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Nature is the key to my dishes

Michelin three-starred chef Michel Bras talks to OLIVIER BAUER about his passion for Aubrac & the bounty nature provides

NATURE plays the lead role in the beautiful food created by the Michelin three-starred chef Michel Bras.

Fresh flowers, herbs and vegetables – which he grows in his own kitchen garden – adorn every dish at his restaurant on the plateau of Aubrac in the south of France.

With his son Sébastien, Michel Bras runs a hotel-restaurant in Laguiole (Aveyron, Midi-Pyrénées).

The restaurant at la Maison Bras, on the Route de l’Aubrac, is of a striking architectural design, with glass panels on all sides and overlooking fields. It was ranked seventh in Restaurant magazine’s Top 50 restaurants in the world in 2008.

Inside, a wealth of new experiences awaits the visitor – one of Bras’ most popular dishes is a chocolate coulant with blue cheese.

The chef ’s creative style relies heavily on the fresh herbs and flowers from his home region and mountains. Some of the jewels of the region also find their way into his cooking: the local cheese is featured in his aligot, a mashed potato dish which is a staple on the gourmet menu.

Bras is also known for his custom knife series, which he created with Kai cutlery in 2008, and which, due to the shape of its handle, has gained international recognition. Diners can find the knives today in his restaurant.

The chef said: “In order to celebrate this knife I leave it on the table throughout the meal, from the starter to the cheese.” Far from the bustle of city life and changing trends, this chef has invented a style of cooking which places the vegetables and flowers growing in the mountains of his region, as a centrepiece. His day starts early. At 5.30 he carefully examines the plants in his garden: onions, leeks, his kitchen garden herbs. He looks, touches and sniffs the flowers and vegetables before putting them into a crate.

Living quietly in the mountains, he has patiently crafted his work, with the ambition to see all those who enjoy fine cuisine eat at his and nature’s table.

Aubrac, the isolated mountain to the south of the Massif Central, is Bras’ inspiration. He has never dreamed of leaving this territory, which the local poet, Henri Pourrat, once said gave an “incredible feeling of being in the sky”. The Gargouillou is Bras’ signature dish. He invented this in spring, more than 30 years ago, while watching the flowers grow. He describes it as a dish with an “almost perfect balance”, where every day, young bulb vegetables, root vegetables and those with pods and flowers as well as seeds and herbs (which, he says, give a hint of eggnog with hazelnut) come together in a dish which can only be described as a symphony of colours and fragrances, or a firework display which explodes in the mouth. Bras says that the dish is inspired by his home territory.

“Originally, Gargouillou was a stew created locally and consisting of potatoes and a slice of ham. I kept the ham and replaced the potatoes with young vegetables,” he said.

“For me, the Gargouillou dish is a concentration of everything in Aubrac. It touches at the very heart of my work, of this music which I have orchestrated on the table, and resonates to the bottom of my heart and to the tip of taste.”

The chef and nature-lover describes his country as being “dominated by silence (and) filled with light”. At his restaurant there is an invitation to stay a while and savour new tasting experiences.

The trip is also an excuse to explore a beautiful and ancient landscape, which provides a crossroads for the main roads through France. South of the Auvergne, this mountain looks like a desert. There are more cows than people and more flowers than days in the year.

Those who book a table at the restaurant often stay in the area for a few days, to get a feel for the landscape. Many return every year in a kind of pilgrimage of taste. These connoisseurs usually select the vegetable menu, in tribute to the chef and his land. Then, following the Gargouillou, comes a culinary experience plucked straight from the garden tended by Bras.

Depending on the season, diners are invited to try dishes such as beans wrapped under a bread crust and hazelnut or aubergine cooked with bread. Other options may include anchovies and basil, or onions flavoured with liquorice root.

Sébastien Bras does not yet have his father’s experience, but he has inherited his precise, neat gestures and the same passion for the countryside. When his father runs, he climbs the mountains on his bike and enjoys the beautiful pastures, grazed by blackfaced cattle.

The young chef says: “Our cooking is personal – a mixture of Aubrac and all the trips that we have made. It reflects the landscape in which we live, our memories, the people we have met and the stories we tell on our return.”

Beef and lamb from the Aubrac plateau have both featured on the restaurant menu, accompanied by a lassi sauce of fennel, kasha [buckwheat] or ice cream with eucalyptus.

At dawn, while his father picks vegetables, Sébastien drives 40 miles south to the market at Rodez. The aim is to be the first to find the ingredients for the dishes of the day.

Laguiole is a village with 1,260 residents, where Michel Bras’ mother set up her inn. His father was a blacksmith.

In 1992, Bras set up his restaurant just a few kilometres away. Made of granite and slate, the modernist architecture evokes the neighbouring burons – stone houses which once sheltered the men who guarded the cows during summer grazing.

When the chef picked up his third Michelin star in 1999, Bras knew the institution had given in to him and his desires. Like his friend Marc Veyrat, a three-starred chef who cooks with mountain flowers and herbs at his restaurant in Haute-Savoie, Bras has favoured a rural life and cooking over the tempting offers of the great Parisian restaurants.

The restaurant is closed from October to April as the roads can be impassable through the winter and this is when Michel and Sébastien Bras dream up their new menus and fly to their restaurant in Hokkaido, a northern island in the Japanese archipelago, which they opened in 2002.

Bras explains: “More than 20 years ago I travelled in Japan. I was asked to open a restaurant and I was just overwhelmed by the beauty of this place that looks like ... Aubrac”.

Mountains again provided the inspiration for a creative style of cooking that takes nature as its universal theme.

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