”IF I STOP COOKING I’LL DIE”
MICHEL BRAS STILL HAS EVERYTHING TO LIVE FOR
WORDS MARIE ALINE | IMAGES PER-ANDERS JÖRGENSEN
In 2012 a dream came true. In our second issue we traveled to Aubrac in France to meet up with Michel Bras, one of the founding fathers of modern cuisine, a chef with rock star status who inspired so many. Maybe even a "food god" (if they do exist). Still so down to his terroir.
Please enjoy and make sure to get a physical copy from our shop or resellers (though this issue is long sold out!)
Without Sébastien Bras, there would be no Michel Bras. Just as the father created the son, the son now nurtures his father. ‘If I hadn’t stayed, my father would have closed the restaurant’, he says. The summons for help came in 1993, when Sébastien was working abroad, and he dropped tools and answered the call, just as Michel had decades earlier for his own mother.
Defying all laws of psychoanalysis, Sébastien never felt the need to dominate. He says that his first dessert appeared on the Bras restaurant menu when he was 24 years old. That’s when he fully understood and appreciated his father’s mind and abilities, but they agreed that they had to give each other enough space in order to be able to work side by side. He needs Michel as Michel needs him, needs a guiding voice in his head, one which he keeps alive by ensuring his father’s active participation in the running of the restaurant and the creation of new dishes. For all his eccentricities, Michel has no shortage of followers. He doesn’t need to appear on Masterchef or seek publicity in food magazines, and he continues to inspire a new generation of chefs. From René Redzepi to Andoni Luis Aduriz and Wylie Dufresne, as well as younger chefs such as Bertrand Grébaut, all utter his name with utmost reverence. ‘More than any of the classic chefs, it is Bras’s philosophy and cuisine that inspires us!’ declares Grébaut, underlining the fact that many of his devotees are just as interested in hearing him speak as they are in eating his food.
The word ‘inactivity’ does not exist in Michel’s vocabulary. His latest project, undertaken with the help of his family is to conquer France with their ‘capucins’, a mix between a galette and a kebab. With his brother André at the helm, la famille Bras is redefining street food for local palates, and they are to launch their first French-style fast food chain in 2013. ‘Capucins’ are already sold on the edge of the A75 motorway, just north of the Millau Viaduct designed by architect Norman Foster. Folded into a cone-shape, they are filled with regional specialities, including local aligot (mashed potatoes with garlic and cheese) and lamb. If all goes well the family hopes to work with suppliers in every city in order to create different capucins specific to each region. Just as he threw himself into the capucin project, Bras has also committed himself enthusiastically to the Soulages Museum in Rodez, where he will open a restaurant in consultation with the eponymous artist. The opening of the museum and the restaurant had been planned for autumn 2013, but Michel doesn’t want to open his restaurant in the autumn, and says it isn’t representative of his palate. He wants flowers, colours, flavours, smells and textures to be intense, the better to render his philosophy. So the restaurant will open in spring 2014. For Michel eating is a bright and vivid activity. Part of an timescale of emotions, every meal has a meaning: ‘Breakfast. The ashes of the fire are smouldering, and our eyes are still heavy with sleep. We're dreaming of warm pastries, the smell of the freshly brewed coffee that awaits us.’ Each moment has been carefully thought out. A late breakfast, composed of tripoux (small bundles of stuffed tripe), with scrambled eggs and a pascade (a thick Aveyron pancake). The preprandial aperitif, lunch, teatime, old-fashioned hot chocolate perfumed with hazelnut and finally, dinner. Michel’s vision is making this place a home rather than a brasserie, a faithful reflection of what a restaurant should be.
