I heard a calling from the vegetables

French master chef Alain Passard is reinventing haute cuisine from the ground up


Lisette Thooft | Jan/Feb 2005 issue

Vegetables have taken over the leading role at L’Arpège, a Parisian restaurant distinguished with the top ranking of three Michelin stars. This is unique in the world of French haute cuisine, which revolves around meat. Master chef Alain Passard made a radical aboutface when after the commotion around mad cow disease he felt a calling to turn his hand to vegetables. On behalf of Ode, Lisette Thooft had a meal at his restaurant and a conversation with Passard. “Everything has changed,” he says, “even the ambiance in the kitchen and my restaurant. Now, serenity reigns.

Our lunch at L’Arpège, Alain Passard’s famous restaurant in the Montparnasse area of Paris, starts with an egg. At any rate, it was something in an eggshell sitting in an eggcup. A rather unexpected beginning for a restaurant known for its vegetable dishes. But this is a house specialty: warm egg yolk, lightly whipped cream and a drop of maple syrup. It’s so different, so surprising, that my companion and I straighten to attention in our seats, eyes widening as our taste buds are put on alert. We’re soon ready for the vegetables, which arrive course after course, each unique and original: scintillating fresh gazpacho with a scoop of creamy mustard ice cream; a feather-light gratin of sweet onions with a dash of Parmesan cheese; transparent ravioli, filled with onions, dates and mushrooms, float in a clear mushroom bouillon, sultry to the nose and full on the tongue; green beans with peaches and almonds in curls of foamy yellow-green sauce.

Most French master chefs look down their noses at vegetables. Cooking—or better yet: life—is about meat, game, fish and poultry; all the rest is a sideshow. Alain Passard’s radical shift some three years ago is therefore quite unique.

“The strange thing is that I didn’t see it coming,” Passard says when we meet him after the meal. “If someone had told me 10 years ago that I would develop a completely different cuisine, and have my own vegetable garden, I wouldn’t have believed them. But I was pretty much done with meat. I had gone as far as I could go. I had the feeling something had to happen in my career. I was waiting for something but I didn’t know what it was…”

Those were the days when mad cow disease was in full swing. Passard experienced it as a dramatic time. “We chefs are emotional, we work from our passion,” he explains. “And then one day you hear the meat is sick, that something is terribly wrong with the raw material you work with. I was absolutely horrified and felt betrayed. I was on the verge of completely abandoning cooking.”

And then vegetables found him. Which is exactly how it happened, as he says himself: “ I didn’t find them. I heard a calling from the vegetables—there’s no other way to put it. They beckoned me, they sought me out. From that moment I rediscovered my enthusiasm. I started cooking with pleasure again.”

When he started working with vegetables, Passard had no role model, no source of inspiration. After all, a true vegetable gastronomy doesn’t exist—at least not yet. “Most master chefs have a couple of vegetable dishes, but there is no cuisine. And yet vegetables represent an interesting and creative area of gastronomy. Vegetables are colorful; very decorative, aromatic and tasty.”

His knowledge of the classic art of cooking is impressive. Born in a village in Brittany 48 years ago, Passard learned to cook from his grandmother, Louise, whose sepia portrait hangs on the wall of his restaurant. He was only 15 when he was hired as a chef at the Lion d’Or in Liffré, which already had a Michelin star. Ten years later, he had cooked up two stars for his boss at Le Duc d’Enghien. And at age 30 he started his own restaurant, L’Arpège, which received its third Michelin star in 1996.

And yet Passard was never afraid of alienating the Michelin taste testers with his change of course. “My conversion was an authentic aspiration, which means you aren’t thinking about stars. But I think they’re enthusiastic about vegetable cuisine holding its own at a three-star level.”

While we’re having our lunch, Passard too is eating—dressed in his blue checkered chef’s pants and white smock—with a couple of friends, in the middle of the restaurant. He often does that, we are later told, to test the dishes made by his head chef, the 23-year-old David Toutain. “I trust David implicitly,” he tells us afterwards. “He’s become a little like a son to me.”

Passers-by would scarcely notice L’Arpège, on the corner of Rue Bourgogne and Rue Varennes in the charming Montparnasse district. You might easily walk right past it. Only a small sign on the door and an indistinguishable menu on the outside wall betray the location of one of the world’s most famous and expensive restaurants. The menu’s prices do stand out: first courses are around 50 to 60 euros ($65-$77 U.S.) and main courses roughly 100 euros ($130 U.S).

