The world of fine dining is a moveable feast, constantly evolving and building on what has gone before. Few know this better than Anne-Sophie Pic.
The 50-year-old French chef was only the fourth female to lead a restaurant to winning three Michelin stars, and in 2011, she was named the Best Female Chef by The World's 50 Best Restaurants. Today, her five restaurants hold eight stars, a feat no other woman can claim.
But in 2019, it's still a male-dominated profession and she's at the forefront of change, helping to create current trends by building on her family's culinary legacy.
The Instagram emphasis on food looking pretty: 'that's a good thing'
"Food has become very feminine right now and is visually more powerful than ever," she says with a big smile when we meet her at La Dame de Pic London, her two Michelin-star restaurant in the Four Seasons Hotel at Ten Trinity Square in England's capital. Petite and softly spoken, she's a world away from the image of the loud, bellowing head chef that the likes of Gordon Ramsay have popularised on TV.
“I’ve always been focused on the combinations of flavours and that emotional feeling comes from that taste and texture combining, but the visual elements and colour are now hugely important, as they give you an idea of the taste as well.” Those who have seen her food can appreciate that, at times, it’s bordering on edible art.
In an era of Instagram, there's never been more emphasis on dishes looking pretty. "But that's a good thing!" she says with a laugh. "I always pay attention to the presentation because people have more choice than before, and the ingredients, techniques and combinations are what makes cuisine evolve so fast."
The chef dynasty of the Pic family
Pic is from a French dynasty of chefs who opened Maison Pic in South-East France in 1889. Her grandfather led it to a third Michelin star for the first time in 1939, but over the consequent years, it lost and gained stars numerous times at the behest of the judges.
Her father, Jacques, then took over and restored the place to a full three stars in the mid-1970s. While Anne-Sophie initially opted out of the cooking life, instead choosing to work overseas in business management, in 1992 – at the age of 23 – she was drawn back into the kitchen, returning to Maison Pic to train under her father.
Sadly, he died three months later, and in 1995, the restaurant lost one of its stars. With little formal training, Anne-Sophie took charge and, 12 years later, she finally regained Maison Pic’s three Michelin stars, leading the restaurant – and wider industry – into a new era of fine dining. The butter-laden creations of traditional French cooking were given what she calls a “feminine touch” and elevated into something lighter, more creative and fresh.
“Every sense is more awakened now, more than ever before, so we as chefs have to think about that,” she says. “Cuisine is becoming more cultural and being in the restaurant can give you more of a cultural experience.”
The pressure to both uphold and evolve
The legacy, not only of her family history, but one of French traditional cooking techniques, doesn’t appear to weigh her down, but rather gives her a base from which to evolve. “French cuisine is seen as a fat cuisine, and it probably was, with a lot of butter, and I remember 20 years ago as a woman thinking that I had to lighten the dishes, make them more floral, more emotional and the combination of flavours was something magic.
“But if you do French cuisine, you have to keep the DNA, even though it’s more evolved and modern, otherwise all the modern foods will just start to taste the same. It’s much easier now to make a unique cuisine than ever before, but to keep your identity and DNA it’s much more complicated.”
Also complex is the ongoing relationship with Michelin. While the family restaurant is back up to the full three stars, there’s still an ever-present pressure to maintain that. “No chef will tell you that the Michelin Guide is not important,” she says. The walls of the restaurant in France are lined with editions of the guide dating back to the 1930s. “Michelin actually brings a level of humility because it’s not for life, and Michelin reminds us that things can change suddenly and that adds a bit more pressure to maintain standards and keep creating.”
That pressure to uphold and evolve is not new, but it is different, she says. "When my grandfather cooked, there was a main dish you shared at the table, there was no design on the plate at all, but Nouvelle Cuisine then came along and now with all the influence of many countries, we are moving very fast with haute cuisine."
Today, Pic's food – and that of her contemporaries – is part of a broader cultural context and the influence of fine dining and haute cuisine is no longer confined to the small circles of diners who can afford it, but something that filters into the mainstream. "It's a bit like haute couture – you don't have pret-a-porter if you don't have haute couture. You cannot only have pret-a-porter, because then there's no creation, but haute couture gives inspiration to all the other types of fashion and it's the same with haute cuisine."
Now we just need more female chefs. “I don’t know if society – specifically men – is ready for having more female chefs in this industry,” she says with a sigh. “But there are a lot of benefits to having more women in the industry, because they don’t feel the pressure to be so macho.
“I don’t like to set women and men in opposition – I’m not happy with that – I think they are complementary for the service and have different skills, and that’s good when they all come together ... It’s always important for me to have a mixed team.”
So, where to next, we ask? Does she have any plans to bring her cooking skills to the UAE? “Yes, we will,” she says. “It’s a good place to be, for sure, and it’s in the plan.” Until we know more, you’ll have to head to Europe for a taste of those signature millefeuilles.