In Valence, in southeastern France, three-Michelin-star chef Anne-Sophie Pic has turned the famed family establishment into a restaurant that speaks her own unique language.
Everything starts with her little Hermès notebooks that she is never without, even on vacation. She has them in every color – red, green – and changes to suit her mood. She even gives them as gifts to her deputies. She once left one on a train, but the conductor guessed who it belonged to when he saw a restaurant menu inside, and the saga had a happy ending. The reason Anne-Sophie Pic is so attached to these notebooks is because she jots down all her ideas on their pages. There’s a whole collection of these journals just on citrus. To hear her talk about them, one might think they were living creatures: “I need time alone with my notebooks, it’s where I write down lots of little things, intuitions about flavor pairings, oils, infused butters ...,” she explains by phone in her clear, soft voice. It’s only after this stage – what she calls the trame aromatique, meaning the “aromatic weft” or framework – that she discusses her ideas with her chefs and they set to work in what she terms her “test kitchens” that she built to have a place dedicated solely to research and development, away from the adrenaline-charged rush of the restaurant. Just recently, the fifty-something gastronomic giant finally settled on the word that best describes her work: imprégnation – permeation, imbuing, impregnation. “The word wasn’t forced upon me, I chose it. It means flavoring one ingredient with another ingredient to tell a new story. There are tastes that respond to one another, threads that are woven. That’s what building a dish is about – a dialogue,” she explains. And so, after a lengthy cold infusion in butter or water (if it’s not some other technique, like marinating, poaching, aging, or smoking), sweetbreads combine with beeswax, porcinis meet blackberries, coffee embraces beet. And tuna belly? Wood-smoked, marinated in juniper and Tasmanian pepperberry before being wood-fired. Not to mention an infusion in watercress juice impregnated with notes of fir and bergamot leaf.
“Feminine” cuisine? “Masculine” cuisine?
What does Chef Pic think of excellence? “I don’t like that word, it’s terribly cold. It’s like ‘perfection’: it doesn’t trigger any emotion in me. I’m more drawn to the idea of concentration,” she says. Another topic that comes up: “masculine” and “feminine” cuisine, terms that do hold some meaning for her, but “cuisine is never actually tied to gender – it goes beyond that.” Because appearances can be deceiving. She would, for instance, place her colleague and icon Michel Bras, practicing his magic on the Aubrac plateau, in the “feminine” category by virtue of his elegance. Same goes for Italian chef Enrico Crippa in Alba, who dazzled her with “all these little dishes appearing on the table like a field of flowers.” Conversely, masculinity is expressed in tones she describes as “dark” – “tannic, woodier, more muted” –, which she uses readily and which she would attribute to her friend Francis Kurkdjian, famed nose and perfumer. In the eyes of writer Ryoko Sekiguchi, who has been following Anne-Sophie Pic’s work regularly since 2013, her culinary identity is not necessarily where you’d expect it to be. “I remember a sardine dish with whiskey and a marigold-passion fruit sauce that was so pretty it made me smile. I’d never seen a sardine so charmingly decorated; it looked like a baroque gown. But besides that, the strong sardine flavor hadn’t been lessened in the least – quite to the contrary, in fact, with the whiskey marinade. Anne-Sophie Pic comes across as sweet and nice, but she puts a real power into her work. There are tastes that can be disturbing at times. A bitter, nearly acrid flavor that nevertheless has a reason to exist,” relates Ms. Sekiguchi.
Strokes of genius that stoke the imagination
Chef and photographer Jean-François Mallet – known for having created the Simplissime collection from Hachette publishing house (three million copies sold worldwide) – is another of the great observers of Chef Pic’s work. He, too, hails this “powerful cuisine all dressed in lace,” “mastery of fire,” and “signature mixtures” with whiskey, coffee, or fir buds. He has little desire to dissect the strokes of genius of the person having them, preferring to let these “sublime things” stoke the imagination. As an example, he mentions the caramelized sweetbread – cooked to perfection, unlike the too-often-underdone versions of top restaurants – served with asparagus and a hint of honey, or the classic millefeuilles (“usually impossible to cut”) that Anne-Sophie Pic has improved upon, using a cream that encases the puff pastry without softening it. “I always say that France’s greatest chef is a woman. If there were a four-star rating in the Michelin guide, she’d have it,” enthuses Mallet. When asked if she combines the flavors in her head, the heroine of Valencia answers succinctly: “Completely.” Truth be told, that’s what we figured. She reminds us of three-Michelin-star chef Pierre Gagnaire, who long sampled his cooking ... in his mind. One would almost suspect Anne-Sophie Pic, with her highly attuned sense of smell, to prize the scent of her dishes as much as, if not more than, their taste. A culinary creator in a league of her own.