Pic Season

Pic Season

She’s hardly the stereotype of the plump cook. With her long, dark hair and lean face, she might even seem fragile. But her voice, pleasantly firm and direct, dispels that impression and conveys her true character: she is a determined woman, strengthened by hard times. Her title as Chef of the Year 2007-awarded by her peers, the 8,000 chefs listed in the Michelin guide-grants well-deserved recognition to 38-year-old Anne-Sophie Pic, who worked her way to culinary fame after a forced detour along the way.

Her story is inseparable from the Pic family’s century-long culinary tradition. In the beginning, there was another woman. Sophie Pic headed one of the best restaurants in the Ardèche region, L’Auberge du Pin, starting in 1889. She passed on her skill with fine cuisine to her son André, who in 1934 became the first in the family to garner three Michelin stars. Two years later, he established the Maison Pic in Valence on France’s Route Nationale 7, the main highway from Paris to the Côte d’Azur, famously studded with temples of haute cuisine. André’s son Jacques mastered his father’s secrets and won his own three-star distinction in 1973. But Jacques’s sudden death from heart disease in 1992 stunned the family and disoriented the business. Daughter Anne-Sophie, still an apprentice at age 23 when her father died, soldiered on in partnership with her older brother Alain, but the restaurant lost one of its three stars under the duo’s stewardship.

“Those were very difficult years, for the family and for the restaurant, which was unfairly attacked” during the unsettled period following the tragedy, she says sadly. After graduating from a Paris business school while Alain ran the maison, Anne-Sophie decided to return to the kitchen in 1995 and four years later assumed control, with one sole objective: winning back the third star. Her dream finally came true last November. “It was fabulous. This is what I’ve worked so hard for all these years, along with my teams,” Pic rejoices.

The upgrade was also quite an event in the gastronomic universe. Anne-Sophie became only the fourth woman ever to be awarded three stars by the Michelin guide, and the first since 1951. “For a long time, women didn’t try to make it as chefs; they were drawn to other careers,” she notes. “The profession itself became more technical and closed its doors to women cooks. But it seems the French culinary world is evolving.” Indeed, women chefs are now on the rise, bringing fresh air to this still largely male enclave. As cofounder (along with Hélène Darroze) of the prestigious Nouvelles Mères Cuisinières-“New Mothers of Cuisine,” a society of top-tier female chefs-she welcomes the trend. Pic’s success and wide recognition have already drawn scores of young women to her kitchen door. “I’ve received dozens of applications! And I must admit the mix creates a softer mood” in the kitchen. But she doesn’t advocate “feminine cuisine.” In her observation, “every chef has a personal style, quite apart from gender. Maybe there are a few differences from men. I know women sommeliers have different perceptions of taste, for example.”

Asked about her own style, she pauses to think. “I look for clarity, simplicity,” she says after a few moments. “My cuisine always seeks a balance between ingredients, and maybe, I say maybe, this is feminine. For example, I very often work with the mix sucré-salé [sweet-salty]. I always have an egg on my carte; this is important to me, because an egg is magical. You’ve got to taste my moelleux mollet egg, cooked at 64 degrees [147° F]-it’s like gold on your plate. The most important thing is to stay creative, whatever it is you’re cooking. That’s why I have no problem preparing organ meat, for example. Although I have to admit I still have a few difficulties with snails!”

Now the champion chef is also literally a mère. Three years ago she and her husband David, director of the Pic group, had a son, Nathan. Will he be the fifth generation of cooks in the family? “I don’t know-I don’t want to force him!” she laughs. “But I am already trying to develop his taste, because that is the key to understanding cuisine. Then he will decide, when he gets older, if he wants to be a chef or not. I feel that motherhood actually changed something in me. I now understand why it was so important for my father to transmit what he learned and what was passed down to him.”

Heiress of a long family tradition, Anne-Sophie also knows she must adapt her culinary inheritance to the modern world and transform the Maison Pic into an international establishment. When we met she had just flown back from Japan, where she frequently performs cooking demonstrations. “There is widespread curiosity about gastronomy in the world today: People want to learn about it, just like they wanted to learn about wine 15 years ago. Look at the success of movies like Ratatouille or No Reservations! Thanks to people like Paul Bocuse and Michel Bras, French gastronomy has a brilliant reputation. Now, it is expanding, with chefs opening restaurants in New York, Tokyo, Las Vegas…. This is a fantastic opportunity to open up to different cultures and look for new influences,” she says.

After a triumphant 2007, she shows no sign of easing the pace. This could be a key year for the Pic family: “We were afraid that 2008 might be a little less exciting. But we still have a lot to achieve,” she says. New projects include the startup of Scook, a cooking school just down the street from the flagship three-star restaurant, and the opening of two brand-new restaurants, one in a European capital (she’s keeping the location under wraps for now) and the other in Japan.

How does she handle all this? It’s in the genes. “Tenacity has always been at the root of the Pics’ success, even in hard times. That’s why I know it’s never over, and that I need to keep on working.” Shoot for the moon and you end up with the stars….



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