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French food legend gets top billing at festival

NEW YORK — Depending on whom you talk to, you'll hear him compared to Rembrandt, Michelangelo, the godfather, even the pope. But chances are you've never heard of him yourself.

That could change next month when Michel Bras — a culinary giant who hasn't garnered the media attention of a Ducasse or Robuchon — comes to New York for an arts festival sponsored by the French Institute Alliance Francaise (FIAF).

"His influence is massive," says David Chang, a celebrity chef in his own right who will cook with Bras and other food scene superstars over two days of events starting Sept. 12. "What he planted seeds for was a culinary revolution."

Bras, 62, grew up in the village of Laguiole in the remote Aubrac mountains of south central France. His parents ran a restaurant and inn, which he took over and turned into a world-class destination that earned three Michelin stars in 1999. He now runs it with his son.

Unlike most of the greats in his field, Bras never apprenticed with a master chef. He learned how to cook from his mother, who is seen in a 2008 documentary about Bras decked out in makeup, jewelry and dressy clothes, working alongside her son in the restaurant's gleaming stainless steel kitchen.

If you didn't know Bras was a professional cook and just listened to his musings in the film, which will be screened at the festival, you might mistake him for an artist, a poet, a mystic or a philosopher.

"In cooking I often identify with the ingredient," he says. "I try to understand it, become one with it in order to re-create it."

The Web site for his restaurant opens with a chorus of bird songs, and some of his most famous dishes are displayed next to images of the rugged Aubrac plateau where he has trained to run in marathons, including three in New York.

Some of his admirers — including celebrated New York chef Wylie Dufresne — compare him to the impressionists for the painterly way he composes his plates. Others have likened him to Michelangelo or Rembrandt.

"He has been copied by ... every chef in the world," Dufresne says. "We've taken a page out of the Bras book — the schmear, the spoon drag, putting food on a plate like it fell off a tree."

In the documentary, Bras describes how he spent two years searching for just the right ingredients and techniques for a recipe that could capture the wonder he felt observing the clouds moving across the landscape in the hills around his village.

The end result was a fillet of monkfish gently poach-sauteed in a bath of olive oil rendered black after being mixed in a blender with dried and pitted black olives. The translucent, pearly white flesh of the fish represents the glistening rays of light breaking through the clouds, while the shadows are embodied in the dense, shiny pigment of the olives.

He calls it "Ombre et Lumiere" or "Shadows and Light" — also the name of the cooking event he will headline at FIAF on Sept. 13. Bras will be interviewed by culinary expert Julie Andrieu (the Rachael Ray of France) in a program that features onstage cooking duets of famous U.S. and French chefs, including Dufresne, Chang, Inaki Aizpitarte and Pascal Barbot.

Among other things, Bras is renowned for his foraging, incorporating the wild herbs and flowers that grow on the Aubrac plains into his menus, and for his passionate love of vegetables.

The best expression of his vegetable worship is probably his gargouillou, a hearty stew traditionally made with potatoes, water and ham. Bras has reimagined it as a composed salad of lightly sauteed vegetables, wild herbs, sprouts and flowers whose ingredients change depending on the season. And in case you were wondering, he has retained the ham, a paper-thin slice sauteed in butter.

Dufresne, whose own innovations with so-called molecular gastronomy have earned him a global following, is a huge admirer of Bras. He will turn over his Manhattan restaurant WD-50 to Bras on Sept. 14 for a special dinner that will feature Bras, Dufresne and Chang in the kitchen. He just hopes the vegetables at New York's green markets are up to par that day, recalling a memorable visit to Bras' restaurant in France that underscored how important fresh, locally grown produce is to the Frenchman.

"They would give you various paths if you wanted to go for a walk or jog and pick fruits or berries," Dufresne says. "If you picked something, they'd prepare it."

French food critic Luc Dubanchet, whose magazine Omnivore is a co-sponsor of the culinary festival, says Bras has always stood apart from the trendy pack of celebrated chefs in Paris, in part because his restaurant is "far from everywhere" and also because he steadfastly refused to open a branch in the French capital. When Bras finally decided to open a second restaurant in 2002, it was on the Japanese island of Hokkaido. Bras says admiringly that he was struck by its resemblance to Aubrac.

"He's like the godfather of cuisine ... the pope," Dubanchet says. "He built his own cuisine ... as natural as herbs or flowers on a piece of lobster."

Nach Waxman, who owns the cookbook store Kitchen Arts & Letters in Manhattan, compared Bras to great fashion designers whose ideas may seem incredible and bizarre on the runway but eventually trickle down to the mass marketplace. "He's admired because he points the way to new and fresh creative directions," Waxman says.

Michelangelo or not, Bras recognizes that professional chefs are engaged in an entirely different enterprise than the home cook. Yet he holds the latter in exceptionally high regard.

"Cooking is the fulfillment of oneself, to share," he said in an e-mail. "To cook is to put your heart into your work quite simply: beautiful products, perfect cooking, delicate seasoning. One or more guests invited, and you are on your way. How I love the food born of emotion that has more to do with love than science."

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