par Jean-Philippe de Tonnac
Translated from the French and adapted by Jonell Galloway
In the food world, the name Laguiole — a tiny village tucked away in the highlands of the Aveyron Aubrac region of France — is generally associated with the brilliant, one-of-a-kind, self-taught chef Michel Bras, whose restaurant here earned its third Michelin star in 1999, and is held in the highest esteem by gourmets around the world. In the world of haute cuisine, he is considered to be an exceptionally gifted chef who works like a sorcerer in his kitchen laboratory hidden in the Puech du Suquet region, turning out dishes that resemble none other, but which are quickly dished out by a long line of copycats.
So you can just imagine how the young chefs who spend time in his kitchen walk away with a lasting impression of a single man, who didn’t quite live in sync with the times. Perhaps he was a Cistercian monk in another life, using a golden ratio to secretly slip secret formulas into his culinary compositions. If you ask Michel Bras what inspired him most in his creative progress, he says: “Photography and foot racing!” One might say asceticism and contemplation.
Pascal Auriat — master bread baker in Laguiole, who once worked in Bras’ kitchens — is still under the influence of this “ascetic aesthete”. When he speaks about the years he spent at Bras, his tone rather resembles that of a religious convert who has not slipped in his ways after all these years. What he has most retained is the veritable alchemy of fermentation.
The bonds that started to germinate between restaurants and bread baking — hardly perceptible even now — are still moving in a positive direction. It’s now difficult to imagine that there really was a time in France, not so long ago, when a 3-star menu served mediocre bread, not worthy of being placed on such high tables of gastronomy. To remedy this situation, chefs such as Michel Bras, Alain Passard (L’Arpège in Paris) and Olivier Roellinger (former Maison de Bricourt in Cancale in Brittany), as well as many others, started installing small bread ovens in their kitchens and making bread in a somewhat primitive fashion.
Restaurant pastry, which has followed its own path, quite separate from grande pâtisserie, has a similar story. Although they both followed their own separate paths, they never stopped mutually nurturing and influencing each other. Will there come a day when the ovens in the laboratory-kitchens of the great gastronomic establishments will be directly connected to bread ovens, each housing one of France’s handcrafted bread bakeries?
Another way for a chef to improve the quality of his or her bread is of course to order it from a bread baker worthy of her name. Some artisanal bread bakers, such as Jean-Luc Poujauran, have already dug a deep niche for themselves.
It was like a calling when Pascal Auriat, with a vocational training certificate in cuisine already under his belt, came to Laguiole to try to work for Bras. In 1992, Bras gave him his chance. His first job was the vegetable station, which might well be the heart of Bras’ creative “offensive”, so it was a true sign of trust on the part of Bras. After two seasons, a place opened in the team he had his heart set on: pastry and micro-bread baking. At the time, the three daily batches were “germinated” using sourdough starter made from yogurt, a recipe that Bras had perfected and that Auriat was to scrupulously replicate, while, at the same time getting acquainted with the world of pastry making, working alongside Philipe Andrieu. Andrieu later went on to Fauchon and Ladurée, where he is now Executive Pastry Chef, so Auriat didn’t learn pastry making in just any old school.
Pascal Auriat entre Michel et Sébastien Bras au Mazuc (première implantation à Laguiole)
Restaurant pastry making inevitably calls on its counterpart. Pascal Auriat felt the need to perfect his training, so he left his mentor, a daring act indeed. So off he went to work with Pierre Hermé (now dubbed by Vogue as being “the Picasso of pastry making”) at Ladurée, which had just opened on the Champs-Elysées in Paris. Then a famous family of bread bakers, the Holders, bought out the noted Ladurée, started by Louis Ernest Ladurée, a former miller, in 1862.
Musical chairs: the miller Ladurée opened a pastry shop/tearoom, which was bought out over a hundred years later by a bread baker. A cook who learned to make pastry from another cook abandons the highland stoves of remote Aubrac to try his hand at small and big jobs on the Champs-Elysées. Gastronomic explorers have no bounds.
But Auriat did make his way back to Laguiole in 1999, when Bras asked him to become No. 2 pastry chef. The restaurant had just gotten its third Michelin star, and had to face up to the inundation of guests. There was no lack of work, and the horizons were unlimited. Michel and his son Sébastien were invited to open a branch in the Hokkaido Windsor hotel in Japan. Auriat packed his suitcases.
It just so happened that Eric Kayser, bread baker/fellow of the craft and today head of an empire including more than 60 bakeries spread out on all continents, also landed in the Windsor, where he opened a bread bakery. The three men met and talked about fermentation. Bras’ old yogurt only slightly interested Kayser, who advised him to use a liquid starter that he had patiently perfected. In the world of fermentation, Kayser had it all; Bras was convinced to change his ways.
When Auriat returned to his fold in the Aveyron, he started applying the “new school” methods of making sourdough bread using liquid starter. And just as every pastry chef puts his hands in the dough, his shoulder to the wheel, he left them there. He would have had to leave a starter in the refrigerator for six months, out of spite, to obtain what he was looking for, in vain, on his own: a good starter to incorporate into his tried and true kneading techniques.
Pascal set up shop on his own with Anne, whom he had met at Bras, and started perfecting his magic formulas using a starter made from wheat and rye from the Auvergne region, delivered straight from the moulins Antoine mill.
When he talks about himself, he says that the time he spent at Bras as cook, pastry chef and bread baker made him put taste above all else. One might call it bread baker’s aesthetics, expressed through taste. It could be his slogan.
It’s not often that a bread baker gets his training in the world of haute cuisine. And when it comes to Michel Bras’ kitchens, one might question whether a bread baker merits the attention of bread lovers.
Master bread baker in Laguiole, a hidden corner of France, cradle of creativity: it does sound good on a sign, doesn’t it?
Anne & Pascal Auriat
1 place Auguste Prat
Tel : 00 33 (0) 5 65 44 31 09
Site : http://www.maison-auriat.fr/