France's top female chefs

Only four women have held three-Michelin stars, but a new generation has them in their sights.

7 September 2010

Only four women have held three-Michelin stars, but a new generation has them in their sights.

Rougui Dia, Flora Mikula and Laurence Salomon are three names to watch.

Rougui Dia
Le 144
144 rue de l'Université, Paris

The Petrossian has long been a luxury establishment, appealing to gourmets with their imported Russian and Iranian caviars, home-smoked salmon and their special vodka, made with a subtle mix of rye grains.

Rougui Dia is the elegant, unassuming chef at the restaurant Le 144 situated above the store. Since she took over, the brand, founded in 1920 by two Armenian brothers, has begun to open up to the outside world a little more.

The young woman of Senegalese origin brings a personal touch to her cooking, using a subtle combination of Petrossian’s flagship gourmet products and her own ancestral cuisine. She makes clever use of rare spices in fish and meat dishes like red mullet with tangy fresh pea purée and coconut milk; roast breast of duck with apples and pineapple chutney; or scallops with caviar and black rice, flavoured with cuttlefish ink. “Every dish takes you on a journey. My cooking is quite modern,” she said. A gentle yet determined woman, Ms Dia was already preparing traditional Fula meals (such as latiéré khako, a delicious spinach-based dish) for her many brothers and sisters at the age of 14.

Uninterested in school, she decided to enrol on a hotel and catering course, even though women, and non-white people in particular, were not a common sight in restaurant kitchens at the time.

After qualifying in 2001, she started working for Petrossian as vegetable cook, rapidly progressing to sous-chef, followed by her appointment as head chef in 2006. She has been delighting the palates of diners at Petrossian since then, but no one will be surprised if, in a few years’ time, she decides it is time to cut the apron strings and open a restaurant of her own.

Flora Mikula
Les Saveurs de Flora
36 av. George V, Paris

Born in Nîmes in 1968, the girl from Provence packed her bags and made for the big city, with the flavours of home safely packed in her suitcase. Just a stone’s throw from the Champs-Élysées, in Paris’s famous – and expensive – “Golden Triangle”, her restaurant has quickly come to be seen as a safe bet for anyone looking for gourmet food in the capital. Although her Provencal roots are easily detected in her cooking, the chef also draws on her travels and her own creative instincts.

She learned her trade with Christian Étienne in Avignon and then worked at the Méridien in London, before spending two years on the French Caribbean island of Saint-Barthélémy and further honing her skills at Le Comptoir in New York.

Finally she came back to Paris, where she perfected her talents under the great chefs Jean-Pierre Vigato and (when she was only 24) Alain Passard, for whom she was sous-chef at L'Arpège. This international culture has made both her and her cuisine perfect examples of so-called fusion cooking. Based on delicate harmonies, the menu is a jigsaw puzzle where lobster Niçoise fits perfectly with calf sweetbreads on pain d’épice and tandoori roast suckling pig.

Laurence Salomon
Nature et Saveur
Place des Cordeliers, Annecy

If you listen carefully, you can sometimes hear Laurence Salomon singing as she cooks.

Although she has sacrificed her love of opera to devote herself to her restaurant, she still says she “wants to make the food sing”.

The dishes served in her restaurant on the shores of Lake Annecy, Haute-Savoie, bear witness to her nutritional approach. Now 39, Laurence Salomon is a fan of naturo-pathy, an American complementary healthcare system that aims to improve quality of life through natural remedies.

Her dishes are based on pulses such as little Adzuki beans or baby lentils from the Champagne region and vegetables and grains. There is not a trace of fat to be found.

The products are all organic and sourced from nearby farms, then prepared simply, resulting in delicious creations like Comté cheese and quinoa pastries, tofu mille-feuilles with spinach, seaweed and salmon or a chocolate and rice-milk dome. Laurence Salomon believes in healthy, flavoursome gourmet food and describes her cooking as “good-to-eat, good-to-look-at, healthy and digestible”.

