It is a moment I almost feel I should have trained for. Eating at this level and in these quantities is indeed nothing short of a competition in stamina and concentration, testing your capacity to endure flavors, textures and colors in such subtle variety, in unimaginable combinations, plate after plate after plate until way past the moment the kitchen packed up its knives for the night.
Yes, this woman has taken cooking and dining to mythical heights, breaking new ground so often for women in the culinary world that one completely forgets that there was ever any question whether a woman would make it in the industry.
An empire she did build from the embers of her family´s legacy. Her great grand mother, Sophie Pic, is credited for shaping French food as we know it in the late 19th century in a little restaurant called l’Auberge du Pin. The restaurant, eventually relocated to Valence and renamed “La Maison Pic”, gained its third Michelin star in 1936 under André Pic, son of Sophie, then lost two stars post WWII, only to rise back to three stars in 1973 under Jacques Pic.
When Anne-Sophie stepped in for her father, on behalf of the 4th generation, in the early 1990s, the restaurant had once again lost one star, following the sudden death of her father. From roots to riches, Anne-Sophie Pic morphed from being a disinterested chef´s daughter to a megalo business woman with four restaurants, over 100 people under her wings, and no less than 6 Michelin stars to her name. Boom! Now here´s a woman who knows how to duplicate a recipe for success. After stoking back to life the flames the original restaurant “La Maison Pic” in Valence, regaining that treasured third star in 2007, she went on to open a restaurant at the Beau Rivage Palace Hotel in Lausanne in 2009 (for another easy 2 stars), and in 2012 opened “La Dame de Pic” in Paris (scooping up yet another star just 6 months after pre-heating her ovens).
So where´s the beef? What on earth could all this fanfare be about? As you stand afar from this constellation, you are drawn to it like you were one of the three kings. Get close up and the glitz of her empire is almost blinding.
I recently spent a night in this Emerald City of hers. I started by taking a class at her “Scook” cooking school and contributed to making a meal that blew my own socks off. We discovered some of Pic’s “secret” ingredients: lemon confit blended into salad dressings and green anis sprinkled into just about everything. The kitchen? Dressed to the nines. But located in a shop where you could easily go broke by buying 30 euro soup spoons. I could not help but wonder, is all this show really necessary Ms Pic?
I hoped the food would not disappoint, as it tends to when it is surrounded by such a peacock-like façade.
Following the class, we checked into the Auberge that houses both her bistro chic and her gastronomic restaurant. Now, Valence is not a pretty place to begin with. Hard to imagine anything as alluring as her food in a place so grey and drab (doesn´t help that the weather that day was particularly grey and very wet). Knowing the history of this restaurant, you would expect and hope for an Auberge that has some charm to it, some recall of and respect for the person who made all this happen.
Whither romance though, what we had here was the most ostentatious décor I have ever laid eyes on. “Peacocks” everywhere. Think Willy Wonka’s Chocolate factory in browns, whites and orangey accents. Patterns on the walls, patterns on the carpets, high design white glass chandeliers, bizarre decorative items, sofa chairs of all shapes, fabrics and sizes, and a faux fireplace to round it all up. Excuse me, but yuck. Please tell me Anne-Sophie is not responsible for this typically nouveau riche chaos.
I inwardly hoped her taste in food would not resemble her taste in interior design.
FINALLY it was time for dinner. I will save you the suspense: from now on, everything was perfect as perfect can be. What was most astonishing was how utterly opposite the personality of her food was in contrast to that of her décor. Far from being ostentatious, her food was so delicate, as though she personally had counted out each grain of salt, cinnamon, green anis… Rather than wow your tastebuds, her flavor combinations creep up on you in a soft crescendo, like a full orchestra going from total silence to a satisfactory mezzo piano… and descending again as quietly as it came… always leaving you thirsting for just one more bite. Indeed, these were forkfuls to languish over, in deep contemplation. In other words, scarfing down your food would have been completely inappropriate.
Another point of reflection: while the food was modern as such, rather light, and delicate in its flavors, it stayed very true to French tradition and the produits du terroir so appreciated nowadays. Our mise-en-bouche was a foie gras that seemed to have been whipped until it was light as cotton, under an impressively thin crème brulee top. Dish number whichever was a golden roasted pigeon, its legs stuffed with its own entrails (seems natural, no?). And before dessert, don’t doubt that we were served the full monty of France’s cheeses on a platter… just after our pre-dessert dish of melted Brie de Meaux infused with bourbon vanilla. I admit that by the time the actual dessert came around, I could barely take in what I was eating (lemon tart with… what was it? I’m just gonna guess it was green anis). We were, once again, the last standing (or sitting, as it were) in the restaurant and the waiters and hosts demonstrated their mild annoyance by “forgetting” to bring us our coffee and chocolates. We retired to the faux fire place, hailed a waiter to bring us our coffee there, and before long were dozing off in the Willy Wonka armchairs.
Another twinkling star of this constellation I have to say was our sommelier. The young man, adequately decorated for his talents, introduced us to some beautiful wines (notably by producer Maxim Graillot) and stuck around long enough to chit chat about the varying characters and maturities of tannins (the ones in our wine were extremely relaxed, as if they had, shall we say, indulged a little something something themselves).
In the end, as far as dining experiences go, this was among the top two or three I have ever had. I applaud Pic for her success in the kitchen, though not in her overly commercial enterprise, nor in her interior design. There comes a time when great success can only become greater with a handful of humility. The point was illustrated handsomely when, a few nights later, I had the pleasure to dine at L et Lui, a humble little restaurant in St Pierre Trois Chateaux, run by a married couple who constitute the entire staff of the restaurant. The décor, to me, was also quite horrible, but it was clear it represented exactly the owners’ own quirckiness. This became obvious when the waitress/co-owner came out and explained the restaurant concept to us in the same cooky fashion as the lime green walls and pink plastic watering cans decorating the tables. And the food? Of course nothing of Pic’s class, but truly delicious (best lamb I have ever had in a restaurant), so rare in its innovation, and with such distinctive flavors – a hard combination of achievements in this day and age. And I am quite sure this young couple is content with these achievements: no peacocks necessary.