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the gentlewoman

The Calling

Some call Anne-Sophie Pic the best woman chef. She was the first in her native France in 50 years to win three Michelin stars – the fourth in the world. It wasn’t always the plan – at 23 she found herself the head of a 129-year-old culinary dynasty with scant experience. Now Anne-Sophie’s fragrant dishes grace the tables of no less than four award-winning restaurants in London, Paris, Valence and Lausanne. If you were to ask the 48-year-old, she’d put it down to her ultra-feminine kitchen model, which extends to the shirt on her back.

Anne-Sophie Pic

Penny: Tell me about your jacket. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such stylish chef’s whites.

Anne-Sophie: I never used to wear a proper one, just a white jacket from Anne Fontaine. Bragard, a kitchen uniform outfitters, do a really great chef’s jacket, but just for men. About two years ago they asked me to design one for women. So I put a vent in the back to allow more room for movement – I didn’t want to feel strangled. We also used a slightly more elastic fabric and added a double cuff.

P: I assume you’re equally fastidious about the equipment you use.

AS: But all good chefs are like this, non? I like to use plastic spoons; I’m tasting food all the time and don’t want food tainted by metal. I also have my Japanese knife and a long tweezer that I use when I’m preparing a plate – this allows me to be very precise. These are all waiting for me in my small private kitchen in the Maison in Valence, where I work on new recipes. It’s away from the main kitchen so it’s quieter and gives me and my chefs a place to concentrate and develop new ideas.

P: What are you looking for in a chef?

AS: Honesty and loyalty are very important to me. My team know from the very beginning to be upfront with me, mistakes and all – I can’t stand anything else. I don’t like shouting in my kitchen either. People work better in a quiet environment; it allows them to concentrate and do their best work.

P: What’s the secret to managing people?

AS: I try to be generous and open with my chefs; I want them to actively participate in the running of the kitchen. Since I spend most of my time in Valence, in southeast France, it’s important that I have a confident relationship with my teams in London and Lausanne. I really try to mentor them because when I was a young chef, and first entered the kitchen, I didn’t get a lot of help. Particularly once my father passed away two months later. It was a team he had assembled and some of them couldn’t understand why I was there.

P: Was that the biggest career challenge you’ve faced so far?

AS: I was 23. It was a complete shock. I felt alone. If I hadn’t have had my husband with me, who was just my boyfriend then, I wouldn’t have been able to do it. We worked together. He managed the business, which allowed me to dedicate myself to the kitchen and develop my own style little by little.

P: When did you start to feel like the leader you are now?

AS: At the beginning, I tried to hide the fact that I was a woman. I wanted the men to recognise me as a chef first. So I felt I had to act differently. For about 15 years I was focused on proving myself and dispelling the notion of any difference because I’m a woman. It’s only recently I’ve acknowledged that, as a woman, I do have a different approach and I’m comfortable with that.

P: How so?

AS: I can only speak for myself, of course, but I see my cuisine as being more feminine. I perhaps use more fragrant ingredients than most male chefs would. I’m very influenced by perfumery and the structure of fragrances when I’m creating a recipe. I use a similar technique that perfumers use for extracting flavours: enfleurage. I capture flavours using butter.

P: You’ve achieved extraordinary success – all those awards – do you ever feel like you might have run out of goals?

AS: Ha, I’m still trying to get another star for Beau-Rivage Palace in Lausanne! And it would be nice if La Dame du Pic in London had two. It’s an ongoing process, maintaining such high standards and keeping my team motivated to do so. But now I’m looking at my profession as a woman and how I might be able to change people’s thinking and behaviour in the industry in that regard. There’s still work to do.

April 2018. Interview by Penny Martin. Portrait courtesy of Anne-Sophie Pic.