Michel Bras vegetable kingdom now a father-son affair

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There are more cows than people in this remote corner of France, put on the world map of food by celebrity chef Michel Bras, the quiet pioneer of the humble vegetable, currently handing his apron to his son.

Oversized four-wheel drives and charter copters routinely rumble the quiet sun-bleached Aubrac plateau, covering the sounds of bees and cowbells while ferrying well-heeled diners to a once-in-a-lifetime feast at the chef's eponymous eatery.

A quiet unassuming man and avid traveller who draws his inspiration for food from the wonders of nature -- the shadow and light of the tormented Aubrac skyscape that since childhood is part of his inner being -- Bras is best known for an almost unpronouncable dish of backyard greens dubbed "gargouillou".

The concoction of 20 to 40 season greens was recently hailed by star French chef Michel Troisgros "the most overwhelming thing I have ever tasted".

Its renown means at least a three-month wait for a table in the light-filled dining room, awarded a third prized star by France's food bible, the Michelin Guide, 11 years ago.

Now aged 63, Bras is handing the business to 38-year-old Sebastien, who was brought up amid the ovens and will continue to offer his father's signature dishes.

"He stops by on a regular basis to chop vegetables for his 'gargouillou' and spend time with the team", Sebastien said of his father in an ultra-modern kitchen busy with a good 20 cooks in bright green aprons.

"Barring him from the kitchen would be like hanging him in a dark corner of a forest", said the son, who talks at a breackneck speed in a strong country brogue.

Sebastien has no qualms about following his father's lead. He enjoys changing the menu but has kept all Michel's famous dishes. "The gargouillou, created a long time ago, is still unbelievably contemporary," he says.

To make the "gargouillou", ingredients are cooked separately so new vegetables remain crisp while the more mature stay tender. The veggies come topped with edible flowers, a froth of almond or hazelnut, a sliver of anchovy paste, red pepper reduction, and herbs.

The chef has never thought of another career than in the futuristic rounded glass inn rooted amid wild flowers that emerges at the end of a winding road like a spacecraft, atop a hill 1,200 metres (nearly 4,000 feet) high dominating endless pastures and open skies.

"I grew up in this atmosphere, the stress in the kitchen during mealtimes, returning from the market, the taste of beautiful and good food".

As a young man, he spent a few years in Lyon in cooking school and briefly trained with celebrity chefs Pierre Gagnaire and Michel Guerard before joining his father's kitchen.

He would have stayed away longer but his parents had just built the restaurant in the early 1990s and needed help. Sebastien worked at every station.

"My father never spared me. Those were tough times. When your old man is scolding you and 20 odd guys are snickering behind your back," he said, making a face. But today "what I know, I owe to myself. My skill belongs to me, I can lead the kitchen by force of example".

The oldest of two Bras sons says that continuing in his father's tracks will not prevent the expression of his own ideas. He feels no need to "kill the father", keeping the Oedipus complex in check.

One of the three set-menus, the same for lunch or dinner, is all vegetable. "In the 1980s, we only sold one or two a week. Nowadays it's almost 10 percent of our sales."

At Bras (pronounced brass in the area), vegetables are the core of every dish whereas "in most restaurants, they're mostly a side dish, a garnish."

Two to three times a week, the new chef falls out of bed before 4 am to head to the market in Rodez, the closest town some 60 kilometres (37 miles) away.

To complement the 50 to 70 varietals grown by his father, as well as wild flowers, he buys produce from farmers he has known since childhood, some of whom grow specifically for the restaurant.

© 2010 AFP

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