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Inspiration of the Star: Maison Pic’s Anne-Sophie Pic

“She’s one of the best chefs in the world.”
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That’s chef Dominique Crenn (of Atelier Crenn) speaking about French chef Anne-Sophie Pic, who is responsible for running the kitchen at three restaurants including the legendary Maison Pic.

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Maison Pic, now located in southeast France not far from Lyon, has been in the family for four generations. “At the origin, in 1889, my great grandmother was cooking (ingredients) that my great grandfather hunted and farmed. She decided to open a restaurant in Ardèche. Her cuisine became famous,” says Pic.

Pic’s grandfather, André, then took over the family restaurant after a 10-year apprenticeship in Valence, Lyon and Paris. “He created the gratin of crayfish tails—which became an iconic dish—as well as the bladder chicken, lobster Newburgh and hare on the spit, to quote some of them.” Maison Pic was awarded three Michelin stars in 1934 under André.

André’s son, Jacques, Pic’s father, had wanted to become a mechanic but his father was ill and could no longer stand in front of the stove. So Jacques decided to become a chef as well. His cuisine was based on the terroir of the Rhône Valley, and he cooked with “precision and finesse,” according to Pic. Jacques created the now-iconic caviar sea bass and the red mullet and foie gras mosaic—and regained three Michelin stars, lost in the 50s, in 1973.

Like her father, Pic also set out to have a career other than cooking. “I completed business school and traveled in Japan and the U.S. Once I graduated, I decided to come back home to learn cooking with my father,” says Pic. “His sudden death, a few months later, was a terrible shock.” Pic, 23 at the time, worked alongside her father—and teacher—for only three months before he died. Pic’s brother took over Maison Pic briefly from their father in 1992.

After graduating from college, Pic returned home to learn cooking from her father. (Photo by Serge Chapuis.)
After graduating from college, Pic returned home to learn cooking from her father. (Photo by Serge Chapuis.)

The restaurant lost its third star in 1995. “For me, it was like my father was dead again. And at this moment, I decided to regain the star for my father’s memory,” says Pic, who was then 25. Two years later in 1997, she took over as the head of the kitchen. “It took me 10 years to achieve my goal, and for me it was the beginning of something, to be able to follow my own creative path.”

“It was a challenge to take over from [her father] Jacques. She has shown a lot of people that it doesn’t matter if you’re a man or a woman. If you’re someone that can have dedication and respect and passion you can achieve so much,” says Crenn, who first met Pic in 2015 in New York when they both received leadership awards from the Culinary Institute of America. “She made it because she worked very hard.”

“Each generation had to question itself and to work hard to reclaim what it had lost in the circumstances of life,” says Pic. She attributes the restaurant’s staying power to “passion for taste, devotion, humility and sense of duty. And also the sense of family, a strong dedication to our roots.”

The berlingots, delicate pyramid-shaped goat's cheese-stuffed pasta, are a symbol of Pic's cuisine. (Photo by Ginko.)
The berlingots, delicate pyramid-shaped goat's cheese-stuffed pasta, are a symbol of Pic's cuisine. (Photo by Ginko.)

For Pic, it’s more than simply how a dish tastes. “With my husband David, who is the CEO of the Pic group, we have always thought that we needed to refurbish the restaurant regularly but moreover that we had to reinvent the restaurant, to make the guests’ experience unforgettable. The experience will call upon the sense of taste, of course, but the taste must be supported by the other four senses. The colors, shapes, textures and structure of a dish, its fragrance before you bring it to your mouth. The palate takes note of the creaminess or crispness, the temperature and many other sensations, the feet feel the softness and thickness of a carpet, the whole body feels the comfort of an armchair. Even the sense of hearing comes into play, capturing bubbles that burst or a crust that cracks, or the music in the background.”

“I definitely look up to [Pic] for the way she handles the kitchen,” says Crenn. “She’s been around for a long time and I feel like she just started. Anne-Sophie Pic is one of the most underrated chefs in the world. Americans don’t know who she is. In France, she’s the Queen. [Americans] talk more about people who don’t matter, who are popular, than her. I think she’s one of the best chefs in the world.”

“What’s interesting about her style is that it’s very organic,” Crenn continues. “She’s very curious. It’s not like she cooks from a book. When you have a voice you bring your own style. Her cooking is light and precise,” says Crenn. A perfect example of this is Pic’s blue lobster dish, roasted in seafood butter and served with a lobster consommé with red berries and a foaming celery cream with green peppercorns.

Beyond the plate, a restaurant is a human adventure, says Pic. “The service plays a key role in the memory you get from your experience: kindness, thoughtfulness, and the professionalism of our staff are defining the spirit of the house. This means a lot to me as a polysensory experience is what we offer to our guests.”

Langoustines au miel. (Photo by Jean Michel Del Moral.)
Langoustines au miel. (Photo by Jean Michel Del Moral.)

“At the beginning, when I opened Atelier Crenn, some of my guests used to come and say, ‘You used to remind me of Anne-Sophie Pic.’” says Crenn. “And I was like no way, I’m just a cook. I felt very humbled to be compared to her. You realize this is a woman who has an incredible way of doing things and looking at things. It’s not about, ‘Me, me, me. I want to be number one in the world.’ There’s no ego. I’m sick and tired of ego. Anne-Sophie Pic is cooking because there’s a meaning behind it, it’s about creating an experience; it’s not about her. It’s about the platform she’s been given.”

As the restaurant has changed, so has Pic. “I am more assertive; I have created my own style. It doesn’t mean that I am not questioning myself—I did always—but let’s say that I better know who I am and what I am looking for. I assume all my questions and doubts as part of my creative process.”

Consistency is key for Pic when it comes to innovation. “[It’s] about a state of mind, not about novelty. I am not looking for trends, I am trying to follow my own intuitions and dreams. In that way, consistency means sincerity and authenticity. Innovation is about curiosity and open-mindedness. I am always interested in new techniques and new products but only if they nourish my reflexion and creativity—not if they stand alone.”

A mille-feuille of Tahitian vanilla and jasmin gélee. (Photo by Ginko.)
A mille-feuille of Tahitian vanilla and jasmin gélee. (Photo by Ginko.)

Even today, with no end in sight, Pic knows what she wants her restaurant’s legacy to be: “The strength of Maison Pic is its ability to anchor itself in its time, to constantly reinvent itself. Each generation was able to keep the legacy of the previous one, and at the same time to create its own culinary identity, to innovate and change without forgetting its roots and DNA.”

“Maison Pic is the family house, it is where my heart beats, it is where my three-Michelin-starred restaurant is, it is where I live, where I create. It is my home.”

In addition to carrying on the legacy of Maison Pic, Anne-Sophie is the only woman in France to run a three-Michelin-starred restaurant. “I am a chef. I don’t really attach an importance to the [term female] or male chef. We are all chefs. That’s really the problem [with emphasizing female] chefs, is that it means we categorize them,” Pic says in the new documentary The Heat: A Kitchen (R)evolution, which showcases the “pioneers who broke through the glass ceiling.”

“She’s been kind of an activist for the movement,” says Crenn. “France is old-fashioned. It’s the society, the culture. It was so lovely to see her as a chef and woman stand up and say, ‘Hey we need to talk about this,’ to change the way we do things.”

For Pic, the mission is simple: “I am trying to give my best day after day.”

Hero image courtesy of Stephane de Bourgies.

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