Inside, the décor is sober-chic. We are greeted by three fawning waiters and taken to one of the restaurant’s ten tables. A cluster of licorice root is the only table decoration; the wall is adorned with two crossed pieces of ebony wood. There is an ambience of “like knows like”. People chat with guests at neighboring tables, taste each other’s wine and sniff at one another’s plate. And nearly everyone—women and men alike—kisses Passard when they leave.

This is not a restaurant, but a temple. It is not frequented by gourmets, but devotees. The religion is gastronomy—looking, smelling, tasting, enjoying—and these experiences are given heaps of respect and attention. Particularly attention. Everything at L’Arpège is attuned to maintaining and intensifying your attention. The waiters swirling around the tables and doing all they can to pamper you, the colorful patterns of food on large plates, the minimal portions. And yes, also the knowledge that it is all so expensive. That too. With each new course we taste more attentively, consciously.

Then comes the potato I will never forget. It’s only a quarter potato, surrounded by a couple of mushrooms on the plate. When I break off a piece with my fork and cautiously place it in my mouth, my eyes spontaneously turn toward the heavens. What is this?! My youth flashes before me; only when I was very young were taste sensations so intense as I first sampled the flavors the world had on offer. The potato is both tender and crunchy, soft and substantial. It is smoked on oat straw in a smoking oven. The potato is indescribably delicious.

Our lunch is not vegetarian: the next course consists of a few pieces of chicken with three types of stewed onion in a butter gravy. “I haven’t stopped using meat,” Passard is keen to stress, “I’ve started using vegetables.” The chicken has—“of course,” Passard adds—had a decent life outdoors, feeding on the snails and grains that chickens so enjoy, on a farm in Normandy.

After the chicken, a waiter takes away the crusty bread and the salted butter (from Brittany) and brushes the white tablecloth for the dessert course: flaky pastry with rhubarb in sweet tomato sauce and a selection of round tartlets each the size of a euro coin, filled with lemon, vanilla, honey, caramel. The coffee is accompanied by warm shell-shaped madeleine cookies and tiny fragrant macaroons fresh from the oven.

“The tragedy for vegetables,” according to Passard, “are the vegetarian restaurants with chefs who can’t cook. Everyone I know who has ever eaten in a vegetarian restaurant complained that the food was bad. Those chefs should never have been hired, it should be outlawed. Vegetables have suffered greatly from the bad reputation of vegetarians. Vegetables are getting a break now that three-star chefs are working with them.”

No matter how you slice it, his vegetables are a little aristocratic: they are grown in a garden on the lands of an eighteenth century castle, Gros Chesnay, near Le Mans, some 230 kilometers (138 miles) from Paris. The harvest, carefully packed in crates, arrives three times a week at the Montmartre station by high-speed train. Picked that morning, on your plate that evening at L’Arpège.

Cédric Godbert, one of two gardeners, gives us a tour of the vegetable garden the following morning. “The soil here has remain unspoiled for centuries,” he explains, rolling the dark, clay and sandy earth between his fingers. “The soil life is healthy and lush.” He and the other gardener, Sylvain Picard, do all the work by hand, Godbert says, or with horses and a donkey that pull small, old-fashioned iron ploughs to preserve the soil. There are beehives, a pond for frogs and toads, and hedgehogs, which are valued because they eat the snails. Straw-filled jars hang from the trees for earwigs, snakes and bats are welcome too, birdhouses hang everywhere and hedges have been specially planted for birds.

Passard’s kitchen is 100 percent natural, he tells us as he inspects his garden. “I don’t want to be cheated again. You face the same dangers with vegetables as with meat. I want to give my chefs and my guests a good quality product. That’s why I bought a garden myself and hired gardeners. It means I can be sure of what I’m doing. I can pull a leek out of the ground here, bite into it and be assured it’s fine. I want a clean kitchen.”

As we tour the garden, we’re taught about the cultures associés: leeks are planted next to carrots because the odor of the leek keeps flies away from the carrots. Yellow African marigolds are growing in between the white and pink Italian eggplants to chase away the aphids. We see chicory under white covers to make them soft and sweet, artichoke thistle tied up in bags to make the stalks a delicate light green, Romanesco broccoli with pop-art cabbage, Jerusalem artichoke with yellow flowers, red, black and pink radishes. Indeed, Passard wants to introduce forgotten vegetables in his restaurant. He considers bio-diversity important. But what he really wants is quality.

The gardeners have seeds for 300 different types of tomatoes. There’s only space for 40, so they alternate and Passard is continually trying out different varieties. “You can taste how naturally the vegetables have been grown.” Passard states. “If you believe what you read in the media, it’s no longer possible to grow a tomato without chemicals. I’m determined to prove it can be done and that it can survive. That’s our battle.”

