During my travel and dining adventures around the world I visit with many well-known chefs, many of whom I have come to know well over the course of a lifetime but I am still in awe of many of these icons. Alain Passard is someone I have admired for years and in fact the only reason I signed on to Twitter was to enable me to view incredible images posted daily from the L’Arpege kitchens. When I dine at the restaurants of former protégées or cooks who have spent time in the kitchens of L’Arpege there are nuances of his approach and sometimes even plates that attempt to imitate Passard’s “gestures”, as evidence of his influence.
L’Arpege is a restaurant that chefs from all over the world travel to since besides providing an opportunity to see the master at work it is also a living classroom of sorts. The work and philosophy of this forward thinking 58 year young chef have influenced a whole generation of cooks and changed the course of gastronomy forever. I know many young chefs who have made numerous visits over a short span of time to his tables akin to a refresher course in school to be able to follow his lead. As Passard broached the subject of grace in cooking during our conversation I thought of this grace that is reflected by the staff in welcoming and taking care of each guest in the Art Deco, minimalist dining room which is such an important part of a diner’s experience. I hope that this concept is understood and emulated as well in the dining rooms of upcoming chefs when they focus on following his plant based cuisine.
Last month when I dined at L’Arpege , where red meats have reappeared evidenced by the as blood pudding on the tasting menu that day, the autumn menu celebrated the grand crus of the garden, with improvisation, memories and a ballade of root vegetables and fall fruits. Incredible as that experience was I was even more thrilled by the opportunity to see him away from the kitchen and the restaurant. Our conversation appropriately was in his art gallery surrounded by his sculptures and mobiles a testament to the artistic genius of this sprightly figure. Constantly in motion and behind the twinkle in his eyes you can sense the unrest, and the intrusion of having to pause in his creative process to deal with sundry happenings of his operation.
My conversation with Alain Passard as published this week:
Chef Alain Passard: An Enigma & An Inspiration
Alain Passard the three Michelin starred French chef has been rocking the culinary world since 1971, sometimes even off its foundations, for instance when he removed red meats from his menu in 2001. They have since reappeared at L’Arpege, his culinary temple whose origins go back all the way to Alain Senderens who sold the property to his star protégé in 1986. Since then Passard has influenced kitchens around the world through his own line up of young chefs who have trained and worked with him, many have gone on to earn Michelin stars of their own and a place on the World’s 50 Best List such as Pascal Barbot, Mauro Colegreco, Bjorn Franzen, David Toutain, Bertrand Grebault and many more.
Passard was one of the first chefs to plant his own organic gardens, elevating vegetables to play the leading role on plates a notion shocking to his peers at that time. Needless to say many have followed suit even planting their own gardens for produce in imitation of the three gardens that supply L’Arpege with organic produce. In an era where chefs are jostling shoulders for fame and recognition, Alain Passard has chosen to be an enigmatic figure to his cultish fans and followers, rarely traveling to food events or opening a string of restaurants around the world or promoting himself or his books in the media. This saxophone playing genius is simply one of great culinary pied pipers of our time who is content to create awe inspiring dishes with improbable combinations. Even the twitter feed from his kitchens are visuals that impact the daily proposals of kitchens around the world opening them to endless possibilities of working with even humble products like turnips.
Prior to opening his own establishment he worked and trained with Michel Kerever at L’Hotellerie du Lion in Liffre, with Gaston Boyer at La Chaumiere in Reims and Alain Senderens at L’Archestrate which is now the present L’Arpege, so named by Passard to reflect his love of music. In the period between 1980 and 1986 Passard also worked in the kitchens of the Casino d’Enghien and the Carlton in Brussels before opening L’Arpege in 1986. He received its first star in 1987, the second in 1988 and the third in 1996 which has been retained to date. The star in the elegant dining room of the restaurant on rue Varenne, a short hop across the street from the Musee Rodin is not the celebrated chef or the professional hospitality of the service team but the spectacular food. One taste hooks you and the visuals are imprinted in your memory and you leave already planning your next visit. Passard can be seen walking around the dining room, greeting guests and regulars with genuine warmth and pleasure , present every day the restaurant is open. In my mind Passard and Rodins’s famous sculpture of the “Thinker” are inexorably linked together , maybe because a visit to the museum has sometimes preceded my meal at L’Arpege. Passard is very considered in his approach to cuisine and nothing is insignificant in his work as it is in other art forms he works with. I recently visited with him in his art gallery lined with eye catching collages and sculptures by him reiterating his creative prowess, a few doors down from the restaurant after another spectacular meal and had a very interesting conversation. Extremely charming with mischief lurking in his smile, he was amused by some of my questions but answered them thoughtfully.
