How to Create a World-Class Restaurant in the Middle of Nowhere
At Suquet, on France's Aubrac Plateau, and at Toya, on Japan's Hokkaido island, chef Sébastien Bras has embraced isolation to fuel his creativity and develop unique cuisine.
I was born in the village of Laguiole on France's Aubrac Plateau. I'm actually one of the last children to be purely Laguiolais. L'Aubrac is the origin of everything; my grandparents founded a restaurant there in the 50s and my father was born about 30 kilometers away.
L'Aubrac invites contemplation. It's about doing away with everything, like a purification; it urges you to focus on the essentials. The light is magical here. In fact, I'm always telling young people working with us to look around them. Sometimes, during service, I stop them and say, "Here, look at the light on that tree, or the sunset over there." I try to inspire them to observe the natural world with awe, even the simple things. And I keep repeating it to all the young people who pass through our kitchen: "Don't come here for the recipes; absorb the surroundings and our history, so you can one day write your own!" The history of this restaurant is a love song to the land around us. Living in L'Aubrac—in this green desert—isn't easy. Our team has to assimilate it in order to infuse our dishes with it, and in turn share it with our guests.
The painter Pierre Soulages used to say, "The more limited the means, the stronger the expression." Here, on the Aubrac plateau, we are isolated. Limiting yourself to the plateau's resources—cheese, milk, beef, and charcuterie, which have a strong identity—wouldn't be enough. This gastronomic poverty pushed our creative drive. We made this weakness our strength. It allowed us to develop a unique cuisine, where we work with potatoes, milk skin, bread crumbs—"anti-gastronomic" products that my father, Michel Bras, already knew how to sublimate.
Our food is a representation of our desires, our inspirations, our harvest, and our market finds.
Milk, for example, is a main ingredient in my thinking. My creations often revolve around Laguiole cheeses and Tomme cheese, around dairy preparations, whey, or whey butter. It's truly a product that I've soaked up since childhood. Every morning I would go to the Jeune Montagne co-op with my grandmother to buy milk for the restaurant's breakfast service. Every evening, when I went away for the weekend to visit my grandparents—who were farmers—I would drink a big bowl of warm milk, practically straight from the udder. In the morning, on top of my pascades (crêpes from the Aveyron region), I poured generous amounts of milk skin, collected that very morning from raw milk. This is a land of farms and dairy production, so obviously those traditions are rooted in me. When you're a child of the country, these are things you have inside of you that come out naturally, out of love. Our food is a representation of our desires, our inspirations, our harvest, and our market finds.
The Gargouillou, our signature dish, embodies modernity and the land's imprint on our menu. My father created it in the early 80s. After some reflection, I decided it shouldn't be removed from the menu, but evolve on a daily basis. It changes with the rhythm of the seasons; throughout the year, you'll never get the same dish twice. It depends on what we can pick from my father's gardens in the morning or from the wild, and what's at the Rodez market, where I go twice weekly. Every morning, it's such a treat to have five, six, seven people working together on the Gargouillou. You cannot get more contemporary than this. Gargouillou is a snapshot of our environment at a given moment.
My father and I like to work on products that have sense and substance, with materials that we know and understand. This is why we offer very local food—even though I don't deprive myself of little things here and there that have nothing to do with L'Aubrac, like miso. Ever since I've started going to Japan, I've familiarized myself with this fermented paste. At first, I had a hard time appreciating the flavor. Year after year, I learned to love it. I visited miso manufacturers and spoke to specialists who helped me understand the product. Today, I've absorbed it enough to bring back to Laguiole the fermenting agent that kicks off the process. I want to make some myself with a very local product: lentils from the Planèze plateau.
We have strong ties to Japan because what we found there was equivalent to our Aubrac. Theoretically, no one could have predicted we'd open a restaurant there because my father and I aren't developers at heart; we don't "do business to do business." But a Japanese hotel group got in touch with us and insisted that we pay them a visit. We went during winter—from Clermont to Paris, Paris to Tokyo, Tokyo to Sapporo, then 3 hours by car in the middle of December with two and a half meters of snow on the sides of the road. …It was snowing and the night was pitch black. We got to an enormous hotel that had been closed for five years, which had nearly 300 rooms. There was no electricity and no hot water, and the security guard's ghost-white skin made him look like he'd come straight out of . My father and I were unimpressed, and we wanted to take the first flight back. The next day, though, we went back. The bad weather had lifted and the sun was gorgeous that day. We went up to the 11th floor and discovered a panoramic view of the Japanese countryside, with a freshwater lake on one end, the ocean on the other. We stood there in front of the scenery, stunned—10,000 kilometers away from home, we'd found a little piece of our native Aubrac, with its small villages and farmers.
That's when I asked the investors: "Why us?" And they answered: "If you, Bras, managed to make something, lost in the middle of L'Aubrac, then you'll succeed in making something here, lost in the heart of Hokkaido island." And we opened in 2002.
As told to Céline Maguet.
By his own account, Sébastien Bras has always lived inside the kitchens of his family restaurant in Laguiole. His parents brought him there for the first time as soon as they got back from the maternity ward. Since 2009, he has headed Suquet on his own. Here, on the land he grew up on, he is tracing a new path through L'Aubrac with the same passion and sensibilities as his father Michel. In 2002, the Bras family opened Toya, a restaurant in Hokkaido, Japan. Last March, Sébastien was named Creator of the Year by the Omnivore Festival.
This post originally appeared in French on MUNCHIES FR in February 2016.