in life that it was a heritage from my grandfather and grandmother. Acidity is not a concept, it is not because I wrote a book about it or guests expect it but is part of me. The lemon, vinegar, fruits, and tomatoes are my preference in everything I cook. I didn’t realize it until others like my friend, a journalist, made me aware that this use of acidity differentiated me from other chefs.
I am sometimes inspired by memories but it’s not nostalgia since I haven’t forgotten those things. My son and other chefs in our kitchen have not experienced that period of cuisine as I did so sometimes I cook a dish or let them cook a dish to know what and how it was in those days.
It is similar to music or architecture where your knowledge about the past can help you create in the future. I am not nostalgic as I feel my life has been very happy in my family and my profession. I look for the future but I know the past and look back fondly with no regrets.