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My Favorite Cookbook Almost Killed Me

'Essential Cuisine' by Michel Bras taught me my approach to vegetables. It also almost made me drive off a cliff.

by Jonathan Tam; as told to Simon Espholm; photos by Amanda Hjernø
Mar 23 2018, 4:00pm

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A version of this first appeared on MUNCHIES Denmark.

I collect cookbooks, but I don't really cook my way through them. I have no idea how many I own, but I have at least fifteen boxes. The one I care about the most, though, is Essential Cuisine by the French chef Michel Bras. The cover is mauled by some slight wear and tear around the edges, but the actual book is almost in mint condition.

Michel Bras is known for his vegetable-focused cuisine and deep use of the produce from the area surrounding Laguiole, his restaurant in Aubrac in Massif Central, France. What I especially like about him is that to him all foods are equal: An onion is just as important as a piece of foie gras. It takes a lot of skill, intuition and creativity to make vegetables memorable—it's very difficult compared to a piece of meat or fish—but this is one of the very few books I’ve found that does it well.

Bras is famous for a lot of recipes, but one in particular stands out to me (and hundreds of other chefs). It's a dish called Gargouillou, which is a very seasonal dish that includes all the vegetables available in the area at the time. He was always an avid runner, running through the pastures of the countryside, noticing what was in season, which he then compiles into a dish. He has different versions of the dish for each season—these are probably my favorite pages in the book. He came up with the dish in the early 80s, and it’s been copied and interpreted extensively ever since.

In 2006, when I graduated culinary school in Canada, people were really into molecular cooking, and when I arrived at Noma in Copenhagen it was just a completely different world. But Michel Bras’ perspective on produce, land, and seasonality really helped me understand the Noma philosophy. The 80s gave birth to nouvelle French cuisine, but Bras was one of the very few at the time who had a plating technique inspired by the natural landscape. In Nordic cooking right now, a lot of plating is inspired by nature. But he was doing it more than 30 years ago, and I find that absolutely amazing.

In 2009, a year after I bought the book, I decided to go to France to eat at Michel Bras’ restaurant. A colleague of mine happened to have a reservation in two days, so I bought a ticket at four in the morning for a flight that left at seven. I made it to Marseille, met up with my colleague, and spent a day eating bouillabaisse and checking out pastry shops.

The next day we picked up a rental car, set the GPS, and began our five hour drive to Aubrac. Our reservation was at 12:30 and we planned to get there exactly on time. 40 minutes into the drive, we realized something wasn’t right. We were driving in the exact opposite direction. So we bought a map, ditched the GPS, and from there on it was just full throttle. It was insane. It felt like a rally race with me as the navigator. But we made it to the area, got through the nearby town speeding through the landscape on rocky dusty roads, and made it to a wide open cliff, where we could see the whole area from above.

Then all of a sudden we hit some loose rocks, started to swerve and crashed. Luckily we went right into a ditch and not over the cliffside. Had that happened, we probably would have died.

We were quiet for like three seconds and then we just started screaming. I had bought some cookies from a famous pastry shop in Marseille to bring back to my colleagues at Noma, but they were everywhere. The bumper of the car fell off. And that was it. Of course we hadn't bought car insurance.

Some people came to help us out and when they learned where we had been going they told us that the restaurant was only ten minutes away from where we’d crashed . But instead of lunch, we ended up being stuck in a tow truck for four hours.

So I never got to eat there. Never even saw the restaurant. We weren't able to contact the restaurant to tell them what had happened so they were probably also super pissed off at us. Every time I pick up this book I'm reminded of that story as well.

I still think Michel Bras is a pioneer and I find his food very relevant. Today he has handed the responsibility for the kitchen over to his son Sebastian, and they are always doing these things that make me think “man, they’re pretty cool.” Like in September 2017 when Sebastian Bras asked to be removed from the Michelin guide, and thus lost the three-star rating the restaurant had had for 18 years, because he was tired of the scrutiny and pressure associated with the guide.

When I got my copy of the book in 2008, I was really excited. I read through everything and was struck by how unique it is. Everything is quite personal. The way he describes his philosophy, how he ran the restaurant and what he expected from his team.

The very first recipe in the book is for a soft boiled egg. Bras writes that traditionally, you just boil it for 3-4 minutes, but that he doesn't believe that’s the best way. The technique in fact depends on how much water you use, the number of eggs in the pot, and whether you’re using supermarket or farm-fresh eggs. Then you have to commit to a bunch of trial and error yourself, until you figure out what's going to work best for you.

Some people are probably super annoyed with this approach, because it’d be easier if he’d just straight up explain that you have to cook it this way, and for this long, to get it perfect. Instead, he's telling you that that's not how cooking works. And he’s right.

Michel Bras also wrote a book in the early 90s, Le Livre de Michel Bras, that I've heard is impossible to get—but there’s apparently a store in New York where if you ask the right person, they'll let you see it. Personally, I haven't even come close to touching it.

I think it's difficult to find true authenticity in the world of cookbooks. Even with chef-driven books, publishers have a say in the tone, or recipes, or what the cover looks like. And to find a book that truly communicates the author's personality and approach to cooking is rare.

And for me, the book is both a source of inspiration and true melancholy. My failed reservation at the restaurant was during the last year Michel Bras was still in the kitchen before handing the restaurant over to his son. So I missed out on that. But I’m sure I’m gonna find my way there at some point. Hopefully.


Jonathan Tam is the executive chef of Relae in Copenhagen.