Anne-Sophie Pic: In conversation with the pioneering French chef

Kari Colmans

6 July 2022

One of the most decorated female chefs of her generation, the delightful Anne-Sophie Pic currently enjoys eight Michelin stars across five restaurants. To mark the opening of her destination restaurant La Dame De Pic 1920, at Four Seasons Hotel Megève, she discuss the pressure of her culinary lineage, female empowerment, and paving the way for the next generation

6 July 2022 | Kari Colmans

J

ust ask any wine collector, truffle hunter or beluga caviar bidder. What they’re paying for isn’t just the commodity itself, but the excitement. The fantasy. The anticipation of that first taste. The social fanfare and the elusive culinary high. The waiting, the imagining and the longing only elongating and preserving the dream.

But as I sit in a fantastical underground glass wine cellar, pretty much the only spot within the Four Seasons Hotel Megève that doesn’t offer breathtaking views of the surrounding mountains, picking apart this metaphor with sommelier Samy, he assures me that, unlike vintage wines that are cultivated on expectation, my moment with the resort’s legendary executive chef Anne-Sophie Pic would not disappoint.

 
 

One of the most decorated female chefs in the world (more on this later), the delightful Anne-Sophie Pic currently boasts eight Michelin stars across her five restaurants. Her grandfather and father before her played an instrumental role in the development of the French food landscape, the fabric of her family’s heritage ingrained in the national culinary narrative. 

The family restaurant, Maison de Pic in Valence, held three Michelin stars under her grandfather Andre’s patronage as early as 1934, with her father holding on to the accolades when he took the reins. Although at first Pic rejected the idea of following the family trade, it didn’t take long for her to find her feet – and her strength – in the kitchen. In 2007, with no formal training, she seized back the three Michelin stars that had been lost in the intervening years, and trail-blazed onto the gastronomic scene like few women have done before or since.

We are meeting in the Four Seasons' impressive fifth-floor penthouse, its sumptuous green velvet furnishings, knitted rugs and fur throws more suited to snow season, yet no less beautiful against the stunning summer backdrop. Much like the rest of the rooms in the hotel, the balcony doors and cleverly placed windows are framed by thick planks of wood, giving the impression that the lush vistas outside have been imagined by Monet, too beautiful to be real.

It’s the morning after the night before – I was treated to an unforgettable six-course tasting menu at the hotel’s destination restaurant La Dame De Pic 1920, cooked by the icon herself – and the explosions of her famous Les Berlingots savoyards, Fera fish from Leman’s Lake and the intriguing sweet, foamy brie from Meaux are still fresh in my mind, and on my tastebuds.

She smiles the moment we sit down – as she did the previous evening upon hand-delivering dishes to the table – an expression that suits her as well as those signature horn-rimmed glasses. “It’s been quite a demanding few days,” she opens. “It is important that we all reconnect as we only reopened a week ago for the season.”

 
 

This idea frames the discourse throughout our interview – it is never ‘I’, but ‘we’ – the importance of Pic and her team connecting, learning, and smashing the fine-bone china ceiling together. I ask how her lineage weighed on her at the outset: was it a blessing, a curse, a weight, or merely a platform? “Both,” she replies honestly. “At the very beginning, I could feel the pressure of my family’s legacy – two generations before me, both with three Michelin stars. I was afraid and it impinged me. But I soon realised that I needed to follow my own path. What started out as a real weight upon my shoulders, in the end, became a great strength.”

As a woman with no formal training or experience, she felt the eyes of the culinary world on her. “I could feel that doubt. I didn’t want to fail, but I was torn. Most people wanted me to succeed, but others questioned a woman’s ‘legitimacy’. But going through something difficult gives you strength, and I think this feeling of illegitimacy also drove me. It is a question of transforming a weakness into a power.”

Four Seasons Hotel Megève

We chat about other industries, many fuelled by men at the helm. She references Stella McCartney, whose experience in the fashion world she feels a connection to, and speaks a lot about her feelings of inferiority, stemming from both her lack of training and her gender. I wonder if she’d feel the same way if she were just starting out now? “Things were very different then,” she answers slowly.

“I started out feeling like I had to emulate my father, to act and to manage my kitchen like a man. But I realised that I had to act like myself, and like a woman. My sensitivity isn’t a weakness, it’s a strength,” she smiles.

 
 

“Women have really realised their worth over the years and they bring complementary skills to the table. They push more, they want to understand better. I think it is a question of sensitivity, of understanding the industry and adding something different, changing the rules. I think women want to change the rules, but by being themselves – not by trying to be like men.”