Alongside the vegetables, a variety of herbs are growing in the garden: sage, hysop, various types of thyme and mint, garlic chives, carrot parsley, ice plant, New Zealand spinach. “This is where we dream up the dishes,” Passard says suddenly. “Here in this garden. I talk a lot with Cédric, Sylvain and of course with my master chef David. We’re a real family. Everyone uses their imagination, everyone contributes. We imagine how the flavors and aromas will work together, what we can add to create harmony. That imaginative process works very well here because it’s such a beautiful, quiet place.”

And there are those unforgettable potatoes: they’re called rattes, the gardener says. Their flesh is firm, but they’re small, very difficult to grow and the crop yield is limited. Touring the garden sheds a different light on the minimal portions served at the restaurant… The harvest of the entire garden amounts to only 200 to 300 kilos (440 to 660 pounds) a week. Ultimately, the idea is that the restaurant will be able to run on what is produced here, but this is not yet the case. Fruit, mushrooms and certain spring vegetables must still occasionally come from elsewhere.

Passard is a happy man. “I have an intense desire to develop my business, my passion. That gives me a strong sense of wellbeing. There must always be real joy; real happiness or it won’t work. It’s a spiritual development.”

Which begs the question: how is his temper nowadays? Apparently there used to be a lot of arguing and screaming in his kitchen. Chefs would pull each other into the furnace room to duke it out and Passard himself was constantly swearing and yelling. Have things changed? Do vegetables change you as a person? “Absolutely,” he says. “Everything has gotten much more peaceful. Cooking with meat is difficult because you’re always dealing with dead animals. Visually it’s much more distasteful. Vegetables are softer, friendlier. Even if you work with the pulp of fruit or vegetables, it’s still very peaceful. It’s much easier to get inspired by them. Everything has changed, even the ambience in my restaurant. Thanks to the vegetables, serenity now reigns.”

Does it draw a different clientele? “Absolutely. We lost a large group of customers and have attracted a whole new group. And while it’s true that some came with us in our new development, the real meat lovers haven’t returned.”

They don’t know what they’re missing.

L’Arpège, 84, Rue de Varenne, 75007 Paris, France, telephone +33 147 050 906, arpege@alain-passard.com, www.alain-passard.com.

Solution News Source

I heard a calling from the vegetables

French master chef Alain Passard is reinventing haute cuisine from the ground up


Lisette Thooft | Jan/Feb 2005 issue

Vegetables have taken over the leading role at L’Arpège, a Parisian restaurant distinguished with the top ranking of three Michelin stars. This is unique in the world of French haute cuisine, which revolves around meat. Master chef Alain Passard made a radical aboutface when after the commotion around mad cow disease he felt a calling to turn his hand to vegetables. On behalf of Ode, Lisette Thooft had a meal at his restaurant and a conversation with Passard. “Everything has changed,” he says, “even the ambiance in the kitchen and my restaurant. Now, serenity reigns.

Our lunch at L’Arpège, Alain Passard’s famous restaurant in the Montparnasse area of Paris, starts with an egg. At any rate, it was something in an eggshell sitting in an eggcup. A rather unexpected beginning for a restaurant known for its vegetable dishes. But this is a house specialty: warm egg yolk, lightly whipped cream and a drop of maple syrup. It’s so different, so surprising, that my companion and I straighten to attention in our seats, eyes widening as our taste buds are put on alert. We’re soon ready for the vegetables, which arrive course after course, each unique and original: scintillating fresh gazpacho with a scoop of creamy mustard ice cream; a feather-light gratin of sweet onions with a dash of Parmesan cheese; transparent ravioli, filled with onions, dates and mushrooms, float in a clear mushroom bouillon, sultry to the nose and full on the tongue; green beans with peaches and almonds in curls of foamy yellow-green sauce.

Most French master chefs look down their noses at vegetables. Cooking—or better yet: life—is about meat, game, fish and poultry; all the rest is a sideshow. Alain Passard’s radical shift some three years ago is therefore quite unique.

“The strange thing is that I didn’t see it coming,” Passard says when we meet him after the meal. “If someone had told me 10 years ago that I would develop a completely different cuisine, and have my own vegetable garden, I wouldn’t have believed them. But I was pretty much done with meat. I had gone as far as I could go. I had the feeling something had to happen in my career. I was waiting for something but I didn’t know what it was…”

Those were the days when mad cow disease was in full swing. Passard experienced it as a dramatic time. “We chefs are emotional, we work from our passion,” he explains. “And then one day you hear the meat is sick, that something is terribly wrong with the raw material you work with. I was absolutely horrified and felt betrayed. I was on the verge of completely abandoning cooking.”

