In her chef’s whites and glittery sneakers, with her dark hair tied tightly back, Anne-Sophie Pic is taking a rare break. She has just finished a stint in the kitchen overseeing the lunch sitting at Maison Pic, and a busy Valentine’s Day dinner lies ahead.
Outside the restaurant’s immaculate, high-tech kitchen, diners congratulate her on dishes. These include blue lobster and assorted beetroot, cooked with a salt crust and a hibiscus infusion with lapsang souchong tea and leaves. “They should invent a fourth Michelin star just for you,” gushes one.
Ms Pic is the only female chef in France with three Michelin stars, and one of only five in the world. In January she opened her first restaurant in London, Dame de Pic, near the City. It is the latest addition to the business, which was started by her great-grandmother in 1889 in Valence, south-eastern France, where she still lives.
A self-taught chef and entrepreneur, her ascent to modern-day restaurant royalty has not been easy. Ms Pic, whose older brother Alain was the sibling initially expected to take over the family business, has weathered the early death of her father and has faced near-bankruptcy and daunting debt.
Ms Pic’s grandfather was a pioneer of nouvelle cuisine and, while she clearly embraces the culinary tradition, Ms Pic takes a different approach to business. She uses the word “débonnaire”, with its associations in French of “carefree”, to describe his approach to money: “He always had no money in his pockets. In terms of learning from my grandfather about running the business, it’s the contrary I have to do.”
It was not always Ms Pic’s intention to join the family restaurant business. At ISG business school in Paris she hoped to pursue a career in luxury until, during an internship at Moët & Chandon, a manager encouraged her to look at her roots. “Sometimes when you’re living in a place every day, you don’t realise how important it is to you.”
So in 1992, at 23, Ms Pic returned to Maison Pic, by then under the control of her father Jacques and with three Michelin stars. But within months, her apprenticeship in the business was brutally interrupted by her father’s sudden death. This spurred her to move into the kitchen, where she had no formal training, and was considered old to be starting out as a chef.
It was tough. The business nearly failed and it lost a Michelin star in 1995.
“Losing the third star was like an electric shock,” Ms Pic says. The response was to build a hotel next to the restaurant: “We very quickly understood that to have only a restaurant with three stars — and now only two stars — was very dangerous for us. We had to diversify.”
Ms Pic and her husband, David Sinapian, took over the management of Maison Pic in 1998 and used a loan secured against their home to add a five-star hotel and bistro. Her brother left to set up his own restaurant.
As they set out to regain the third star, Ms Pic and Mr Sinapian had to convince the employees, mainly men, that this young woman and her husband were up to the challenge. How did she go about it? “By working hard. By having some new ideas. By pushing forward.”
By 2007 Maison Pic had won back the missing Michelin star: “It was a rebirth,” says Ms Pic.
Maison Pic-branded restaurants in Lausanne and Paris followed, as well as three new ventures in Valence: a culinary school, an épicerie and an upscale diner called Daily Pic.
Ms Pic declines to reveal the group’s revenues but says it employs 130 people in Valence and Paris.
We work all day and in the evening as well. For a woman who has children, it’s very difficult
Far from diluting the brand, Ms Pic believes that expansion will bring her style of cooking to a wider range of people. “It’s very important to give to others the good feeling of the cuisine, to inspire some people,” she says.
She visits the other locations once a month on average, and the chefs come to Valence for training. She spends an average one day a week testing new dishes, another day meeting suppliers and the rest of her time overseeing activities in the kitchen. She says that her role models are Michel Bras, another self-taught French chef with three Michelin stars, and the pastry chef Pierre Hermé.
Ms Pic and Mr Sinapian divide their roles so she can focus on running the kitchen. “I’m more emotional and he’s more objective,” she says. “We have this balance between us . . . for me what’s important is the development of each person’s creativity.”
On her management style, she says: “I’m very tough in some ways. I impose that on the people who are working with me, concerning the plate, precision, but probably also concerning behaviour . . . I’m like a mother, in a certain way.”
Female chefs are notoriously rare, especially at her level. Ms Pic observes that it is hard for women with families to pursue a career as a top chef without support behind them. She says: “We work all day long and in the evening as well. So for a woman who has children, it’s very difficult. They have to make a choice. Sometimes they sacrifice their career for their family.”
At home, she makes pizza with her 11-year-old son. He has a keen interest in the business, but as for whether he might join it one day: “I don’t want to put any pressure on him for that. I would be so happy if he wanted to come back here but he has to decide.”