Boundlessly energetic, Michel nonetheless yearns for a peaceful existence. He likes living far from the everyday chaos, enjoying the calm of his garden away from the restaurant, slicing his vegetables in his three-star kitchen, far from the gastronomic crowd in the dining room who insist that the vegetable must be cooked this way or that. He does what he pleases. And there, far away from his day-to-day responsibilities, he lets rip with his imagination and creativity. Some would say he goes a little crazy. He invents a table football game for the grandchildren; makes sheep out of cauliflower florets; for a day, at New Year dresses up as a pilot (something he’s always dreamed of becoming). Like a pinch of salt, so Michel enhances everything around him, relishing his freedom. This is the other Michel Bras, the Michel Bras that designs Japanese mandolins, pays homage to his friends, organises riotous parties, strides across his land, travels around Chad, falls in love with Peru, cycles up Tourmalet with his team, and continues to feed the admiration that his son holds for him, in a million different ways. He is never truly alone, however, always accompanied by his team or at least by his Ginette (‘Gi’), the centre of his universe. And, just like his mother Angèle, who was still mashing up aligot at the age of 85, life, to Michel, seems eternal.
He draws his powerful ideas from the quirky formations and odd topography of the Laguiole landscape. As Hemingway used to clear his head while walking, Bras goes jogging, looking for inspiration in the gentle undulations of the Aubrac countryside; a land used, abandoned and illuminated by the upheavals of the capricious sky. ‘This region has an intrinsic capacity for change. It’s the emptiness of the landscape, this shaft of light, the dynamic of the tree caught by the road which leads towards the sky.” Captivated, the chef contemplates, photographs, tries to capture in his turn the features of the landscape from which he creates his culinary language. A celestial light strikes the storm-darkened hillside, creating light and shade, a divine dish in its most important sense. Of course Michel Bras draws inspiration by flirting with the landscape, but also engages in a dialogue with it, as he did with the buron, a stone hut built for cowherds and typical of the Aubrac region. This hut, like so many others in the area, had gradually fallen into ruin. Michel stuck a map in one of his notebooks, with the location of the buron marked with a cross, and created a dish inspired by its history: ‘Little by little, the life of this buron was being drained away. Its owner was stripping the slates from the roof and selling them. On the 9th of August 2004, I passed and it called out to me: “I'm dying, you’re not doing anything! Move! Do something!”’. Confronted by the landscape, Michel felt he had no choice: he had to generate something that might restore life to this ancient ruin.
One might say that his soul is so imbued with the spirit of Aubrac, that wherever he travels, he is never far from the gentle landscapes of these ancient plains in the Massif Central; slashed by dark stone walls and inhabited by cows with a natural kohl-rimmed gaze. It is these landscapes that inspired his most famous creation, the vegetable gargouillou. Not so much as a dish as an ever-changing palette of ingredients, colour and taste, a picture that is in constant evolution, depending on the temperature, the light, the rain, who gathered the produce, the mood. It’s a sort of daily unveiling, which expresses the landscape just as the chefs have experienced it on a particular day. Foraging amid the jumble, we discover a range of textures – soft, crisp, intense, sticky, some flavours are almost unappealing, others are divine. Frowns followed by smiles. As though this was in some the very essence of life, everything is tasted without passing judgement, in a spirit of acceptance.
Gargouillou dates back to 1983, when Michel, who grew up with simple, country flavours, put vegetables centre stage, giving them a position traditionally only afforded to its animal rivals. Different cooking methods play with the textures, adding new layers of depth to the plants. This is how he finds meaning in his life. ‘If I couldn’t cut my vegetables, I’d wither away.’ From spring until the end of autumn, he gets up around 6am – earlier in summer – and goes down to the garden at his house, that covers most of premises, to gather his vegetables, always in the same order. He works in the warm greenhouse, with the pea shoots, green tomatillos, the Bolivian coriander and the collection of bitter gourds that he brought back from Sri Lanka. He bounds between the plants, stripping a few leaves of collard greens here, some sea kale there. He inspects the kohlrabi growing close to the ground. He caresses the hairy surface of a runner bean sensuously as the first rays of the sun steal over the horizon and warm his face. He flits from one plant to the next, never resting, driven by the uninterrupted flow of his thoughts, which propel him from vegetable to vegetable, creating in his mind a larger picture from the details he observes.
‘When I return from the garden, I put my findings down and look at what I’ve picked that day. My nose, my memory, my knowledge are constantly activated, working on their own. An idea comes, and putting it into action is a question of time. Sometimes it’s urgent, imperative, immediate; sometimes I must wait for the perfect moment. Occasionally I forget, but my unconscious never forgets! The light could come on days, or even months later, but it will come on.’ This is perhaps why no one else is privy to his creative thinking, or invited to participate in it. ‘The details speak to him and him alone,’ says Régis, who has worked at his side for 30 years.