And then vegetables found him. Which is exactly how it happened, as he says himself: “ I didn’t find them. I heard a calling from the vegetables—there’s no other way to put it. They beckoned me, they sought me out. From that moment I rediscovered my enthusiasm. I started cooking with pleasure again.”

When he started working with vegetables, Passard had no role model, no source of inspiration. After all, a true vegetable gastronomy doesn’t exist—at least not yet. “Most master chefs have a couple of vegetable dishes, but there is no cuisine. And yet vegetables represent an interesting and creative area of gastronomy. Vegetables are colorful; very decorative, aromatic and tasty.”

His knowledge of the classic art of cooking is impressive. Born in a village in Brittany 48 years ago, Passard learned to cook from his grandmother, Louise, whose sepia portrait hangs on the wall of his restaurant. He was only 15 when he was hired as a chef at the Lion d’Or in Liffré, which already had a Michelin star. Ten years later, he had cooked up two stars for his boss at Le Duc d’Enghien. And at age 30 he started his own restaurant, L’Arpège, which received its third Michelin star in 1996.

And yet Passard was never afraid of alienating the Michelin taste testers with his change of course. “My conversion was an authentic aspiration, which means you aren’t thinking about stars. But I think they’re enthusiastic about vegetable cuisine holding its own at a three-star level.”

While we’re having our lunch, Passard too is eating—dressed in his blue checkered chef’s pants and white smock—with a couple of friends, in the middle of the restaurant. He often does that, we are later told, to test the dishes made by his head chef, the 23-year-old David Toutain. “I trust David implicitly,” he tells us afterwards. “He’s become a little like a son to me.”

Passers-by would scarcely notice L’Arpège, on the corner of Rue Bourgogne and Rue Varennes in the charming Montparnasse district. You might easily walk right past it. Only a small sign on the door and an indistinguishable menu on the outside wall betray the location of one of the world’s most famous and expensive restaurants. The menu’s prices do stand out: first courses are around 50 to 60 euros ($65-$77 U.S.) and main courses roughly 100 euros ($130 U.S).

Inside, the décor is sober-chic. We are greeted by three fawning waiters and taken to one of the restaurant’s ten tables. A cluster of licorice root is the only table decoration; the wall is adorned with two crossed pieces of ebony wood. There is an ambience of “like knows like”. People chat with guests at neighboring tables, taste each other’s wine and sniff at one another’s plate. And nearly everyone—women and men alike—kisses Passard when they leave.

This is not a restaurant, but a temple. It is not frequented by gourmets, but devotees. The religion is gastronomy—looking, smelling, tasting, enjoying—and these experiences are given heaps of respect and attention. Particularly attention. Everything at L’Arpège is attuned to maintaining and intensifying your attention. The waiters swirling around the tables and doing all they can to pamper you, the colorful patterns of food on large plates, the minimal portions. And yes, also the knowledge that it is all so expensive. That too. With each new course we taste more attentively, consciously.

Then comes the potato I will never forget. It’s only a quarter potato, surrounded by a couple of mushrooms on the plate. When I break off a piece with my fork and cautiously place it in my mouth, my eyes spontaneously turn toward the heavens. What is this?! My youth flashes before me; only when I was very young were taste sensations so intense as I first sampled the flavors the world had on offer. The potato is both tender and crunchy, soft and substantial. It is smoked on oat straw in a smoking oven. The potato is indescribably delicious.

Our lunch is not vegetarian: the next course consists of a few pieces of chicken with three types of stewed onion in a butter gravy. “I haven’t stopped using meat,” Passard is keen to stress, “I’ve started using vegetables.” The chicken has—“of course,” Passard adds—had a decent life outdoors, feeding on the snails and grains that chickens so enjoy, on a farm in Normandy.

After the chicken, a waiter takes away the crusty bread and the salted butter (from Brittany) and brushes the white tablecloth for the dessert course: flaky pastry with rhubarb in sweet tomato sauce and a selection of round tartlets each the size of a euro coin, filled with lemon, vanilla, honey, caramel. The coffee is accompanied by warm shell-shaped madeleine cookies and tiny fragrant macaroons fresh from the oven.

“The tragedy for vegetables,” according to Passard, “are the vegetarian restaurants with chefs who can’t cook. Everyone I know who has ever eaten in a vegetarian restaurant complained that the food was bad. Those chefs should never have been hired, it should be outlawed. Vegetables have suffered greatly from the bad reputation of vegetarians. Vegetables are getting a break now that three-star chefs are working with them.”

