Will Blunt: There’s a lot of debate in the culinary world about what creativity is—if it’s an art or a craft. What’s your opinion on this?
Michel Bras: First I have to say that I see myself as a craftsman and absolutely not an artist. I like the produce: I have a very close relationship to the produce and ingredients in general.
Now, regarding the “creativity,” I believe that one is a “creator” or is not. It’s “inborn”, it’s natural. To me, it’s like a “second nature.” It comes to me at all times, any time.
There’s no “Instant T;” it comes when it comes; it can come from a moment you’re having, from an ambiance/atmosphere, from a light you’re seeing, from a landscape you’re looking at, etcetera.
To me, creativity is like this phrase from the painter Pierre Soulages: “I always thought that the more limited the means, the stronger the expression.” My own creativity is nourished by my “terroir,” my region, L'Aubrac. Here, there was nothing. L'Aubrac didn’t have any specific gastronomical virtue unlike other regions. It wasnt like Burgundy, the Bordelais, or Alsace. 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.
The greatest expression of cuisine is when you don’t have a lot of elements/ingredients per se and that you create something fabulous. You have to try to be in osmosis with the produce.
There’s so much to say about creativity…. My wife and I we decided to live here, in L'Aubrac, and we decided to grow here, grow in the sense of accomplishment: create a family, have kids, grandkids, raise them. I love my family. I wasn’t looking for success nor running after it. I’m self-taught; self-educated. Very often I took positions that went against the trends, against the habits, the expectations of others. I do what I want, where I want, in my own house and surrounded by the people I love the most: my family.
Cooking is drifting away from the “essential” into the artificial. To me, food is the best symbol of exchange: it’s an act of sharing around a table. One should not forget that, and we should go back to this concept of exchange and sharing.
WB: You are one of the biggest influences on chefs across the US: do you recognize this? How do you feel about it?
MB: Well, this is really not the type of subject that inspires me and that I want to talk about. I live in my own bubble, in my own world, and I’m happy with the people that are dear to my heart, “my own.”
Nevertheless, I’m very flattered and if you say so, I believe you, but it makes me feel uncomfortable to talk about myself. I just believe in what I do. I think today’s crisis is not just a money matter: to me it’s a society crisis, almost an identity crisis. We lost our marks. I think we need to find those marks again…I wish we could.
WB: What’s the current state of your kitchen? What are your plans for the future? Will your son be a part of it?
MB: My kitchen will be the same, my plans for 2010 are the same as they were for 2009: work with my son; we are both on the same page. Of course, I’m pushing my son upfront and I know he’ll work with the same spirit, the way I did. It’s like a “transfer of power” but it happens on a daily basis—there’s no big deadline!
My daughter-in-law has already replaced my wife at the restaurant as front-of-the-house manager, and my son is slowly taking over, but I help all the time, wherever I’m needed. I still get up every morning to go harvest (for fruit and vegetable picking), etcetera.
WB: What are you growing?
MB: I created a garden of approximately 200 to 300 species of herbs and spices from around the world (Bolivian coriander, etc). I’ll bring one back anytime I go on a trip.
1983 was my first vegetable menu!
WB: You have a very close relationship with your produce and what you grow.
MB: This garden is fulfilling. It’s another way for me to “bloom.” Listening to the plants, talking to them, cuddling them. 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. That’s what I think cooks lost and are lacking nowadays. In some ways it’s ecological, although I don’t like this word.
WB: Going back to the basics in a sense—the connection between food and people…
MB: To me cooking is the most beautiful social link (link between people) ever. I see it every day and even more when I travel. My wife and I never go to luxury hotels or other luxury type resorts. We spend our vacations “in the street”: we go on backpacking trips. India, for instance, is one of our favorite destinations. Last time we were there, I remember the joy and light in people’s faces when we ate and shared food, their food, with them in the street. It’s an amazing feeling. Food is really the best social link!
WB: What will 2010 bring for you?
MB: I’m writing a small book, more of an opuscule. It’s part of a series published by a small publishing company called “Oeil Neuf Editions” [translation: “Fresh Eye Editions”].
The series is entitled “The Wisdom of…” and is about different jobs, careers, passions, crafts. Mine will be “The Wisdom of the Cook”. It will definitely regroup all the ideas we discussed in this interview. I have to give the manuscript back to them by December 2010.