Interview with Alain Passard:
What is your concept of cuisine?
It is very difficult to describe your concept, or art or cooking. The diner is the one who can describe the experience, the taste, so I think those who taste it can describe it better. They will have hopefully comprehended my philosophy of cooking. I hope that today my cooking does not have a definition because if it did I will be at the end of my cooking career.
From a chef’s point of view what is the connection between simplicity and sophistication in food?
For me it will mean erasing my gesture, technique or mark on a plate. It’s the idea of erasing your hand or the heaviness of your hand and making it much lighter. The present should not overpower the cooking so erase your signature when you cook, keep a lighter approach, not using so many techniques or gestures and keep it simple. If you go too far in the technique, not even actually technique, which is fine, but the precise nature of the technique you lose authenticity. If there are too many different gestures then you lose the art.
Do you consciously try to balance these elements of sophistication or simplicity or is it intuitive?
I don’t think about sophistication or simplicity when I am cooking. These are not conscious choices in my cuisine. Like a musician strumming the guitar for pleasure the most important thing is to have pleasure in what you are doing and also with the pleasure to put grace in it.
So the elegance comes with the grace?
That is for you to say when you experience my cuisine.
Are emotion and spontaneity part of your creative process in the kitchen?
There is only that and this spontaneous emotion is what is most important in creating the taste. There are no books with recipes at L’Arpege. That is the principle at L’Arpege and everyday it changes. Things change daily in the kitchen and the cooks are also inspired and they come up with new ideas.
You have trained so many young talents, so is sharing knowledge and skills important for you?
For me the definition of a grand chef is one who knows how to transmit and also give out a message to his students like in a school. A grand chef passes on his message to his students.
So is it part of the process of expanding the culinary art for you?
Transmission in cooking is literally the main role of a grand chef or notable chef. For myself every day as part of my daily routine, when I go in the kitchen and work there I also want to be there with my cooks because I know that I have something valuable to share with them.
I am annoyed when I come into a kitchen any kitchen, not mine, is when I see the cooks are not respecting the season. The cuisine must mark the seasons and what is blooming and bring out the best even in an aubergine, courgette or tomato. Non respect of seasons is the most annoying.
Is this talk of seasonality and using biodynamic products a trend, or a shift in the way we perceive cooking in the present times?
Nature told us to cook like that; we didn’t discover or invent this. Nature composes the seasons not us. I always cook this way and I don’t think it is a trend for me but my philosophy. Some chefs do use it as a marketing tool even when they don’t believe or understand this philosophy.
You visited India for the Chateau Margot dinners. Did you come back with some exciting additions to your spice repertoire?
Green curry for sure! I don’t want to use the term excited because I just want to be calm and serene in the kitchen so I will use the term interested. I compare it to the waiting or expecting for the tomato season or for the aubergine, for the season to arrive. As for spice you don’t have that similar anticipation because you get them all year round. I like to combine them but feel differently when the first tomato arrives for which I have been waiting through the winter months. Then I can say that I am super excited about its arrival.
Are health concerns a part of this shift towards a plant based cuisine?
It has more to do with healthy cooking than with health concerns. It is a healthy way to cook and consume vegetables. I believe it is more important to cook in a healthy way than be a vegetarian.
I love chicken too!
You have changed the perception of vegetables in cuisine all over the world. What do you want your legacy to be?
For the moment I am still learning myself and as to leaving a mark I will think about that at a later stage. At present I don’t know what impression I will leave behind as I am still working and learning.
We know of your love of music and since you play the saxophone yourself, do you allow it into your kitchen?
Non, never! (laughing).