No matter how you slice it, his vegetables are a little aristocratic: they are grown in a garden on the lands of an eighteenth century castle, Gros Chesnay, near Le Mans, some 230 kilometers (138 miles) from Paris. The harvest, carefully packed in crates, arrives three times a week at the Montmartre station by high-speed train. Picked that morning, on your plate that evening at L’Arpège.

Cédric Godbert, one of two gardeners, gives us a tour of the vegetable garden the following morning. “The soil here has remain unspoiled for centuries,” he explains, rolling the dark, clay and sandy earth between his fingers. “The soil life is healthy and lush.” He and the other gardener, Sylvain Picard, do all the work by hand, Godbert says, or with horses and a donkey that pull small, old-fashioned iron ploughs to preserve the soil. There are beehives, a pond for frogs and toads, and hedgehogs, which are valued because they eat the snails. Straw-filled jars hang from the trees for earwigs, snakes and bats are welcome too, birdhouses hang everywhere and hedges have been specially planted for birds.

Passard’s kitchen is 100 percent natural, he tells us as he inspects his garden. “I don’t want to be cheated again. You face the same dangers with vegetables as with meat. I want to give my chefs and my guests a good quality product. That’s why I bought a garden myself and hired gardeners. It means I can be sure of what I’m doing. I can pull a leek out of the ground here, bite into it and be assured it’s fine. I want a clean kitchen.”

As we tour the garden, we’re taught about the cultures associés: leeks are planted next to carrots because the odor of the leek keeps flies away from the carrots. Yellow African marigolds are growing in between the white and pink Italian eggplants to chase away the aphids. We see chicory under white covers to make them soft and sweet, artichoke thistle tied up in bags to make the stalks a delicate light green, Romanesco broccoli with pop-art cabbage, Jerusalem artichoke with yellow flowers, red, black and pink radishes. Indeed, Passard wants to introduce forgotten vegetables in his restaurant. He considers bio-diversity important. But what he really wants is quality.

The gardeners have seeds for 300 different types of tomatoes. There’s only space for 40, so they alternate and Passard is continually trying out different varieties. “You can taste how naturally the vegetables have been grown.” Passard states. “If you believe what you read in the media, it’s no longer possible to grow a tomato without chemicals. I’m determined to prove it can be done and that it can survive. That’s our battle.”

Alongside the vegetables, a variety of herbs are growing in the garden: sage, hysop, various types of thyme and mint, garlic chives, carrot parsley, ice plant, New Zealand spinach. “This is where we dream up the dishes,” Passard says suddenly. “Here in this garden. I talk a lot with Cédric, Sylvain and of course with my master chef David. We’re a real family. Everyone uses their imagination, everyone contributes. We imagine how the flavors and aromas will work together, what we can add to create harmony. That imaginative process works very well here because it’s such a beautiful, quiet place.”

And there are those unforgettable potatoes: they’re called rattes, the gardener says. Their flesh is firm, but they’re small, very difficult to grow and the crop yield is limited. Touring the garden sheds a different light on the minimal portions served at the restaurant… The harvest of the entire garden amounts to only 200 to 300 kilos (440 to 660 pounds) a week. Ultimately, the idea is that the restaurant will be able to run on what is produced here, but this is not yet the case. Fruit, mushrooms and certain spring vegetables must still occasionally come from elsewhere.

Passard is a happy man. “I have an intense desire to develop my business, my passion. That gives me a strong sense of wellbeing. There must always be real joy; real happiness or it won’t work. It’s a spiritual development.”

Which begs the question: how is his temper nowadays? Apparently there used to be a lot of arguing and screaming in his kitchen. Chefs would pull each other into the furnace room to duke it out and Passard himself was constantly swearing and yelling. Have things changed? Do vegetables change you as a person? “Absolutely,” he says. “Everything has gotten much more peaceful. Cooking with meat is difficult because you’re always dealing with dead animals. Visually it’s much more distasteful. Vegetables are softer, friendlier. Even if you work with the pulp of fruit or vegetables, it’s still very peaceful. It’s much easier to get inspired by them. Everything has changed, even the ambience in my restaurant. Thanks to the vegetables, serenity now reigns.”

Does it draw a different clientele? “Absolutely. We lost a large group of customers and have attracted a whole new group. And while it’s true that some came with us in our new development, the real meat lovers haven’t returned.”

They don’t know what they’re missing.

L’Arpège, 84, Rue de Varenne, 75007 Paris, France, telephone +33 147 050 906, arpege@alain-passard.com, www.alain-passard.com.

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