Today, Michel and Ginette live between the past and the present in an old fortress which they have restored rather eccentrically. A small, foam-like forest of frullania blooms at the top of a 16th-century wall. Perched up there for at least nine years (when they moved in), this bryophyte oversees Michel’s comings and goings between the old and new worlds. His home contains a two-metre-high stone fireplace, while the bedroom is contained in a concrete cube. On one side, thick stone walls are pierced with narrow openings, while huge windows on the other side admit plenty of light. Similarly, the collection of antique whisks hanging from the ceiling of the office contrasts with the collection of fabrics gathered from across the globe, or the mortar found in the Chad desert.
Every morning, at 8am sharp, Michel, Gi, and the volunteers from the restaurant staff have their ‘juice’ (as they call coffee), gathered in the kitchen. The fireplace is not yet lit, but the smell of coffee and Gi’s hospitality pervades the air and warms hands numbed by the morning dampness. Michel passes out the cups, and, often, little gifts. All the women who come to his garden in the morning receive a fragrant rose bearing his name, bred for him in 2002. Michel has just handed them out, getting a few smiles in the process: as ever the most precious comes from Gi. Michel asks after Jonathan’s health, teases Victor: ‘So, have you stopped smoking? Not yet? You know how your mother goes on’, and jokes with Claudia, whose boyfriend fell off a horse a few days ago; ‘Hey Claudia, I hear you're a widow? Well, I’ve found you a husband! James over there is single. There we go! All done and dusted.”, he laughs. Then the truck is loaded and they head back to Le Suquet, at the head of a vegetable procession.
Gi stays behind, putting away coffee cups, or going into the garden to pick flowers. Often she does the same tasks as Michel, a little later, at a more leisurely pace, and in a different time dimension. Once she gets to Le Suquet, she sits at the table looking over the work plan, mini-courgettes in one tray, pattypan squash in another, and green radishes set to one side, keeping out of the way. Sébastian is facing his mother, with his back to his father, preparing artichokes. Régis takes care of the Arctic char. The other boys chop herbs. Gi busies herself the bouquets. Lost in her ikebana arrangements, she stops for a moment, lit by the single ray of sunlight that enters the kitchen. The sunflowers illuminate her face. Her calm contrasts with the frenetic intensity of her husband. Only their mutual gaze gives a hint of their shared sensitivity.
Perhaps one day he will be closer to his Gi. At times he contemplates Le Suquet as though watching an uncontrollable child who has grown up too fast, as if the very idea he himself set in motion has run away with itself, out of his control. ‘It’s time I retired,’ he will sigh. Michel nominally left Le Suquet three years ago, but he and Gi seem to be spending even less time together. ‘You walk at my side, while I run after you,’ he likes to say.
Michel cuts. He slices a radish with his mandolin. Rather than attacking the radish frontally, he prefers to turn it on the blade, to stroke it, certain that the gesture will ensure that the radish gives the best of itself. A runner bean is sliced lengthwise, cutting it twice across its breadth, revealing the tender flesh beneath the fuzzy outer shell.
He tilts the knife with the blade close, breathing slowly, attempting to understand the vegetable. Michel now turns his attention to a green radish. This one is imperfect. It’s grown up around a dark flaw, which makes to Michel makes it even stronger; a welcome resilience. He examines it, trying to understand it, but finally admits defeat. Victor whispers to him to cut it into strips, but Michel is not convinced. Suddenly the phone rings. He escapes, disappears for twenty minutes and then comes back with an air of distraction. His gaze falls on the green radish. ‘Goodness, I had forgotten all about you’. With renewed vigour, he slices it up with ease, mastering his vegetable, making it his own.
