n a nondescript side street in the French city of Valence, sixty-two miles south of Lyon near the vineyards of Cornas, there is a flat-faced, tan building with the word PIC emblazoned in silver letters above the door. The town is ornate, old world, but La Maison Pic is stark and modern. Still, it's as venerable as any building in town; the true sense of this restaurant's glorious past comes once you step indoors. In the lobby is a vitrine table; beneath its glassy top are over one hundred ruby-red Michelin guides dating back to 1900, the year the guide was launched. Every single one of them mentions La Maison Pic.
Stand in the elegant brown and beige dining room and you'll see plates whizzing by from kitchen to table. On them are preparations just as minimalist as the building, and just as important. There is pan-roasted suprême of volaille de Bresse, with a leg confit, creamy chard with Tonka bean, genmaicha tea and an herb-infused parmigiano consommé. There are langoustines in a light broth with green apple, cinnamon leaf, green anise, and celery stalks. There's an improbable dessert of guanaja chocolate and beeswax panna cotta paired with a wild honey mousse and pine buds.
All of the dishes bear the unmistakable imprimatur of their creator, Anne-Sophie Pic. Her name is over the door, but the word "maison" here doesn't just mean it's her restaurant; this building is her former home. The house of Pic has been in her family since 1889, and it's been one of France's most important restaurants almost the entire time. The restaurant was run first by André Pic, who by 1939 had earned three Michelin stars, but was down to just one by 1950. After André came his son Jacques, widely regarded as one of the founding fathers of Nouvelle Cuisine; he lifted the family restaurant back to two stars in 1959 and to three by 1973. After his death, the house of Pic would face turmoil once again, and it would produce, perhaps unexpectedly, his daughter Anne-Sophie as its savior.
he upper echelon of the chef stratosphere is filled with men — powerful men, blessed in equal parts with charisma, talent, and unwavering confidence. They oversee strings of restaurants, glad-hand at food and wine festivals, manage huge brigades, and churn out mountains of cookbooks, all while dreaming up new ways to quash the competition. It's a tightly knit boys' club driven by confidence and arrogance.
A woman on the star-chef scene is a rara avis. To be sure, there are women atop the overall culinary hierarchy, the Marthas, Nigellas, and Giadas. But when we're talking about restaurants, about haute cuisine, about the kind of cooking that makes Michelin inspectors giddy, very few females are included in the conversation. Most coverage of Pic focuses on her exceptional position as a woman at the pinnacle of French haute cuisine — she's the fourth of only six women to ever have been awarded three Michelin stars — but today, at forty-five years old, she's far more interesting when considered as a world-class chef at the peak of her career.
Despite growing up in her family's restaurant, Pic came to professional cooking at the relatively late age of twenty-two. In the world of high-end French cuisine at that time, it was common for cooks to begin their apprenticeship between the ages of fourteen and sixteen, but Pic completed her education in math and sciences before turning her attention to the family business in 1992. She worked alongside her father — and teacher — Jacques for only three months before he died of an aneurysm at age fifty-nine. She and her brother Alain took over the restaurant, she running the front of house and he in the back, yet they lost their third Michelin star in 1995. Alain left Maison Pic two years later, and Pic took over his place as head of the kitchen.
When we're talking about the kind of cooking that makes Michelin inspectors giddy, very few females are included in the conversation
"Because these houses age very quickly, there was that fear of stagnation," says Pic of that time of transition. "I wanted to create my own culinary identity. You can't get stuck in the past. It's important to renew yourself while never forgetting what you learned." In the years after Alain departed, Pic modernized the restaurant's decor and removed the restaurant's classic dishes, replacing them with her modern take on French fare. In 2007, she won back the restaurant's third Michelin star.
"I always knew I was capable of recapturing that third star," she says, though the battle was certainly more of an uphill one for her than it was for her father three decades before. The landscape of France's fine dining restaurants had changed: when Paul Bocuse's restaurant Auberge du Pont de Collognes was awarded its second Michelin star in 1962, it did not yet have indoor plumbing. But determination runs deep in the Pic DNA, and so does a canniness about giving diners — and critics — what they want. "You can't just transmit dishes from generation to generation," observes Pic. "Each generation of chefs must assert itself. There is no right way to take over except that you must take risks, live your own life."
