There’s No Business Like Slow Business

02 Jun 2001

Whenever it scales the very highest peaks of quality and genius, haute cuisine always has a theatrical, choreographic side to it. In the world’s finest restaurants, geographical setting, interior and service combine to create a spectacular backdrop for the dishes themselves, the diner to grasp the gastronomic style and ideology of the great chefs cum prima donnas. But Michel Bras and Marc Veyrat are something else again. These two French talents, both Michelin star winners three years on the trot (Veyrat, indeed, has now dethroned Alain Ducasse, and is the only chef boasts two restaurants with three stars) share a style of cooking whose distinctive trait is the use of rare aromatic herbs, roots, relatively unknown vegetables, others in danger of extinction and edible flowers.
That apart, to eat their food is to discover two profoundly different universes: one the one hand, the traceability of the raw materials is precisely indicated; one the other, it is evoked with spectacular special effects.
Michel Bras’s stronghold is in Lagiuole, his native village in the district of Aubrac in the Aveyron department, in a building that looks for all the world like a space ship that has dropped onto a mountaintop.
Set at the center of a meadow, it dominates the surrounding plateau and, since it is made almost totally of glass, affords a spectacular panoramic view of rolling pastureland. The restaurant reflects Bras’s cuisine: no-nonsense and painstaking, pervaded by clean-cut yet recherché vegetable aromas. At the end of the meal, Bras doesn’t appear in the dining room, but presents diners with a booklet with the names and addresses of his suppliers and notes on why he chooses them. In the kitchen, he shows me the list of the 360 different vegetable species he uses for his dishes – a treasure trove of biodiversity, which he guards jealously and with great care. Many of these species grow in the gardens that surround the restaurant.
If, for Bras, traceability is synonymous with transparency (glass and grass!), for Veyrat it means constructing something straight out of a Hollywood studio. His restaurant in Megève, his most recent and the second to receive a Michelin star, is like a Savoy mountain hut in a film set.
Inside, thanks to a system of glass partitions, niches and false ceilings, you dine in the company of oxen, hens and other farmyard animals. This witty touch is set off by an imaginative, flair-filled cuisine – vegetable aromas again predominating – which perfectly reflects Veyrat’s extrovert personality. His combinations of certain ingredients may be a bit on the daring side, but they work. There can be no doubting the quality of the fare, but Veyrat’s is a scenographic interpretation of traceability, which is a slightly different matter. In both cases, however, a total immersion in the worlds – seductive scents, flavors and visions unrepeatable in other contexts – of two chefs as great as Bras and Veyrat is sheer bliss. An experience to tickle the hedonism of any gourmet.

Carlo Petrini

from La Stampa 02/06/2001

(English adaptation by John Irving)

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