Alain Passard, vegetable magician

Article published on Nov. 18, 2006
Article published on Nov. 18, 2006
French chef Alain Passard, 50, makes vegetables the key players in his culinary delights

The brown, toast-like colours and low lighting are surprising in their discretion. There are no ornamental flowers, nor modern eccentricities to distract the guests, given that all the originality can be found on their plates. The tables talk amongst themselves and the atmosphere created is very different to the usual hustle and bustle of the French capital. ‘L’Arpège’, Alain Passard’s restaurant, is located on a corner of Paris’ Rue Varenne.

In one corner, famous faces of French television are eating with gusto. In the centre of each table, there is an enormous vegetable showing the essence of the space. I get closer and upon reaching out to touch a giant green pumpkin, I get a shock! It’s real! The kitchen doors open and Alain Passard appears in a heady mix of aromas and languages from the four corners of the globe.

Made in Brittany

With eyes that seem to show his sweet-toothed nature, he tells me that since he was a child, his favourite fish was shellfish fricassee, with a butter sauce prepared by his grandmother. ‘Every day in ‘L’Arpège’, I try to recreate my childhood environment,’ he says. His grandmother and teacher often said to him that, ‘listening and watching are crucial activities to identify and help reveal your best talents and make use of your best characteristics.’

Louise Passard’s lessons were in the traditional style of the French chef – ‘in the wood-based cooking of the olden days, fire was the main element. Unfortunately, today, the close relation between the chef and the product has been lost through the use of electric or gas cookers, with numbers and thermostats.’

Ingredients from Brittany are the secret of Passard’s cooking: fish, vegetables and butter. Brittany is, in his opinion, one of the most gastronomically-inclined regions of France. ‘They’re only missing wine,’ laughs Alain.

At 14, Alain Passard told his parents that he wanted to be a chef and he began as the apprentice of Michel Kéréver, a Breton chef, where he spent four years. There, he learnt the basics of cooking and also developed creative sensibilities. After 4 years as an apprentice, he started a gastronomic journey, taking in Paris, Reims and Brussels, where he worked in various kitchens and picked up a great deal of savoir faire from different culinary schools.

‘My cooking is French and the products that I use come from our soil and sea,’ he says. Aged thirty, in 1986, he decided to take a step forwards and opened his own restaurant, ‘L’Arpège’, whose fame grew and grew until it won 3 Michelin stars – the highest recommendation that can be bestowed on a restaurant.

From butcher to vegetable chef

‘Bit by bit, my relationship with meat was getting difficult. For a year, I was away from my kitchen’s burners and I only set foot in the restaurant to eat.’ Dead animals, blood and animal flesh stopped being a source of inspiration. At the time, Passard was still not aware that the crisis that he was experiencing had anything to do with ‘the end of cooking animals and the birth of cooking vegetables.’ It was at this point that vegetables stopped being a simple garnish and took the starring role in Passard’s kitchen. Nowadays on the menu, there is fish and poultry, but no red meat.

This was the renaissance of Alain as a chef. It breathed new life into him. ‘It was a period in which the balance of power swung – from meat to vegetables… I was happy to live!’ Alain bought a property with an old vegetable garden, that had lain fallow for nearly 30 years and which he revived. Plants, trees, a space for frogs and reptiles and also burrows for animals were a few of his creations. He made the ideal conditions for his eight helpers to grow the best vegetables. No pesticides are used in Alain’s garden and the land is worked with the help of a horse, since ‘a tractor would change the animal life of the earth, and would leave grooves in its wake.’

Thanks to a rigorous vegetable selection process and the use of the best seeds, the garden is now working on its own. Alain Passard can concentrate on developing his vegetables and the forms that they take as a source of inspiration. He is working on controlling their genetic makeup to obtain the best tomatoes and onions, and is constantly in contact with horticulturists and gardeners to perfect his raw materials.

‘Vegetables, with their colours, pictures, forms, smell and aromas are much more creative than animal flesh.’ Trying one of Passard’s specialities is a true experience for the senses. ‘It’s never mentioned, but I’m more or less sure that colour is an essential factor in how the palate deals with different foods,’ murmurs Alain confidentially. For example, ‘cabbage heart is yellow, so I look to include something that will not dirty the yellow, such as a white cucumber, white carrot or yellow beetroot, and for sauce, I use parmesan or Orleans mustard…’ His eyes shine as he speaks, and just listening to him makes my mouth water. His greatest discovery was onion flambéed with pear liqueur in a praline fondue with hazelnuts. ‘Fantastique!’

Vegetarians and the Japanese

According to Passard, the Japanese have an interesting palate. ‘They have very refined, yet firm, cooking. Sushi is always sushi.’ Alain would like to change it. ‘Why can’t a French person make it more creative and contemporary?’ In addition to the Japanese, the Americans, Brazilians, Lebanese and of course, Europeans, most appreciate cooking based on vegetables. On the other hand, ‘I’ve never been asked to go to an Eastern European country.’

To the table to enjoy

Alain is convinced that there is no uniform European cooking. ‘Cooking is a family thing, from day to day, and regional cuisine from different regions has to keep its identity.’ In Europe, there are, in his opinion, very good chefs capable of innovation such as Heston Blumenthal, an Englishman, the Catalan Ferran Adrià, Martin Berasategui from the Bqsaue Country and fellow countryman Juan Mari Arzak, to name but a few. ‘However, the cuisine has to remain the same.’