Pic's empire is broad. She's published a shelf's worth of cookbooks — her tenth, L'intégrale des leçons de cuisine de Anne-Sophie Pic (Hachette Pratique, 2013) is a compilation of recipes from her cooking school — and is a recipient of France's top honors, including the Légion d'Honneur, the Ordre National de Mérite, and the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres. In her hometown of Valence alone she counts five businesses, including Maison Pic the gastronomic restaurant and hotel, a bistro called Le 7, a retail store punningly named L'éPICerie, a cooking school, Scook, and a shop specializing in gourmet take-out food named simply DailyPic. She also runs restaurants outside of Valence. In 2009, she opened Restaurant Anne-Sophie Pic in Lausanne, Switzerland, in the Beau-Rivage Palace Hotel, which almost immediately landed a two-star rating from the Michelin guide. In 2012, she launched La Dame de Pic, her Paris-based restaurant, steps away from the Louvre in the first arrondissement.
In September of 2014, rumors started buzzing that Pic would be bringing her cuisine out of Europe for the first time (if you exclude the Air France in-flight menus on which she's consulted). Pic confirmed that she would be extending her operations to North America, opening not one but two restaurants in New York City in late 2015. First to open will be a second branch of her casual Metcafé — the original is in Monaco; the new location will be on New York's tony Upper East Side. Shortly to follow will be a second outlet of the more formal La Dame de Pic, just upstairs from Metcafé.
"I'm not really talking about it right now," says Pic, when pressed for details about her new endeavors. "We're trying to keep it a secret. It's a big challenge, and exciting to be a French chef in this magical city that is New York. I'm going in not competitively, but humbly, simply wanting to do my best."
Pic singles out colleagues like Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud, Eric Ripert, and Jean-Georges Vongerichten as models of chefs who were both courageous enough to take on New York, and successful in cracking the city's notoriously unforgiving high-end dining scene. "It's important to come in with much modesty, hard work, and creativity as well," she says. "I'll will bring my values to the city, my palet de saveurs" — her flavor palette — "but I will be adapting myself to New York, not imposing myself on it."
New York isn't entirely new territory for Pic; she spent some time studying there, living downtown in Tribeca. She not only loves the city itself ("It's magic," she says. "New York moves constantly.") but is encouraged by what's happening right now on the restaurant scene. New York chefs' interests are in line with hers, she explains, citing their focus on great ingredients and farmers markets. "It's so organic and vegetable driven there right now," she says, "I like that. You can find passionate people everywhere today. My style is centered on using simple products in a gastronomic way."
"I will be adapting myself to New York, not imposing myself on it."
The New York restaurants are slated to open this fall, according to Pic, and she describes the opportunity to bring her food and her brand to America as an offer she couldn't refuse. Still, she's aware that there's a great deal yet to do. Says Pic: "I must work on my accent and my English. I'll have to manage my time. It's important to always be positive. That's indispensable."
aving grown up surrounded by France's most famous chefs — her eighteenth birthday was celebrated at the restaurant of family friend Paul Bocuse — it would be understandable if Anne-Sophie Pic came off as pompous, entitled, aloof. Yet that's not the case. Her manner is humble and her approach is intellectual. Her gaze is intense and her language is as precise as her cooking — which is to say, very much so. Still, she is soft-spoken and friendly, and she incites in her friends and colleagues a deep loyalty.
"She is a very generous woman," says Montreal chef Normand Laprise, who has cooked with Pic. "You see her first as this timid and reserved person," he says. "But when she gets into something, she really gets into it with a complete openness of spirit, very alive. She also takes the time to do things right. Her cuisine is extremely detailed. She's focused and a bit of a control freak. But she's accessible, respectful and not big-headed. I've worked with other chefs — great chefs — where there was no personal exchange. With her it's always friendly, natural and inspiring."
