Among culinary obsessives, Michel Bras needs no introduction. Arguably France's most celebrated chef, he grew up behind the stove at his family's hotel-restaurant, Lou Mazuc, which he took over in the late ‘70s to great acclaim. Thanks to his own eponymous restaurant in Laguiole, France, in operation since 1992, he's earned three Michelin stars and regular appearances on the World's 50 Best list (he's currently No. 73). The inventor of the molten chocolate cake and the progenitor of the vegetable-centric cuisine that’s become all the rage in modern kitchens, he's an icon whose fan club includes everyone from Tom Colicchio to David Kinch. We sat down with Bras on one of his exceedingly rare visits to the States, as part of this spring's Relais & Chateaux GourmetFest in Carmel, CA. Over the course of our discussion, he highlighted the unique origins of his cuisine, explained how being a self-taught chef changed his opinion of cooking, and offered a strong argument against the hierarchical structure of modern kitchens.
Vegetables and vegetable-based cooking are really important to you, and have become increasingly prominent in the U.S. of late. Why are vegetables important to you? Why do you like to work with them?
I think in France, I am the precursor; my first vegetable menu goes back to 1978. It is part of my philosophy of life. I like nature; I am a marathoner. I find that the full expression of vegetables is more enormous, more fabulous than any other [ingredient].
"Vegetables were not something that I discovered one day."
Since I come from a place where there are three inhabitants per square kilometer, I was permanently swimming in nature. I grew up smelling flowers; I tasted things. Working with vegetables was a way for me to accomplish something. Vegetables were not something that I discovered one day.
It is important to know that I am a self-taught chef; I never had a school that gave me a diploma. I come from a place where a culture of gastronomy didn't exist. We ate in order to not starve, so my approach towards the product is mostly to avoid waste. For example, I have been working with the inside stem of the cauliflower for 25 years. We were able to take it and make something magical, glorious with it.
In fact, I tried to alter the idea of luxury on the table. For a time luxury was eating caviar, foie gras, truffles. However, to me, the pleasure of the table is the conviviality at the table, what is happening around the table: It could be a big turkey, or a piece of toast with something small. That is the real pleasure of the table. As a cook, I am a merchant of happiness. I respect the producer, I respect my guest, but in between, I respect my collaborators [Ed note: Bras refers to his staff as collaborators]. In the case of my business, I want to be deeply human.
Your son Sébastien took over the restaurant in 2010, and is doing most of the cooking these days.
Yes, though my son has been working with me for 20 years, so it was a process that was done gradually. There was no instantaneous takeover; it's a family affair.
So you're still in the kitchen, working together daily?
I have a garden. I provide to my son. Sebastien sometimes needs me for a moment here and there. Today, he needed me here!
Until recently, you generally didn't leave the Aubrac very often, but you've recently started traveling more frequently. What lured you out?
I love travel. I came because of [friend and fellow participating chef Olivier Roellinger]’s invitation; he wished for me to come here. A while ago I spoke of humanity. I am interested in charities, and so Olivier told me there was a new operation, with a humanitarian goal behind it.
"People are exploiting their kitchen staff. I do not accept that. It breaks my heart.
You must know that "the human" has always had a place in our cooking. I have never been called "chef," I am always called "Michel." I can be playful in the kitchen with the young cooks — there are moments when you have to be serious, when you have to apply yourself, but there are moments when I consider them like my children or grandchildren. I am, above all, about humanity. It is by being human that we can transcend. Which is why today I would almost want to go to the front lines [to defend young cooks]. You are well aware of what is happening in France; people are exploiting their kitchen staff. I do not accept that. It breaks my heart.
I want everyone around my table to be happy. I want my producers to be happy, but I insist more than anything that my collaborators are happy. I have no wish to be the star. In a society that dehumanizes itself, I do not accept the regimented atmosphere we find in some kitchens: "Bonjour chef! Bonjour chef!" It affects me deeply.
What would your advice be to someone who would want to run their kitchen more democratically, to try to remove the hierarchy? How should they treat their staff?
Be yourself. Remain true to yourself. It was 20 years ago that [my wife and I] stopped changing the knives at the tables; it's been 30 years since we prohibited smoking. We weren't using fancy tablecloths. Then, people pointed the finger at us, but I think somehow we were initiators of this movement to have tables that are not chic, or that are adhering to a style that has become dated. For me, the act of cooking is the truest accomplishment, not putting the fork this way, or placing the glass that way. I do not fit in any system where there are codes that govern my mode of expression. I want to remain true to myself.
There is an expression I love from Jean-Paul Sartre: "Nature talks, experience translates it." All the aesthetics of my plates, I picked up from nature. There is an aestheticization of cooking for me that came from my relationship with nature. And there is another expression I adore from [artist Pierre] Soulages which says: "Plus les moyens sont limités, plus l’expression est forte." The more limited the means, the more powerful the expression.
You opened a sandwich shop with your son a few years ago. A lot of highly regarded, Michelin-starred U.S. chefs are opening more casual concepts. Do you have any advice for fellow chefs that are used to working in the fine dining world and are trying to move into that sphere?
I wanted to express my experience to offer healthy, pure food. I am very engaged with Slow Food, I know Carlo Petrini very well, so he gave me authorization to use the movement's logo. But it comes back to finding the magic of being around the table. It is simple, it is tomorrow's happiness.
Are there any other chefs or restaurants that you are excited about that you think deserve more recognition?
There are lots; to enumerate them would be difficult. I am a bit uncivilized [on the matter]. I stay in my country, I don't move around too much. I help my son, I have my garden, I do my errands by foot.
"We have to get out of this model of the luxe of the table, which I abhor."
There is something which comforted me in the evolution of my cooking: Over the course of my travels, my wife and I did not travel to the ocean, or to castles... but we backpacked. Backpacking in the streets, going to the markets, eating with locals — that is where I find the most beautiful experiences. I think in order to achieve pleasure at the table, we must be careful, because sometimes we want to codify it into an outline or a model. I think that it can take many forms.
I remember once, on a back road somewhere in Asia, eating something in a banana leaf that was completely magical. I remember eating something in a restaurant after my first marathon in 1986, a blue cornbread at a restaurant in Arizona. It was a special moment for me. There are lots of circumstances with the person that you love, it can be a meal of three crêpes. There is no one type of experience. We have to get out of this model of the luxe of the table, which I abhor. If I come here, I want to eat something local, something real. I don't feel like eating fish that comes from the other side of the earth, I don't feel like eating beef that comes from France. I need to be embedded in the region.
What do you think stands out about American cuisine, in a good or bad way?
I enjoy the breakfasts prepared with potatoes. But really, it is about precise places, in certain circumstances. I had some wonderful moments with my children in New York at Jean-Georges, a dinner which was memorable to me. I remember that meal in Arizona with the blue cornbread. I remember eating gyoza in Chinatown in New York. Drinking pints of beer in SoHo, that can be magical too: it's not eating, but with some nuts... that is happiness. It can be simple; we have to find things that are simple. Returning to the self.
Translation: Ian Harrison