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Stars on your doorstep – Portrait of a chef

What happens when a famous Michelin Star chef opens a country restaurant with democratically priced menus? Well, you and I can treat ourselves to an affordable yet memorable repast there and say: we ate at Michel Trama’s! This is indeed exactly what the acclaimed chef had in mind when he decided to open “La Poule d’Or”, right next to his already well established gastronomic restaurant bearing, quite simply, his name. 

Both restaurants are located in the exceptional setting of a beautifully renovated medieval castle in the town of Puymirol in the Lot and Garonne department. Archeological diggings have revealed the existence of pre-Roman settlements on this strategic “pech” or hill top “from where one could see far” as its Latin name “podium mirandum” indicate. Puymirol’s grain fairs, lasting several weeks, were described in 1100 as the most important in the entire Agenais region. As for the castle, it was built around 1247 on the orders of the powerful Count Raymond VII of Toulouse.  

Michel and his wife Maryse bought up and began renovating the neglected remains of the “grand castel” in the early 1970ies and in ‘78 they were able to open the “Aubergade”. Here he won his first Michelin star in 1981, a second in 1983 and a third in 2004. Meanwhile, between 2000 and 2006 the entire château hotel, from its reception areas, bedrooms and cloister to its restaurant and kitchen, were given a magnificent, major makeover by well known French interior decorator, Jacques Garcia, and is rightfully listed among the prestigious Relais & Châteaux 5 star hotels.

La Poule d’Or restaurant interior

However, during a time of serious illness a few years ago, Michel lost one of those coveted stars and with it many of his international customers. This experience caused him to reflect on many aspects of his life and career and, true to his profound belief that “youth is not a time, it is a state of mind”, he took up the challenge and opened “La Poule d’Or” a little over a year ago, right next to the 2 star gastronomic restaurant. The golden hen also offered a golden opportunity for Christopher, Michel and Maryse’s son, to gain experience of the hotel and restaurant trade from his parents as manager of the new affiliated entity. 

At La Poule d’Or the accent is on country style ambiance and dishes, albeit with a personalized, creative touch. The intention is to attract more of the local population who appreciate and know good food and where to find it and will come back again and again. The Tramas believe that those who enjoy a meal there, will fall under the charm of the historic town as well as the château hotel and will sooner or later feel comfortable to also try out the gastronomic restaurant.

While the décor, service, recipes, some of the ingredients, wine list and price range all differ in the two restaurants, Michel’s basic philosophy of preparing food applies to both: “Freshness is key; Freshness and variety. We are fortunate that we are able to source all our ingredients within a 100 km radius around Puymirol. The less products have to travel, the better. And here there is so much variety to choose from, all of excellent quality! Our suppliers have become trusted and close friends. In addition, we have our own vegetable and herb garden with a number of lesser known varieties. I marvel at the generosity of nature and spend some of my best moments in the garden. You see, I believe my role is to accompany the food I prepare, to be at the service of the product I transform. And I believe simplicity is synonymous with supreme sophistication”. 

La Poule d’Or interior

Becoming a chef, let alone a famous one, is not something Michel could have imagined, though today he says there are a thousand directions his life could have taken. He grew up in an orphanage where the staple food was over-cooked polenta. He considers that he was in effect born at age 13, when a man turned up at the orphanage and announced that he was Michel’s father. After that day, the boy turned from being the last in his class to the first. Pride, ambition and drive were kindled in him. Since that time he never stopped believing that the best is still to come.

As a young man he travelled and studied (sociology and psychology) in the US and Canada. He trained and worked as a deep-sea diving instructor. In fact, in 1971 he was runner-up European champion in deep sea apnea fishing. He was also briefly a member of Jacques Cousteau’s team. But when he met Maryse, he decided it was time to settle in one place and develop a career that could provide for a family. Together they bought a restaurant in Paris (Rue Mouffetard) and he began to study the methods of legendary chef Auguste Escoffier, but also others, among them Michel Guérard, the inventor of “nouvelle cuisine” and “cuisine minceur”. Having sold his first restaurant, Michel apprenticed with 3 star chef Bernard Loiseau in his restaurant in Saulieu. 

Michel is known and respected by his peers for his creativity. Having mastered all the conventions, he allows himself to venture into new territories. Numerous recipes that have become references were created by him. The foie gras hamburger, a gastronomic house specialty, which he invented when young Christopher was nagging him for a hamburger, is an example.

But he is perhaps most famous as the inventor of Crystalline: thin, transparent slices of vegetables and fruit, at once decorative and tasty. A slice of fruit, forgotten and dehydrated in a low oven, was all it took to set off his imagination.

Apart from cooking, Michel is also a people person. He enjoys teaching his team of cooks and discovering new recipes together. As he says: “A thirst for learning is what really stimulates me. When you give that up, it’s “game over”. 

Michel will no doubt agree: Writing about food and eating is one thing, but “the proof is in the pudding”, so give it a try and taste for yourself.

For more information, visit www.aubergade.com and www.relaischateaux.com.

By Jeanne McCaul, Lauzerte

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