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Master Chef & Sons: Who Gets Burned When A French Culinary Legend Passes The Torch

Paul Lacoste's new mouth-watering documentary, "Entre les Bras" ("Step Up To The Plate"), chronicles a complex father-son dynamic in the kitchen, as acclaimed chef Michel Bras gets ready to hand down his multiple Michelin-star

Michel and Sebastien Bras (jour2fete)
Michel and Sebastien Bras (jour2fete)
J.-P. G�n�

PARIS -- Until a few years ago, four generations of the Bras family would gather for lunch every day around the big marble table in the vast kitchen of the restaurant which dominates the hilltop village of Laguiole, in the South of France. There was Pépé and Mémé Bras (Grandpa and Granny Bras), Michel and his wife Ginette, their son Sébastien, his wife and their two kids.

Friends sometimes joined them to share the meal cooked by Mémé. Grated carrot with slices of hard-boiled eggs, steamed cod, creamed cauliflower, cheese and apple pie: I have never forgotten the menu of the lunch I had with them in March 2005. I was eating a piece of history.

It is the history of a family born in the village at the foot of the hills where Mémé would cook aligot (a traditional dish of mashed potatoes, melted cheese and garlic) while Pépé was a blacksmith. The family eventually moved to the hilltop where Michel Bras built his restaurant. His three Michelin stars (the maximum, a rare distinction) have long drawn in gourmets and gourmands from around the world.

In 2009, the chef handed the keys to his son "Séba" who had been working with him for years.

Nature or nurture?

Entre les Bras, the documentary by Paul Lacoste, tells the story of the delicate moment of succession from father to son. Just by the way they look at each other and what they say to each other, one can garner that the transition is not a simple formality.

The challenge of being the son of someone famous, in the world of haute cuisine as elsewhere, is carving your own path -- making your own first name. Romain Chapel was seven years old in 1990 when his father, the great Alain Chapel who ran a three-star restaurant in Mionnay, near Lyon, suddenly died. His mother, helped by Alain's faithful side-kick, Philippe Jousse, kept the restaurant open for 20 years before handing the keys to her sons in 2009. A month ago, they filed for bankruptcy.

Mathieu Pacaud, 31, knows about the pressure of having a prestigious family name: he works alongside his father Bernard, at the Ambroisie restaurant in Paris. "When you inherit a three-star restaurant, since you're not the one who obtained the stars, you don't necessarily hold the legitimacy attached to it," he says. "You have to prove your ability and be innovative. If you stay tied to your parents' apron strings, you'll have to wait for them to pass away to make a name for yourself."

In the new documentary, Mémé Bras remembers how the young Sébastien was "always messing around in the kitchen." She chalked it up to his legacy, but no matter who your parents or grandparents might be, proper training is essential.

Training with the best

From Escoffier to Fernand Point, from Bocuse to Ducasse, French cuisine has never lacked master chefs. It's up to the successive generations to acquire the training and to toughen themselves up with apprenticeships under the best chefs, often colleagues and friends of their parents: Frédy Girardet in Lausanne, Switzerland, the Troisgros family at Roanne or Michel Guérard at Eugénie-les-Bains. Once they've learned the skills, the sons can go back to the family range cooker.

Famous pâtissier Pierre Hermé, whose parents were not chefs, has an original take on how savoir-faire is passed on. He says that he was taught "everything" by Lenôtre, where he started at the age of 14 with a strong desire to learn. He was only worried about one thing: being fired and having to pack his bags and return to his hometown as a failure.

"When you start, you don't know the basics of the job, you have to acquire them. It's more than just assimilating the technique. There are the emotions, the tradition, and the history of a profession and of the people who left their mark," he explained. "The culture and the traditions are handed down from one person to another."

Jean-Michel Lorain already had plenty of experience when he took over the restaurant from his father Michel in 2000. The Côte Saint-Jacques in Joigny had kept its three-star ranking since 1986, but one year after Jean-Michel took over, the restaurant rating agency, Michelin, withdrew one of the stars, or "macaroons" as they are sometimes called.

How could Jean-Michel not feel responsible for the downgrade, even if noisy refurbishing works had a lot to do with it? Master chef Paul Bocuse phoned him and said: "I know it's hard. It feels like rejection, but this could in fact be your greatest opportunity: if you get the star back, it will be yours." Jean-Michel got the star back in 2004. Today, he acknowledges that Bocuse was right: "It's true, it's my star. Clients, colleagues and the press don't talk about the star that Daddy left to his son anymore."

Paul Lacoste's documentary does not gloss over the moments when Sébastien Bras shows his doubts or when he is annoyed by his father's remarks. For him, as for André Terrail at the Tour d'Argent or Anne-Sophie Pic in Valence, the paternal shadow will always be hanging over them.

Who would dare to remove the "Escalope of salmon with sorrel" from the Troisgros restaurant menu, or the "Champagne-steamed fattened chicken" from Lorain's? Such a choice would surely trigger gastronomic riots.

A family dynamic

The "Souffléed salmon" or the "Frog mousseline sauce" will never disappear from the menu of the Ill Tavern in Illhaeusern. Here at the Haeberlins', family meals are taken on a checkered tablecloth in the private dining room. The older generation is here: Marie, the widow of Paul (who passed away in 2008), and her brother Jean-Pierre, who served as Maitre de for decades. Then you have Paul's children: Marc, who took over as head chef, and Danièle, who stepped into her uncle's position on the restaurant floor. And then you have the next generation: the grandchildren, who have just finished training at the Lausanne Hotel School and are finding their own place in the restaurant.

From her grandparents' tavern where customers came for fried food and "Fish stew with Riesling wine" to the three-star restaurant of today, "everything happened in the most natural way," according to Danièle.

Marc can't recall a single argument with his father. "We understood each other in a glance. He never stopped me from trying out a new dish. He always said: "If customers like it, we'll put it on the menu." Danièle has an explanation for the peacefulness that reigns in this temple of Alsace gastronomy: "Our strength is that there's never been just one member of the family at the top of the business. There used to be my grandma and my aunt, then my father and my uncle, and now there's our generation. Things are flowing, slowly, without any revolution." The business model, she quips, has more to do with "the heart" than with technique. In Illhaeusern, the family name is more important than the first names. Maybe this is the secret for any smooth succession.

Read more in French from Le Monde.

Photo: jour2fete

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