This year a tiny woman with fierce ambition became the first French female chef in 56 years to win a coveted third Michelin star, breaking the macho stranglehold that has beset her métier since the "mères de Lyon" held sway in the middle of the last century. Anne-Sophie Pic, 37, the fourth in a line of fine cooks beginning with her great-grandmother, literally grew up in the Maison Pic restaurant she now runs in Valence, in southeastern France. Her grandfather earned three stars in 1934, as did her father Jacques in 1973; but the family restaurant lost the distinction after his death in 1992. "Getting that star back has been my challenge for the last 12 years," says Pic.
Michelin reserves three stars for restaurants deemed worth a special trip, and one doesn't just happen upon the Maison Pic: it's across the street from a social housing project amid a jumble of small businesses. Inside, though, guests are treated to Pic's signature combination of savory and sweet: line-caught sea bass with caramelized hazelnuts, a crème brūlée of foie gras, a crème of chorizo with a dollop of peppermint. Pic doesn't believe in "feminine cuisine," but it's no accident that her kitchen includes eight women and favors intense concentration over raucous browbeating. The payoff comes in innovative dishes that strive for simplicity rather than showiness. "My father had a cuisine of generosity, and I try to do the same, but by reducing things," she says. "Where we used to use a ladle for our sauces, now we use a spoon."
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