Michelin honours chef of the hills

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The Independent Online
A SELF-TAUGHT chef who finds inspiration - and wild herbs - while running in his native hills in the southern Auvergne won the highest accolade in French cookery yesterday.

Michel Bras, 52, was given the coveted third Michelin star for his mountain- top, hotel-restaurant near Laguiole, 3,700ft up in the Aveyron hills of south-western France.

His elevation by the 1999 Michelin Guide marks a - possibly deliberate - turning away from the globe-trotting, superstar chefs who have made the gastronomic news in France in recent years. Mr Bras, who learnt cooking mostly from his mother, specialises in elaborate versions of regional dishes and rarely strays from home territory.

Bespectacled and given to poetic utterances, Mr Bras is known, to his annoyance, as the "herbalist" of French cooking. His use of wild and unusual plants, such as meadow-sweet, started a herbal trend among better-known, and more expensive, restaurants in the big cities.

"I run several times a week in the mountains and it is from these runs that I harvest ideas and emotions," he said last week, when news of his probable enoblement by Michelin leaked out.

"That's how I discovered meadow-sweet. I still clearly remember the circumstances of this encounter - the sky, the light and that leaden scent, heavy with honey."

Mr Bras is best known for two dishes, "Biscuit de chocolat coulant" (Biscuit of melted chocolate) and "Gargouillou de jeunes legumes" (which means, literally, a gargling or bubbling of young vegetables). His restaurant maintains the informality of a country inn: customers are invited to clean their knife and fork on a piece of bread between courses.

Prices, although hardly cheap, are reasonable compared with those of most two- or three-star restaurants. A lunchtime menu, eaten while enjoying panoramic views over the "green desert" of the Aubrac hills, costs pounds 22. A dinner menu costs pounds 66.

Mr Bras bemoans the cost of gastronomic meals in the swankier, Michelin- starred restaurants in large cities, which charge up to pounds 150 a head for their cheapest menu.

Michel Bras says that by finding his inspiration in nature, he hopes to express through his food "a climate, a freedom of expression, a sense of wonderment, a joie de vivre". He compares his cooking to jazz "for its architecture ... its fluid elegance, its silences".

More prosaically, he says he learnt to love food at the kitchen table during his childhood. If he wasted a piece of bread, he would be rapped across the knuckles.

He joins 20 other three-star restaurants in France. No other chef was promoted to the premier division this year, but one, Marc Meneau, of the L'Esperance at Saint-Pere-sous-Vezelay was demoted to two stars. Britain has the same three, three-star restaurants as last year.

The main innovation of this year's guide, published tomorrow, is the inclusion of 30 Paris restaurants in the category of inexpensive but wholesome regional restaurants, marked by a small Michelin man.