Anne-Sophie Pic is only the fourth woman to hold three stars – but she is the third member of her family to do so

Anne-Sophie Pic cuts an energetic figure as she crosses the series of rooms that make up her restaurant with its uncompromisingly modern décor.

The most Michelin-starred female chef in France likes perfection, adjusting the position of the cutlery and straightening a flower in the vase. Her pulled-back hair reveals a high forehead and a straight nose, making her look slightly severe – though in reality I think she has a timid side.

“I express myself best in my kitchen,” she says in a soft-toned voice. If there is such a thing as a gene for haute cuisine, no doubt the Pic family has it.

Ms Pic, 40, is a fourth-generation chef – all of them at the highest level in French cooking.

The saga started in 1891, when Sophie, Ms Pic’s great-grandmother, set up her Café du Pin in the Ardèche (Rhône-Alpes), which became a popular haunt for the region’s gastronomes. They went there to savour a rich regional cuisine – fricassés of poultry, gratins, sautéed rabbit.

Her son André, Ms Pic’s grandfather, took over from her in 1920 and perfected the recipes he had learnt from her. The restaurant was always full and his prawn gratin attracted an international clientele.

In 1934, he obtained the supreme culinary honour – three stars in the Michelin Red Guide, the French gourmet’s bible. Fired up with this success, he moved to new premises in Valence (in the neighbouring Drôme department), the southern French town where Anne-Sophie Pic still works today.

Next in line to run the kitchens was his son, Jacques. He once again took up the family recipes, while developing new tastes as well. In Valence, far from the sea, he imposed his taste for fish, creating a new signature dish which is still on the menu – seabass with caviar.

In 1973, in turn, he won a third Michelin star which the restaurant had lost after the war.

The influence of Ms Pic’s father, who died in 1992 from a stroke at the end of an evening’s restaurant service, is still evident in the restaurant.

“I think about him everyday,” she said, remembering how one day he asked her: “What about you Anne – is it cooking for you?”

She said she did not reply, because she did not want to disappoint him; she did not want to tell him that she was not going to follow the long line of chefs, but would leave that to her brother Alain.

However her heritage caught up with her. She had just passed diplomas in management when her vocation became unavoidable. At the age of 22, she decided to go to work in the kitchens alongside her beloved father. However that was not to last long as he died three months later, turning her world upside down.

With the double handicap of being a woman in a macho world and a cooking novice, Ms Pic buckled down and became an apprentice under her brother.

Then he went off to use his talents elsewhere and she found herself alone.

“As a woman I had the feeling that I was not in my proper place,” she said. However the tenacity of this small, delicate woman paid off. With the help of her husband David Sinapian, who looks after the administrative side of things, she won back in 2007 the third Michelin star which had been lost when her father died. For the third, time the Pic family had been given this supreme recognition.

She said: “I hope that I can give encouragement to all those other women who would like to go into this career.”

She is only the fourth woman in history to have had three stars.

In her kitchen this autodidact chef remains faithful to her roots. “Taste is about emotions, it’s rooted in the past, it brings up memories,” she said – and so we find her father’s favourite dishes on the menu still.

Nonetheless, she gives a feminine touch to her cooking, which she sums up with three words “creativity, lightness and refinement”.

Creativity in that she is open to influences from distant lands – cooking with exotic products or looking for sweet vegetable flavours through chutneys.

Refinement in the combinations of flavours and in the presentation of her plates, with plenty of macaroons, calissons d’Aix or other sweet biscuits.

Lightness in getting the cooking just right and making the most of the tastes of each product.

“I aim for a perfect flavour, precise cooking and simplicity,” she said. Since last year, she has been pursuing the same search for perfection at the head of the Beau-Rivage Palace restaurant in Lausanne, Switzerland and which she also now shares with the public, having created a cooking school not far from her restaurant in Valence. Called Scook, this school is open anyone who likes to cook and it allows Ms Pic to pass her passion on to others in line with her motto “Please yourself, so as to please others”.