When they garden, Michel, Jean-Luc and James are not simply growing food. They are also cultivating independence. Developing a degree of autonomy from the growers with whom Michel has worked for years, they develop infinite varieties of marrow, aubergine, and herbs, and yet, when he goes to the market, there is still shopping to be done on a massive scale. He could choose to take it easy, to chat with the growers while he goes about this part of the day, but he’s afraid the other restaurateurs will steal a march. And so he arrives at 4.15am in the Rodez’ square, and helps Laurence and Bernard to unload their truck quickly. He peeks in the crates, whispers to the amaranth ‘Wait for me’, then, when he sees the others arrive, drops everything and throws himself at the crates. He needs 2.8 kg of beans, 34 mini-squashes, 8 punnets of rocket, 8 heads of chard, 15 cucumbers, 4 punnets of salad burnet, 50 kohlrabi, 6 punnets of purslane, 1.6 kg of roselle, 12 heads of celtuce, 1.6 kg plantain, 6 bunches of water spinach, 5.8 kg of mustard plant, 8 bundles of leeks, 5 punnets of pea shoots, 1.2kg of rhubarb, 2 bunches of melissa, 14.5 kg pink aubergines, 1.8 kg long courgettes, 3 punnets of amaranth, 4 bunches of chervil, 2 heads of curly endive, 2 bunches of dill, 10.4 kg of cabbage, 9 kg butternut squash, 9.7 kg mini-courgettes, 2.2 kg New Zealand spinach, 1 bunch of coriander, 2.5 kg rucola, 9 heads of bok choy and 8 of Tatsoi rosulaire.
The race was intense, but Michel enjoys it, plays it like a mischievous child. It is this quality that makes him the perfect grandfather, the grandfather who makes swords for his grandson Alban. The handles are carefully bound with rope, the points are deadly, made of brambles, screws, or simply whittled to a point with a knife. Truth in the game makes it even more exciting, more alive, he says, and therefore these are functioning weapons. And when Michel plays with Alban’s catapult it’s the thrill of actually seeing the shells fly like bullets that he relishes, not the end result. Wonder, a word he repeats often, is the essence of the Michel Bras universe.
The whole family sits around the big granite table in the middle of the restaurant kitchen, everyone in their appointed place. The grandchildren sit at the end of the table, near the door to the restaurant. The others sit facing each other: Véro and Séba, Michel and Gi and Muriel, Séba’s cousin. It is rare that a family member misses dinner. It is a ritual, it is essential to the cohesion of the Bras family. That particular night, as most nights, everyone is present. Véronique talks about the restaurant, Séba about the kitchen, and the little ones talk about what’s going on at school. Alban talks breathlessly and eats his bream the same way. He hurries. He always in a rush when it comes to dinner. Everyone watches him with amusement. Flora is more relaxed. When Alban has finished, he grabs a plate, opens the fridge and cuts a little square of butter. Then, out of nowhere, he pulls out a Tupperware box chocolate drops designed to make ganache. He puts everything next to his grandfather’s right hand. They don’t say anything, but Michel smiles and reaches for the bread, breaks off the piece he had chosen at the beginning of dinner.
It has to be perfect, just the right amount of butter, almost too much yet not quite enough. A few chocolate drops wrapped tightly inside. In three mouthfuls, Michel and the sandwich have aroused the wonder of a child.
It took Michel Bras 15 years to pass on the restaurant to his son. Now that he is not in the kitchen during service, he spends most of his time in his office next to it. ‘I know I should go home and work from there. But I feel something is missing when I'm not here. But come back in five years to check where I stand on that!’ According to Sébastien, to work is to live, for his father: ‘You don't tell a painter to stop painting just because he is 65’, he says with a smile.
“AN IDEA COMES,
AND PUTTING IT INTO ACTION IS A QUESTION OF TIME. SOMETIMES IT’S URGENT, IMPERATIVE, IMMEDIATE; SOMETIMES I MUST WAIT FOR THE PERFECT MOMENT.”
THE WORD ‘INACTIVITY’ DOES NOT EXIST IN MICHEL’S VOCABULARY
“THIS REGION HAS AN INTRINSIC CAPACITY FOR CHANGE. IT’S THE EMPTINESS OF THE LANDSCAPE, THIS SHAFT OF LIGHT, THE DYNAMIC OF THE TREE CAUGHT BY THE ROAD THAT LEADS TOWARDS THE SKY.”
“YOU DON’T TELL A PAINTER TO STOP PAINTING JUST
BECAUSE HE IS 65,’’
SÉBASTIEN SAYS WITH A SMILE.