Laprise compares Pic to another great French chef who hails from her region of France, Daniel Boulud. Both, Laprise says, know how to diversify their talents. Boulud, who has cooked alongside Pic on many occasions, counts himself among Pic's fan as well. "Anne-Sophie Pic had the sensibility and talent to make a drastic transformation from her father's classic restaurant to a world's finest dining destination," says Boulud. "Her creative cuisine carries a purity and elegance of flavors with the delicate touch of a lady chef. She is re-writing the legacy of les grandes dames de la cuisine française."
Obviously, the "woman chef" stereotype still holds strong. Despite the praise and support of her colleagues, it's taken effort for Pic to make it in this man's world of haute cuisine. She credits her success to self-confidence, and what she describes as "deep knowledge of cuisine," "Men are more confident, they hesitate less, and have fewer doubts," she observes. "You have to get over that hump of apprenticeship and uncover your ability to create. We women are more tortured. I so want it to be precise and perfect! That's my character. But I have fewer problems with that now. I know I must stay a woman. We are more delicate, we bring more finesse to the plate. And I know when things are good."
hen it comes to making things good, one direction Pic has rarely looked is backwards. "We can't recreate that old food," she says of her father's era of Nouvelle Cuisine. The cuisine, to be sure, has evolved — "When I think of all that fat!" she says. "We couldn't return to that heaviness." — but so has the very nature of a fine-dining restaurant. In Jacques' day, the menus were longer, much of the plating occurred tableside, and as a result the staff of the restaurant was massive. "In my father's time there were one hundred people working here — twelve pastry chefs alone!" recalls Pic, who has streamlined her staff down to twenty and does all her plating in the kitchen. "And it was common to serve 120 clients a service. Today, we do half that many."
But the most striking departure between the Maison Pic of her father's era and the version Pic runs today is the food itself. "My father was completely opposed to this 'Nouvelle Cuisine' label," she says of the term coined by critics Henri Gault and Christian Millau. "He didn't understand how his cooking could be aligned with this lack of generosity: small portions, stigmatized sauces. And so many of the noble ingredients he loved were scorned."
Foie gras, caviar, and truffles were Jacques Pic's stock in trade, but in today's culinary culture, where smartphone-wielding gastronauts give equal weight on Instagram to their latest fix from a noodle bar as they do to the seventh course of a Michelin-starred tasting menu, his daughter has had to make big changes to stay relevant. "My menu is a complete departure from all that," says Pic of her father's pantry. "Today, luxury cuisine doesn't require luxury products. I recall the boxes of caviar in the fridge here — and there was a lot of it! One of my father's specialties was a caviar bar that was not at all my taste, so I eliminated it. It took guts, but I never ceased to renew my style. There is a constant renewal of the cooking here in sync with our times."
Pic, no doubt aware of the challenges of selling pricey French fare (her menus top out at $430 per person), has been wise to diversify. Her restaurant empire is something her father never dreamed of, but perhaps that's because it's something he required to keep his luxury restaurant afloat.
"Haute gastronomy is not profitable anymore. It's everything around it that makes money for us."
"Haute gastronomy is not profitable anymore," says Pic. "It's everything around it that makes money for us: the bistro, the hotel, the books. It's like haute couture houses. It's not the clothes that make the money, it's the perfume." But she still believes in the concept: "Luxury comes at a price," she says. "You're paying for savoir faire. We pay dearly for the personnel and the products. It takes three people in the restaurant to assemble one plate. And the customers are tough these days. There is considerable pressure on chefs to offer value for money. There is no room for error. In the past they came to restaurants like ours for the chef's signature dishes, but now people are always looking for new things. There's a tremendous expectation to always be more than good."
This all plays out on the plate. According to Pic, her greatest strength as a chef isn't her technique, her managerial style, or her creativity — it's her palate. With the kitchen as her "atelier for research," Pic has developed a very personal cuisine rich in color, texture, and exquisite ingredients presented with a minimalist-chic flair for plating. Her flavor pairings can seem unusual — beets with coffee, deer with candied grapefruit, turbot with mint and black truffles — but every dish goes through extensive testing, often going through several incarnations before getting the thumbs up to appear on the menu. "If the creative spark is strong, it goes well" she says. "One day I thought of pairing smoked pigeon with green anise and peas. I tasted it once, and just knew it was right."
