Foodie Features

A Meeting With A Remarkable Chef – Anne-Sophie Pic

By Jenny Linford

A legendary figure in the restaurant world, Anne-Sophie Pic is the only female chef in France to hold three Michelin stars. Her story is an inspiring one; a testimony to her strength of character as well as to her culinary talents. Jenny Linford meets her at her London restaurant, La Dame de Pic.

Born into a French restaurant dynasty – with the first family restaurant opened by her great-grandmother in 1889 – she initially followed a business career in the outside world. At the age of 23 she returned to Maison Pic (her family’s three starred restaurant) to help manage it, but in a major blow her father, the chef Jacques Pic, died suddenly. Following his loss, the restaurant lost its third star in 1995. Without any formal training, Anne-Sophie took over the kitchen, regaining the restaurant’s third star in 2007 and retaining it ever since. Nowadays, diners have the chance to enjoy her elegant, distinctive food not only in Valence, but also in various restaurants in France and in England at Michelin-starred La Dame de Pic, located in the Four Seasons Hotel in the City of London.

Anne-Sophie Pic grew up at Maison Pic and has happy, vivid memories of her childhood there. “I wouldn’t be in the kitchen now if I didn’t have good memories of my childhood,” she observes. “I was fascinated by what my parents did. They were happy to work in the industry; I could feel that. Of course, they worked a lot -much more than we work now. Naturally, they paid attention to me but everything was concentrated on cooking, on tasting, on hosting, welcoming people – for sure I have this in my blood.” She and her family lived above the main kitchen and the aromas wafted up. “I could smell all the smells – sweet and savoury. I remember the smell of pastry particularly. My father’s chefs would make little choux. I would always had to have one and so would pass by the kitchen” she laughs. “Eating was not just about a necessity to stay alive, it was more than that, it was pleasure – so I always keep pleasure in mind.” At the same time, she was, in fact, a fussy eater as a little girl, with very strong likes and dislikes; “It took me a long time to appreciate oysters, for example. It was only when I was 18 years old that I decided I liked them.”

With her older brother Alain set to take over the family restaurant business, Anne Sophie-Pic studied business and worked abroad, an experience she embraced with open-minded interest. “I had the chance to go to Asia and the States and this enhanced my knowledge, my soul” Three months in Japan were a revelation. “I was 20 years old and it was incredible to discover this world so young, really special.” She was fascinated by Japanese culture and food and keen to explore it. Thinking back to her time there, she laughs at a memory: “You know then, in Japan it was very fashionable to dine in French restaurants there and so my father’s friends wanted to take me to French restaurants, but I wanted to experience Japanese food.” Her father was good friends with Shizuo Tsuji, the founder of the Tsuji Culinary Institute, a man did a huge amount to spread and promote Japanese cuisine among French chefs and an important person in the nouvelle cuisine movement. “I am very close to his daughter, so at weekends I visited them and learned more.”

Anne-Sophie returned to Maison Pic in 1992, working alongside her beloved father, doing front of house and managing the restaurant rather than cooking. Tragically, however, just two months later, he died suddenly and unexpectedly. “It was a difficult time for me,” she says soberly. “I had decided to return to the restaurant before he died – he knew that – and so I continued. It was as if someone was pushing you, but you didn’t know which way to go.” Looking back on this sad, difficult time, she is clear about its impact on both her and her cooking. “It gave me strength because I learnt to listen to my intuition. Because of what had happened I had nobody to guide me. There were some people who helped me, of course. I was not completely alone, but I learnt to follow my intuition more and more.” Reflecting on the achievement of regaining the third Michelin star for Maison Pic, she says thoughtfully. “It was very moving. I wasn’t sure I could achieve it, so when I did it was really great.”

Anne-Sophie Pic - The White Millefeuille. Tahitian vanilla cream, jasmin jelly and voatsiperiphery pepper foam. [Image: Jean-Francois-Mallet].
Anne-Sophie Pic - Pastry berlingots with Banon goat cheese and watercress coulant, green watercress broth infused with ginger. [Image: Alexandre Bienfait].
Anne-Sophie Pic - La Tomate Plurielle, naturally explosive with frozen blackcurrant leaves and elderflower consommé. [Image: Jean Michel Del Moral].

