Michel Bras: A Man Inspired by His Land

by Amanda McDougall
Michel Bras
May 2010

There are few chefs in the world who claim such devotion and direct inspiration from their native land as Michel Bras. Born and bred in L’Aubrac in central southern France, Bras is both a student and master of his terroir, finding inspiration for his cuisine in the austere landscape of the L'Aubrac plateau.

L’Aubrac is better known for its Laguiole knives than for its cuisine, a fact that’s not lost on Bras. “The greatest expression of cuisine,” he says, “is when you don’t have a lot of elements/ingredients per se and that you create something fabulous.” Something as simple as bread or potatoes can find a new level of expression in the right hands; Bras still reflects on food memories from his childhood—a piece of bread with milk skin and cocoa powder—filled with simple dishes carefully prepared by his chef-mother. “My mother and all mothers in this region had that fascinating gift of creating something rich and delicious with nothing—just through the flavors and their connotations,” Bras explains.

Bras’ signature dish, Gargouillou, is what he describes as “a hymn to the season” and his very personal interpretation of L’Aubrac in June: “This creation is the fruit of my maturity as a man and as a chef. I see it as an act of bravery with which I am fully aligned, from the most inner part of my being to my most acute sense of gourmandise… The gargouillou—truly an ever-changing fireworks display—offers numerous possibilities. It is a wide assortment of vegetables, flowers, seeds punctuated by the niac, a musical piece, a palette of colors.”

It’s also one of the most well-known dishes in the world of fine dining, a living legend of plating aesthetic, and inspiration for chefs worldwide, from Manresa’s David Kinch to Paul Liebrandt of Corton and Andoni Luis Aduriz of Mugaritz in Spain.

But the humble three-star Michelin chef isn’t one to talk about his impact on the culinary world, “it makes me feel uncomfortable to talk about myself. I just believe in what I do.” Bras would rather talk about the ingredients that he has profound respect for and a deep connection with. He describes his relationship to his produce as “being in osmosis” with it, conveying both his lifelong study of the region and his belief that it’s a gradual process to know it.

Without irony, Bras himself has been likened to a plant native to L’Aubrac, the cistre, “a delicate plant, discrete, fragile, which can only survive in a pollution-free environment and is invisible to those in a hurry, accurately symbolizes the personality of Michel Bras.”

He tends a garden with hundreds of species of herbs and spices (many of which he’s personally collected from around the globe), and refers to his produce affectionately, “I have a relationship to them like one has to a newborn. From the seed to the growing plant, the flower and then the fruit; another kind of respect to the produce grows in you.” Such a connection to his plants, whether in his garden or in the outlying landscape of L’Aubrac, leaves little room to wonder why Bras never left his terroir to apprentice or stage. His every inspiration stems from L’Aubrac, it’s obscure, delicate plants brought to a worldwide stage—and inspiring chefs across the globe. Bras is living gastronomic proof that sometimes less is more.