Jacques Pic was the most sweetly modest of the French chefs who became internationally celebrated in the Seventies and Eighties. He regarded himself as a good cook in a small provincial French town, Valence, just south of Lyon and a stopping-off point for travellers to the south, and he cherished his large local clientele. He was in fact the peer of the great self-publicist chefs such as Paul Bocuse and Michel Guerard, but he had seen his own father's culinary fortunes and reputation rise and fall and even as a boy remarked the impermanence of the gain and loss of Michelin stars.
Jacques Pic's father, Andre (1893-1984), was one of the three great French chefs outside Paris in the Thirties (along with Fernand Point and Alexandre Dumain, jointly regarded as the founders of the modern nouvelle cuisine). He moved the family restaurant, Des Pins, from the hills, above Valence in the Rhone Valley into the town itself in 1935, when his son Jacques was three years old. By 1939 he had three Michelin stars, and the jumble of small rooms in the restaurant he created from an old antiques shop had become a place of gastronomic pilgrimage. But his health declined under the strain, and so did the standard of he cooking. In 1946 he lost his third star and in 1950 his second.
Worse, he had no successor. Young Jacques, having seen what the business was doing to his father, said he wanted no part in it, and intended to become a garage mechanic. It was a strong family, however, and when Michelin took away the second star Jacques vowed to restore the family fortunes and applied for places in the kitchens of Point and Dumain. It seems unkind that neither could make room for the 18-year-old at his stove, so Jacques Pic began a training that was outside the mainstream of the French cuisine practised by his and his father's colleagues.
Maybe it was a good thing that he did his culinary apprenticeship in Geneva, Beaulieu, Deauville and Paris (and his military service in Algeria, whose spices he learned to appreciate), for it set him a little apart from the other chefs of the nouvelle cuisine. Like Point, he started every day with a completely clean kitchen and fresh ingredients, but though his plates were as Japanesely decorated as those of the Troisgros brothers, Louis Outhier or Roger Verge, there was always a feeling of generosity about the food Jacques Pic set before his customers.
This was reflected in his eight-course menu degustation, one of the first of these nouvelle-cuisine phenomena that were designed to allow each diner to taste more than the standard three dishes: Pic, appropriately, called his the menu 'Rabelais'. The portions were still small enough that you could eat the entire meal without sinking into a stupour, but you definitely got the feeling that no one in the kitchen was stinting, calculating food costs or practising portion control.
In 1959, Jacques Pic won back his father's second Michelin star, and in 1973 he restored the third. He leaves them to his son Alain, who took over the kitchen last week when Jacques Pic fell dead instantly - from a heart attack - at his stove.
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