France looks to crown its first Masterchef

France’s main channel, TF1, is preparing to host its first Masterchef next month, catching up with the UK’s staple diet of cookery programmes.

A new generation of shows based on concepts already widely established across the Channel and internationally are fast emerging on French TV.

Shows like Saturday Kitchen or Ready, Steady, Cook, first aired in 1994, have become institutions on British TV and are now exported as internationally accepted formats.

TF1, France’s first and most-watched channel, says it has already been casting for candidates for its Masterchef, due to air in September.
So far, M6 had held the monopoly in terms of cookery games shows with the launch this year of Top Chef, a game where professional cooks are judged by a panel of celebrity chefs. Ritz chef and ex-Michelin-starred Christian Constant, twice-starred Thierry Marx, Parisian chef Jean-François Piège and the first woman to hold two Michelin stars between 1992 and 1998, Ghislaine Arabian, made up the hard-to-please jury.

Based on three timed challenges to be done alone or in pairs, the show saw the candidates create their own restaurant for a night, cook for children, cater for a business party and fight to make the best fried egg.

Over three million viewers sat to watch one of the 12 contestants leave each week and an exceptional 4.3 million viewers for the April finale confirmed it was a recipe for success.

The series presented by a male-female duo also drafted in celebrity TV chef Cyril Lignac to coach the candidates. He stepped into the starlight after participating in M6’s reality TV show Oui, Chef in 2005. With 10 apprentices under his wing and four months to go, the young Cyril Lignac had to open his own restaurant in Paris. The show proved quite successful and certainly helped the chef launch his TV career.

Later, he went on to appear on several other shows, such as Le chef contre-attaque where he looked at a particular community’s food habits, Chef la recette and Vive la cantine! focused on bringing kids back to healthy food.

Today, Cyril Lignac presents M.I.A.M (Mon Invitation à Manger) a weekly game on M6 where a team of contestants challenge him to cook their favourite recipe.

M.I.A.M has also called on Grégory (toasting far left in photo above) another growing personality of French cuisine and winner of Un Diner Presque Parfait, to test out a new product each week.

More traditional cookery shows with no prizes to be won but recipes to be made at home have existed for a while in France. Among the most famous cooks in this field were Joël Robuchon and his famous Bon Appétit Bien Sur and Jean Pierre Coffe.

Mr Coffe, an eccentric character known for his love of terroir products and traditional cuisine became famous for his participation in the cult radio show, Les Grosse Têtes, on RTL channel. His appearances on various cookery and gardening shows on TF1, France 2, France 3 and Canal + marked the whole of the nineties and he can still be viewed on various talk shows.

Perhaps the first cookery personality to achieve national fame was discovered while working for an Aquitaine rugby team and began a regular cookery programme on France 3. Marie-Thérèse Ordonez, known by French viewers as Maïté, presented La Cuisine des Mousquetaires during the 1980s. Her strong personality and country ways made her reputation and video footage of her epic cooking, including a particular difficult and vigorous handling of an eel, are classic today.

Fourchette et Sac à Dos: Literally fork and backpack, on France 5, mixes food and travel – a bit like the late Keith Floyd except with the more attractive (and less sozzled) Julie Andrieu. The concept is this: Julie Andrieu is sent abroad to discover local cuisine, ingredients and learn to make typical dishes with local experts. The series has already taken her to Mexico, Japan, Morocco, India, Polynesia, Cameroon and La Réunion and is currently airing its third season.

She also cooks for other programmes such as France 5’s slow news show C à Vous, where she prepares a dish for guests while the show is happening.

Another programme on France 3, Côté cuisine, follows her and a famous chef who attempt to solve a viewer’s cooking dilemma such as “Why is my pizza base always soggy?”, but more complicated.

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