Dinner with a Deity: Master Chef Michel Bras
Tom Colicchio looked stunned as he sipped his Champagne, a crisp 1995 Henriot CUvée Des Enchanteleurs. He couldn’t believe that Michel Bras (pronounced brahs), arguably France’s most revered chef, was cooking for him, here, at a dinner in New York City. Though now a celebrity chef himself and head judge on TV’s Top Chef, Colicchio remembered what it was like to be the 27-year-old unknown he was when he traveled to France to work for two months at Bras’s restaurant. He tried to explain Bras’s genius: “Bras is out there. Cerebral. He didn’t apprentice in a great kitchen. He’s had no dogma beaten into him.”
© John Kernick
The monkish, 62-year-old Bras was the guest of honor at the gathering, cohosted by F&W’s editor-in-chief, Dana Cowin, and Stefan Boublil (at left) and Gina Alvarez. Boublil and Alvarez, founders of a design agency called the Apartment, throw weekly dinner parties in their Soho loft. They’ve created entire meals based on popcorn, sushi and Kellogg’s cereal, but this was the first event that required a hole in one of their walls. Bras’s menu needed a second stove; Boublil gladly cut out a slot for a new electrical socket. He also arranged with All-Clad to provide the chef with 20 pots.
Clearly, Bras’s rare U.S. appearance was an extraordinary occasion. For the better part of the past 30 years, anyone who wanted to taste his cuisine has had to make the trek to his Michelin three-star restaurant overlooking Laguiole (lah-yol), a small village in the remote Aubrac mountains of south-central France. (Bras has famously declined to open a restaurant in Paris, though he did create a spin-off in Hokkaido, Japan, in 2002.) The chef was in New York as part of his partnership with Japanese knife manufacturer KAI. Inspired by Laguiole’s legendary knife-making tradition, Bras designed a line of exquisite chef’s knives with KAI that debuted in 2005 (below). The handles have the smooth, rounded feel of chestnuts—which grow wild near the Aubrac mountains—so they are comfortable to hold for hours. A new line of silverware is also in the works.
© John Kernick
Bras is renowned for the purity of his cooking, which does not mean it’s uncomplicated. He draws on complex techniques to elevate humble ingredients like onions, bread and mushrooms, with astonishing, often whimsical results. His signature dish is the gargouillou (gar-gu-yu). Named for a rib-sticking Aubrac classic of potatoes and ham, his is a composed salad of 60 individually prepared vegetables, flowers and seeds that vary depending on the day. Bras also invented the now-ubiquitous molten chocolate cake: It’s hard to imagine a dish that better exalts the cocoa bean.
At the New York dinner, Bras seemed appropriately ascetic, dressed all in white, from his shirt to his clogs. (He cooks so carefully, his shoes remained pristine all day and into the night.) He is slight, bespectacled—and missing the tip of his left ring finger. An accident with one of his knives? “My wedding ring got caught on a ladder I was climbing,” he explained in French, speaking with a thick provincial accent. “I slipped and lost part of my finger.”
© John Kernick
Family and home are paramount to Bras. To help execute his complex menu, he brought his 37-year-old son and partner, Sébastien—Séba (left), Michel calls him—and his sous-chef of 25 years, Régis Saint-Geniez. Bras’s sommelier and service director of 18 years, Sergio Calderon, coordinated with Karen DiPeri, owner of Tribeca Events, a Manhattan-based events-management and production company, to oversee the waitstaff and plot out the meal.
Throughout eight hours of prepping, Bras rarely smiled. Working next to Sébastien and Régis, he spoke only to answer a question or give a quiet, pointed direction. Perfection takes time: Bras spent two hours peeling onions (and fighting back tears). His son candied nuts for the dessert for just as long, stirring them in batches with a wooden spoon.
© John Kernick
When dinner was ready, the chefs took a break while Boublil set the long oak table. He brought out red linen napkins with the menu silk-screened on one side, the guest list on the other: In addition to Colicchio, the group included writer Adam Gopnik; a vice president at Christie’s London wine department, Richard Brierley; Constantin and Laurene Boym, designers for Alessi and other tableware lines; and Adam Flatto and his wife, Olivia, who was awarded the medal Chevalier of the Ordre National du Mérite last year.
As the guests sat down, Bras came over to speak, bringing a French-English dictionary to help Boublil translate. “We landed two nights ago,” Bras began. “We went straight to the market and nosed around for ingredients that would transport you to our universe, that would reflect the end of winter and the beginning of spring.”
© John Kernick
Bras’s dinner referenced the traditionally poor Aubrac countryside. To flavor and thicken his velvety mushroom soup, he had brought toasted sourdough bread, vacuum-sealed, from home. He accompanied slow-cooked sea bass, so moist it appeared raw, with a mix of vegetables that evoked the gargouillou. Dessert—roasted bananas studded with cinnamon shards and served with the nuts so painstakingly caramelized by Sébastien—was inspired by childhood deprivation. “I was allowed one banana per month,” Bras said. “We weren’t exactly rich after the war.”
Guests drank the minerally 2004 Bouchard Père et Fils Meursault Genevrières and talked, happily, about the food. Gopnik had never eaten at Bras’s restaurant during his six-year sojourn in France for the New Yorker; he was giddy at the chance to taste Bras’s cooking. “The idea of his being here is hallucinant,” Gopnik said. “I’m amused by the idea that he’d be wandering through the meadows of Aubrac to create a dish,” referring to the gargouillou’s fabled origins.
Bras bristled at being pressed into the locavore mold. “Look,” he said, “if we ate only what comes from the Aubrac, we’d have nothing but potatoes, pork and cabbage.” He called his famed devotion to local herbs “caricature. It’s only part of what we do.
“Often, chefs take themselves too seriously,” he continued. “I now serve these dishes to my grandchildren. The luxe of the table is the joy you find around it.”
© John Kernick
Though the kitchen may have felt like an operating room, the food had an engaging sense of humor. Every dish had a “niac,” Bras’s word for something that shocks on the plate. His starter of roasted onions had a niac of powdered black olives mixed with demerara sugar and ground almonds, which tasted like licorice. His bass had niacs of bread jus, egg foam and red wine–vinegar syrup. The surprise could be a trace of vivid color (for the gargouillou), the subtle flavor of a foamy roasted-barley infusion (for chicken breasts) or the crunch of caramelized nuts (for the bananas).
After a brief debate, the guests agreed that the onions, fork-tender after six hours of roasting, were their favorite course. Transformed from lowly ingredient to refined dish, the onions captured the spirit of Bras’s cooking.
“How do you have the guts to do something so simple?” Colicchio asked the chef.
“I owe it to my region,” Bras replied. “The day I can’t work with vegetables anymore,” he added, “is the day I no longer step into the kitchen.”
Jane Sigal is an F&W contributing editor based in New York.