Switzerland has always had strong patriarchal roots, but nowadays, life for women is finally changing for the better. After 600 years, the first female ever appointed to the role of night watch in Lausanne now calls out loudly on the hour. Just down the hill at the famous Beau-Rivage Palace, three women are at the helm: the general manager, the head of sales, and the chef.
Anne-Sophie Pic, the French chef of the Beau-Rivage Palace’s eponymous restaurant is the only French woman to hold the Michelin Guide’s coveted three-star rating in France, a country dominated by testosterone-charged alpha chefs. She is also the first French female to receive three Michelin stars in more than 50 years, about the same time women in Switzerland earned the right to vote.
Anne-Sophie Pic’s family has been ruling the gastronomic world with four generations of top chefs from Valence in southeastern France. Three of these generations received Michelin guide’s coveted three stars, an honor that cannot be passed down, but must be earned. Anne-Sophie Pic arrived in Lausanne at the Beau-Rivage Palace and opened her eponymous restaurant in 2009, which has earned two Michelin stars and 18/20 Gault & Millau points.
Anne-Sophie’s great grandfather owned 12 farms in Ardeche and often went hunting with his friends, bringing the game home for his wife, Sophie, to cook. It wasn’t long before Sophie became passionate about cooking and opened a bistro in Ardeche called “Le Pin.” When Sophie’s son Andre (Anne-Sophie’s grandfather) was born, Sophie taught him to cook.
Andre eventually took over Le Pin, and then sold six of his father’s farms to open Restaurant Pic, where he became famous for crayfish gratin. In 1934, he was recognized as only one of five Michelin Guide three-star French chefs. But there wasn’t enough business in the rural area where the restaurant was located, so Andre moved it to Valence, on the main road from Paris to Cote d’Azur. The restaurant was never empty again.
Jacques, Andre’s son (Anne-Sophie’s father), followed as owner/chef and became famous for his sea bass with caviar. In 1973, Jacques earned his three Michelin stars. Anne-Sophie’s brother, Alain, studied under his father, hoping to become the next chef/owner. Anne-Sophie, ten years younger, was not interested in cuisine.
“My room was right over the kitchen, so I needed to breathe new air,” says Anne-Sophie. “I wanted to experience something different.” She left home for business school in Paris and then went to New York’s Manhattan Institute of Management. Her first job was in Tokyo in the marketing department of Moet Chandon, followed by a marketing stint in Paris for Cartier’s Yves St. Laurent brand. “I wanted to experience the world of luxury products,” she says, “and I saw that what I was interested in was savoir faire. I needed these experiences to acknowledge that I was more interested in creating with my hands.”
In 1992, Anne-Sophie returned to Valence to learn how to cook under her father, but three months after she returned home, he died unexpectedly. Anne-Sophie was 23 years old. She was not appreciated in the kitchen; her brother Alain was jealous and some of the chefs who had worked with her father refused to help because she was a girl. One chef under her, whom she criticized for something he’d done, told her, “You can’t say anything to me because I knew you when you were in diapers.”
Anne-Sophie continued to take criticism but would not leave the kitchen. While gastronomy courses through her veins, Anne-Sophie Pic is a self-taught chef. “My father was always talking about food,” she says, “and the little time we had together, he was always tasting, so I grew up tasting food. He formed my palate.” To Anne-Sophie, taste is still the most important thing, and she loves to play with textures. “I don’t want too many ingredients in the plate,” she says, “I want the customer to taste each ingredient.”
In spite of her extraordinary accomplishment, this petite and unassuming chef allows the cuisine to be the star, not herself. Her menu, which features inventive meat, poultry, and fish options, includes fresh fish from Lake Leman, (which the soaring windows of her restaurant face), local organic eggs, Simmental Beef, and vegetables from local food producers. Thirty percent of the menu is new, and the rest is the same as her restaurant in Valence.
Anne-Sophie Pic’s restaurant is traditional contemporary and very cozy, divided into two sections. One part overlooks the lake and Alps, and the other has a marble fireplace, which soars to the ceiling. The beautiful linen tablecloths are identical to the ones she uses in Valence, but everything else is different. Each table has a Baccarat vase with tea roses, a Baccarat crystal candle/lamp, and white Limoges tableware. The staff of 25 (12 serving in the restaurant and 13 in the kitchen) has been hand-picked by Anne-Sophie with many coming from her restaurant in Valence.
“In Valence,” she says, “it’s a family-run business. Here, we’re in a big, beautiful palace and we have adapted ourselves to this place. We have our own culture but also take part in their culture.” When asked where she will be in ten years, she smiles and says, “Cooking is my passion. I hope in ten years I will be strong enough to still be in this job.” And her son? Will he be the next Pic to take over and earn three stars? Her dark eyes twinkle. “Who knows?” she says, “he is still young.”