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Being a young, female, self-taught chef in a predominantly masculine world was not easy but saw her carving out her own approach to cooking. “I really developed my own way. I have a very feminine way of cooking. Because of my beginning, I had techniques, of course. I developed them and at the same time developed flavours. From the very start, I thought cuisine is part of emotion and part of emotion means flavour, so how to give flavour to a dish. First, it was sauce, then infusion, now it can be distillation or many other techniques. So, I continue to follow this intuition about flavour and combinations of flavour, while also using more techniques.” Anne-Sophie’s knowledge of Japanese cuisine – an interest triggered by that first visit- manifests itself in the use of Japanese ingredients such as seaweed or yuzu in her dishes. “I’ve long had Japanese elements in my cuisine,” she explains. “The first time I used dashi was around 14 years ago. I felt that the French fumet (fish stock) was cooked for too long and lacked freshness. Dashi was useful to me because it is slightly smoky and I like smoky flavours.” The Japanese emphasis on aesthetics is something that resonates with her, too, as anyone who has eaten her exquisitely presented food will appreciate. “There was a discussion in France a few years ago about whether food has to be nicely presented or not. For me it’s very important that a plate is nice, precise and that there’s colour – everything contributes towards the experience of the dish.”

A characteristic of Anne-Sophie Pic’s food is her use of fragrant ingredients such as herbs, flowers and citrus fruit and leaves. Famously, the restaurant in Valence has a rooftop herb garden with a great array of scented plants which can be freshly picked by her chefs for use in the kitchen. “I am fascinated by perfumers. Some of them are friends of mine; there are perhaps four or five main perfumers in France where it’s a tradition, of course. Francis Kurkdjian, who is very famous perfumer, is a friend of mine. We have visited the South of France together on a citrus quest: we discover, we taste, we smell. It’s good for me to have people like this who are very good friends to help me explore another universe, because sometimes chefs or perfumers they don’t talk to each other and that’s too bad,” she says emphatically, “because if you share you progress and it’s good to have these bridges. He analyses smells differently from the way I do, so it gives me more odours, more confidence. Because I met perfumers, I began to have combinations of flavours, using more ingredients.” Importantly, though, there is a harmonious quality to her food. “It’s always about balancing,” she explains. “I was in the kitchen today with the team; we were tasting together, balancing. It’s a question of preciseness.” She also enjoys exploring new techniques. “The next step for me will be fermentation. I would like to go there but in my own way. It’s a question of acidity. I like this part of British cuisine – pickles – it gives pep. Bitterness is very important, too, because balanced with acidity it allows the flavour to last longer.”

Anne-Sophie was very happy to open La Dame de Pic in London because it’s a city that has long fascinated her. “I didn’t come to London often when I was young and was frustrated not to know it better, so when we had the opportunity to open a restaurant in London I said it’s an opportunity to know London better. The impression I get of London is that it’s full of energy. I don’t say that to make a compliment, it’s really what I feel. I came on a few visits before opening the restaurant and I felt I could do something here because the British people have open minds. In our cooking we use unusual ingredients and lots of combinations of flavours, which I think appeals to British people.” Opening a restaurant in London has allowed Anne-Sophie to discover more about the British food scene. “I needed to discover the ingredients here, because for me terroir is very important. I found beautiful food – much more than I had imagined; the quality of fish and chicken is very good.”

At La Dame de Pic in London the menu features versions of classic Anne-Sophie Pic dishes, including her signature belingots, triangular pasta parcels, a shape inspired by a traditional, hard-boiled Provencal sweet. “In London we use a British cheese, as that’s very important for me. We use a British cheese called St Cera. I remember doing a big tasting of British cheeses two years ago when I visited London and St Cera was one of my favourites. So, it’s inside the berlingot with smoked mascarpone – this is a new version with mint, bergamot and pea for summer. It’s because of Earl Grey tea I like bergamot! I discovered Earl Grey tea on a holiday in Switzerland when I was 14 and have loved bergamot ever since.” Diners in London can also sample her famous white mille-feuille – an inventive and striking white dessert, with the crisp puff pastry layers surprisingly hidden inside chantilly cream walls. “The first one is just vanilla, but we wanted to make another version for the restaurant here. I like Oolong very much and we thought oolong and camomile is a good combination, so we’ve made it specially for London. We served it last night at a special dinner and a guy there said ‘this is the best dessert of my life,” says Anne-Sophie, smiling with satisfaction. She pays warm credit to her Head Chef in London, Luca Piscazzi: “He does the food here so well. My cuisine is about ingredients and he follows my flavour style and adds his own twists. I’m very proud of what he’s doing here.”

Anne-Sophie Pic has just opened her first restaurant in Singapore – La Dame de Pic – in the historic setting of Raffles Hotel there, something she is very excited about. “I think Singapore is becoming like London, a very important gastronomic city. Yes, I’m very busy but I’m happy.” Visits to other countries offer her opportunities to learn about new ingredients and recipes. Her curiosity about food and openness to learn are clear. “Always, I try to know more, to discover. I’m not a narrow-minded French chef – I don’t want to be like that. I am inspired by other cuisine, because it gives more nuance, pleasure.” She pauses to reflect, then says. “You know, I thought that as I got older I would have fewer ideas, but actually I find an openness, with more and more ideas.”

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