Have things really changed that much? “It’s a nuanced evolution. Men have changed in how they perceive women in professional kitchens. They have listened, they have realised that a balance of men and women in the kitchen is complementary, both in terms of attitude and ability. There is space for everybody.”

We’ve spoken a lot about gender, a hot topic in every modern cultural conversation, but I wonder if it’s always helpful. Pic was named the Best Female Chef in the World in 2011 by the 50 Best Restaurants in the World, and many commentators can’t help but mention the novelty of her gender in acquiring so many Michelin stars. Does she ever wish everyone would just focus on something else? She likes my question, and again, she’s torn.

“I change my mind on this subject all the time,” she muses. “I was the first woman to be awarded the number one spot on the World’s 50 Best Chefs list, and obviously I was very proud. But then I would go back and forth in my mind whether it was a good thing to make such a separation – does female chef matter, should it just be ‘chef’?

“But now I have changed my mind again because I think it helps other women to be accepted. For some, and I feel this is still the case in France especially, it is difficult [for women] to come forward and talk about their experiences. So it’s important for me to do so, if not for myself then for the women who come after me, regardless of their profession.”

 
 

We pause to gaze out of the window as a tractor makes waves up and down the vibrant swathes of green, leading naturally to a discussion of the range of flora and fauna in Pic’s cooking. “My associations with Megève are very focused on nature – the sights, the smells of pine buds, meadowsweet, tea, and flowers. Walking through the mountains just picking and smelling things as I go is so inspiring. I have been coming here since I was 20 years old, and it never ceases to intrigue me.”

Growing up in Valence, on the left bank of the Rhône in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region – a landscape not dissimilar from where we are – her father cooked a lot of fish from the lakes and reservoirs. He specifically liked to cook crayfish and became famous for his crayfish gratin. “He used to cook hundreds of kilos of crayfish. Whenever I was passing, I would just grab one from the side and eat it. Even without any seasoning, it was amazing.”

Surprisingly, however, she received very few cooking lessons from him. “Before learning to cook, I learned to taste. My father was cooking and tasting all the time, so I learned more than anything, to taste with him.”

Deciding to enter the kitchen at the age of 22 (apparently practically ancient in chef years), she really learned to cook from the chefs her father had taught. “It was an education through transmission. To truly understand the alchemy of cuisine really takes time. You cannot just decide to be a chef. For a long time, you must absorb and use your judgment.”

Her father passed away just three months after she returned home from working abroad in her early twenties. She had wanted to learn from him, but in the end, they ran out of time. “I didn’t get to decide. We don’t always get to decide how we learn something.”

 

Fast forward to the present day and the menu at La Dame De Pic 1920 is full of complex, technically challenging dishes such as house favourite berlingot with Beaufort and Abondance. “Like a fondue with absinthe and a green zebra tomato broth infused with meadowsweet and ground ivy” because “they say the French cannot cook pasta!”

We discuss how, in many ways, the modern British palette has moved away from French food over the last decade, toward Asian and fusion flavours. “People are always looking for more flavours,” she counters. “Umami has its history in Japanese cooking, but we also have umami in French cuisine. The DNA of French cuisine is very strong because of saucing and, in a way, it is a model for many newer ways of cooking.

“Over the last few years, many people started moving away from sauces, and I wanted to get back to that, but reinvent it in my own way, adding something new to the field. We don’t need to talk about fusion anymore, we must see it as evolution. At the end it is about alchemy.”

With so much of the menu infused with intriguing flavours from her surrounds, it is clear how at one Pic is with the terroir. “I am very connected to my ingredients,” she says. “It is very important for me to not only be in my restaurant, but to be out there in nature.” While she loves the hustle and bustle of the resort in winter, and dabbles in a bit of skiing herself, the mountains in the summertime are unbeatable “because of the flowers, the view, the smells.”

 

I ask how she finds London in comparison (La Dame de Pic London is situated in the Four Seasons Trinity Square, in the heart of the City) – where meadowsweet isn’t quite as abundant. She laughs and says she enjoys the change, the frenetic energy of Borough market, and the cocktails. “I like the energy of London. It is a city of cosmopolitan cuisines. I was anxious before coming whether people would like my style or not. But the Brits have an open mind.”

Pic talks a lot about her team, the many names and faces that enable the culinary dream to come alive: her family, her staff at the hotel restaurant in Megève, but also across her global culinary empire. “I think you must teach with sincerity,” she says – sincerely – emanating both gentility and strength, passion, and skill, but also a humble power. “If you don’t pass on what you learn, it will die with you. And it is never too late to make a dream come true.”

Even better when it lives up to the hype.

Read more: Tom Kerridge on lockdown and Liam Gallagher

Rooms at Four Seasons Hotel Megève start from £550 per room per night, visit fourseasons.com/megeve