Behind the Bras’s no to Michelin

Dreaming freedom, protecting family values. An extraordinary testimony of the days they rejected the 3 stars

20-02-2018

Simone Cantafio, chef and director at restaurant Michel Bras in Toya, Japan, between Sebastien and Michel Bras. Born near Milan in 1986, Cantafio has been working with the Bras for almost 10 years

see part one: Marchesi’s no

A few years later, a little more experienced and with the responsibility of directing a great restaurant such as Michel Bras in Toya, Japan, I experienced something similar to what happened to Marchesi at Albereta.

First of all, I must say that I’ve known and have been working at Maison Bras for almost 10 years now. I grew up with them: Sebastien Bras is like an older brother and Michel, on top of setting an example, is a sort of spiritual father, a teacher who revolutionised my life as a chef and as a man, guiding me into his world.

One day in September, I got a call on Skype early in the morning. I was in Sapporo and Sebastien was calling with a determination I had never seen in 10 years. As I was asking myself all sorts of questions, his face appeared on the screen: «As an important and faithful member of our staff, we’d like to share with you a choice we’ve made some time ago, together with MichelVeronique and Ginette. We’ve decided the future of our Maison: we will send the Michelin Guide an official request to exclude our restaurant and suppress the 3 stars given to Suquet [in Laguiole, in France]».

A moment of silence. There was ice between us. I searched within myself for a professional reaction. I said: «As part of the Bras group I respect and support the choice of the Maison». A short time later the news arrived to media all around the world and for 10 days this was the most discussed culinary news in recent years: "Bras says no the stars ". There were all sorts of comments.

I’m not the one to judge people’s ideas. The only thing I can do is contribute in shedding some light from an insider’s point of view, without the presumption of acting as a spokesperson for Sebastian Bras, one who certainly needs no lawyers or moral support. This is simply my point of view.

Michel Bras’s famous Vegetable Gargouillou, a dish that made history

Michel Bras’s famous Vegetable Gargouillou, a dish that made history

I heard people say that refusing the stars will lower the professional standards, that Sebastien and Veronique have not managed to continue the road taken by Michel, that their name had become too cumbersome… This is not true: Sebastien and Veronique are an extraordinary couple. Over the past few years they’ve used all they energies and funds so the Maison would grow. This winter alone, they made big investments to renew the hotel side of Suquet. The new rooms will be ready to welcome the thousands of clients who every season go to Laguiole to enjoy the Bras experience.

Thousands, indeed. Over 7 months of seasonal opening, thousands and thousands of clients go to this secluded place just to enjoy the Maison Bras experience. As Sebastien says, in a Laguiole there’s no metro and there’s not even an airport close by. Those who take on this trip, do so because they feel it inside.

During a chat in the autumn, Michel Bras told me: «You know, Simone, we at Bras are a little sauvage. Living in the mountains has its pros and cons. What I’m proud of, is our identity. We’re a family before being a brand, before being chefs, before anything else. We have values we will never change whatsoever. We will never make compromises».

Values. They made this choice to defend one of the most sacred values in the world, family. In Laguiole, when you speak to the Bras, you call them "the family". When dining, in the canteen, during the breaks, telephones are forbidden because you must protect dialogue, reciprocal respect, healthy family values.

In the bottom left corner, Simone Cantafio and Sebastien Bras. This was the last service of the Italian in Laguiole, before leaving for Japan. Many Italian colleagues arrived; Luca Abbruzzino, Michelangelo Mammoliti, Alberto Buratti, Arcangelo and Pascal Tinari, Vasco Baldisserotto, Simone Tricarico and Giovanni Facchinetti

In the bottom left corner, Simone Cantafio and Sebastien Bras. This was the last service of the Italian in Laguiole, before leaving for Japan. Many Italian colleagues arrived; Luca AbbruzzinoMichelangelo MammolitiAlberto Buratti, Arcangelo and Pascal TinariVasco BaldisserottoSimone Tricarico and Giovanni Facchinetti

Perhaps the Bras might be salvages but their being natural and speaking their own independent mind is something extraordinary to experience, in a time when everything is already set. It’s something difficult to grasp, but a healthy principle that we, in Italy, feel “odd”.

People speak of a historic no to stars, but this is surely not the first revolution in Laguiole. In the Eighties, Michel was the first to introduce Légumes, a menu made of vegetables, flowers and aromatic herbs. At the time, it was madness but today everyone follows and imitates this example. What they call "naturalism" for Michel was simply a way to defend his territory.

Michel and Ginette were the first to eliminate long and classic tablecloths, to place the knife on the table at Laguiole and never to change it throughout the meal. People said all sorts of things. They said they had destroyed the rules of classic restaurant hospitality… Today many restaurants around the world no longer use tablecloths. They call it design, search for the essential, for neatness, modernity...

Maison Bras is one of the very first restaurant businesses in the world to have applied 39 working hours per week, with badges given to all the staff. We all have 2 and a half days of rest during the week. And the system is based on respect for human beings. Because without good working conditions you cannot make good food, the Bras used to say. These are the same concepts of ethics and respect people are invoking now, while madness and gratuitous righteousness are widespread.

In the Nineties Michel and Ginette moved to Suquet in Laguiole and built their “spaceship on a mountain top”. "Exaggerated", "no respect for nature" some said. Almost 20 years later everyone agrees that the place is avant-garde, unique and magical. And everyone agrees that Michel is the chef who embodies nature. Let’s not speak of his culinary works. That is history, and you cannot change history. Gargouillou is and will always be a masterpiece, with or without stars. And the same applies to Coulant and Gaufrette potatoes. Immortal dishes.

Let me say one last anecdote. Just like when it happened with Marchesi, even with Sebastien and Michel I asked them: «What will happen to us in Toya?». I told Sebastien that at 31 and as director and chef of their restaurant in Japan, I found the idea of all this pressure and of feeling part of a quest for the Michelin stars was stimulating. It gave me energy, and I needed it to improve over time.

They understood immediately: Sebastien sent a press release right away, translated into Japanese, in which they explained that the choice only referred to the restaurant in Laguiole. The one in Toya, Japan, was not included in their vision of leaving the Michelin guide as it has a different ownership and management.

For this reason he wished (and so do I) that the exclusion would only affect Laguiole, showing that this was not a general attitude against guides, which they respect greatly. On the contrary, this was a choice made by the family, once again united closely by unique and shared values.

And to those who wonder if Michel Bras suffered a lot from this decision, "having conquered three stars with much personal effort", I can say, given I’ve known him for quite some time as a chef and as a human being, that I’m sure he’d reply: «I’d rather have a serene family than three stars that left those close to me without a smile». 

As Michel always says, a chef must sell a good mood. In a restaurant the people who welcome you, those who cook, those who create the magic of a service must smile. This is the essential premise to create a magic moment. But this is only possible if you’re honest to yourself, if you want to be free. And too bad if freedom comes at a price. 

2. The end 
(Edited by Gabriele Zanatta)

Translated into English by Slawka G. Scarso