No doubt, her upbringing had plenty to do with her talent for drumming up fantastic flavour combinations. Says Pic: "In my house, eating was about taste and not nutrition. Yet as a child I was a very picky eater. Flavors were too strong and aggressive for me. But tastes evolve. Many of the ingredients I didn't like are now things I love. Until quite recently I hated oysters, but now I love them. I didn't like cucumber or fennel, and now I do. I hated anise, but now it's one of my signature ingredients."
She favors local products and bitter flavors, and doesn't hesitate to use both olive oil and butter in the same preparation. "I'm self-taught," she says. "I've only ever worked in my own restaurants, and I think it has helped in maintaining a certain purity of style. But I'm always rushing after knowledge. In cooking you never stop learning. I'm very concentrated on flavour associations. It's what makes me stand out, and it's completely intuitive."
"I'm always rushing after knowledge. In cooking you never stop learning."
Yet no matter how creative her cooking, it remains staunchly French. "I defend my country's cuisine strongly," says Pic, who in 2011 added her name to a group of fifteen of France's top chefs — including Michel Guérard, Joël Robuchon, Guy Savoy and Alain Ducasse — to establish the Collège Culinaire de France, an organization that promotes and defends French cuisine. To Pic, this endeavor is essential; French cuisine has been the gastronomic standard-bearer for nearly a century, but in recent years other countries' chefs, techniques, and styles have started to crowd the spotlight. "Spanish chefs are great," says Pic. "But can you name twenty famous Spanish chefs the way you could twenty famous French chefs? There are also still so many famous chefs who trained in France. And there's huge diversity in French cuisine. On one end you have an innovative chef like Thierry Marx" — the iconoclastic chef who has come to define cutting-edge French cuisine — "and on the other, Paul Bocuse."
espite her growing global footprint, Valance remains home base for Pic. She tries to arrange her schedules so that an extraordinary eighty percent of her time is spent at her flagship restaurant. Her husband, David Sinapian, and their son Nathan live in Valance, but with her new projects in New York and increasing demands to cook the world over, she finds herself spending more and more time away. "I'll bring Nathan to New York for all his school holidays," she says. "He's very proud that his mother is opening a restaurant in New York." But still, one can't help but wonder whether Pic is ever envious of her father's life, running just one restaurant, with his family living upstairs in the same house where he grew up.
"My dad worked far more hours than I do," Pic says, simply. "He worked all the time. And I've learned so much from traveling and being in Paris — he didn't have that." She admits that she and her father probably experienced similar levels of stress, but to her memory he was more composed, less concerned, and felt less of the strain chefs today face to be flawless at all times. "They had more freedom, and less pressure to be creative," she says of her father and his contemporaries, who had the luxury of cooking without the global-flattening effect of the internet era, and its attendant obsessive coverage of food and restaurants. "Many of the chefs of his era were making similar dishes, like the gratin d'écrevisses or poulet en vessie, whereas today we are constantly searching for new things while doing our best to respect the old masters."
So no pining for the extravagance and good times associated with Nouvelle Cuisine's glory days? Pic shakes her head. "It was a golden era of cooking. But today, we are experiencing that again. France is opening up, understanding that it's not just here that we eat well. Our technique is still strong, but we are influenced by cuisines the world over. The best is to have the old and new together."
Lesley Chesterman has been the fine-dining critic and a food columnist for The Montreal Gazette since 1998. Her work has also appeared in The Art of Eating, Gourmet Magazine, Nuvo, The Globe and Mail, Wine Tidings, The National Post, Food Arts, Fool, and the New York Post.
Editor: Helen Rosner
Photos: Lead photo by Claude Truong-Ngoc / Wikimedia Commons; other photos courtesy Maison Pic