Alain Passard: In His Elements

Rohit Chawla
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For Alain Passard, it is all about earth and water, air and fire. The iconic French chef talks about his culinary journey in a conversation with Nandini Nair

WHERE WE MEET, nary a leaf sprouts from the soil, nor a cloud floats in the sky. After some searching, and much to my astonishment, I locate a ladybird. It sits there as clear as day, pint sized and blazing red on the tip of a leaf. On further inspection I realise it is not real, just like the foliage it squats upon. But Alain Passard seems at ease, and even hums a tune to himself. The French chef and owner of the three-star restaurant L’Arpège in Paris is, after all, a chef of the elements. For him, it is all about earth and water, light and fire, unlike our setting, which is all chrome and steel, metals and filaments. He, however, does not appear discomfited by the incongruity. We meet at the sixth edition of India Design, the country’s landmark fair for decor and style, held in Delhi. He helmed a talk at India Design as part of ‘Bonjour India’—a four-month-long celebration of Indo-French partnerships.

Today, the choice of restaurants can determine holiday destinations. The era of the celebrity chef, thanks of course to television, is upon us. While some might find the whipping of eggs, marinating of meat and plucking of vegetables to the riffs of Bach, or arias of opera, silly or even outlandish, to others it appears most apt. Television has transformed the humdrum nature of cooking and made it about showmanship. The drudgery of kitchen work has been elevated to entertainment, even art. While Passard has been a legend in France for the last few decades, many of us first met him on Chef’s Table aired on Netflix in September 2016. Directed by David Gelb, the show is an unabashed paean to the chef who ‘rocked the culinary world when he rebooted his three-Michelin star Paris restaurant to focus on vegetables, not meat’.

IN 1986, PASSARD opened his restaurant Arpege, previously run by his own teacher and the famous chef Alain Senderens under the name Archestrate. He named it Arpege as a tribute to music, his other passion. The son of musicians, Passard plays the saxophone, and often talks about the influences of his grandmother who was a wonderful cook and his mother who was a clothes designer. He uses a simple line to explain his culinary journey: “When I was 14, I decided to be a chef I have never changed my mind.” The joy he gets from cooking has been dogged over the past three decades. He is still essentially a man of the kitchen, and a man of the hands.

Passard’s approach to food is that of a consummate artist who combines the seasonal calendar of a fashion designer, with the wisdom of a gardener and expertise of a chef to create the unexpected. He is known not only for his keen sense of sight, smell and taste, but also for the sleight of his hand. He is said to toss salt into his dishes from a distance, for kneading and tailoring his dough to perfection and for sculpting roses from apple peels. Speaking through a translator, he says, “The hand is what defines the chef. So you have different kinds of hands, and you’ve different kinds of chefs. You can have a full hand, a heavy hand, an elegant hand,” he says with a warm laugh, adding, “It is not for me to say what hand I have. I like to look at all the different styles I have in my team. Each one has a different hand. My job as a chef is to oversee everyone, and to see how it can all be connected.”

Arpege earned one star in the Michelin Guide in its first year in the late 80s, and a second soon after. It had earned three Michelin stars by 1996, which it has maintained for over three decades, even after it took the eccentric step of removing meats (especially red meats) from the menu. From 1997 to 2000, Passard had fortified the position of Arpege as an apogee of fine dining with the cooking of meats. He has said of those years, “I like the visual and acoustic feel of cooking on the flame. This type of cooking requires numerous hours of attention to cook pieces that the chefs and I observe, turn over, feel and listen to… The meat is cooked through, yet keeps its tenderness.”

In 2001, Passard had grown bored of the blood and gore, and introduced for the first time in a three-star restaurant, at least in France, menus that would make vegetables the hero on the plate. To the carnivore French this at first seemed preposterous, but his ploy paid off. He later reintroduced seafood and fish, but in smaller doses. While in the early noughties meats were still the piece de resistance of menus, today Passard’s move seems prescient. What was ludicrous then, is now hip. He agrees, saying, “Vegetarianism really is a more sought after way of cooking now. People are looking at new ways of cooking asparagus, of seeing the vegetable.”

Vegetarianism really is a more sought after way of cooking now. People are looking at new ways of cooking asparagus

By his own admission, his culinary growth spiked after he’d got the third star. “Before getting the third star,” he says, “I was working on the basics. I was trying to learn how to execute those well. After third star I became more creative. I started inventing new ways of cooking.”

Over the last decade Passard has taken the ‘grain to plate’ philosophy and process to a new level, by growing his own vegetables. In 2002, the first vegetable garden, with sandy soil, was put together in Fillé sur Sarthe (two hours from Paris). In 2008, the second vegetable garden was set up in Buis-sur-Damville (an hour and a half away), with clay soil. He explains the difference between the sand and clay gardens: “For vegetable, it is like wine. You’ve different soils that give rise to different flavours. In the sand, you will do the asparagus, and in clay you will do beetroot, cabbage. Different vegetable, different soil.”

Neither pesticides nor chemical fertilisers are used in the gardens, which are complete with watering holes for amphibians, stone houses for the weasels, hedgehogs and reptiles, and perches for raptors. A team of gardeners tend the foliage and trees. The connection between gardener and chef is essential to Passard’s understanding of food. He says, “The gardener is the root of the work of the chef, he gives the first hand to the vegetable. And the chef is the one who has the last hand.”

From Monday to Friday (the restaurant is shut on weekends) the morning ritual at Arpege begins with the arrival of the trucks packed with the day’s produce straight from the farm. In the summer, it will be tomatoes the hues of marbles, velveteen peaches, parsley that borders on neon green, and blazing yellow pumpkin flowers. He doesn’t purchase ingredients to create a dish, instead he lets the produce arrive at his doorstep and then decides his menu. His gardens endow him with self-sufficiency, as he can map the journey of food on a diner’s plate right from the soil that births it.

For many of us (rightly, perhaps, called the ‘plebeians’), consistency is the comfort we find in restaurants. We return to the place where the banoffee pie always tastes the same, we hold dear the takeaways where the fried chicken evokes childhood afternoons. But for Passard, consistency is an aberration; it is like telling the seasons to remain stationary. His vegetables never see the inside of a fridge, just as his recipes are never ensnared by cook books. Why doesn’t he write his recipes down? He replies, “I don’t believe in it. Because cooking is an ephemeral art.” To write them down is to limit their possibilities.

Some of his dishes, however, have remained a constant on the menu such as the chaud-froid of egg with chives which he introduced in the 80s to the menu and is often referred to as the ‘most exquisite egg dish in the world’ because of its contrast between the warm, poached runny egg yolk and the sherry vinegar-infused whipped cream drizzled at the top. It must be like a carnival on the tongue with its combination of warm and cold, sweet and savoury.

Another signature creation is the ‘bouquet de roses’, which arose from his need to innovate and evolve. He did not see himself making the same kind of apple pie, by quartering apples, day after day. Drawing from fashion and design the seed of an idea was a “ribbon shaped like a rose”. He unpeels an apple in a way that the skin unspools like a swathe of ribbon. He then sculpts it into rose bud petals, rolling and shaping, with the lightest of touch. These are baked, baptised with sugar, and served in the form of a traditional apple pie.

Few objects capture the ephemeral nature of life, better than fruits and vegetables, as their cycles from raw to ripe to rotten are so fleeting. It is this evanescent quality that Passard recreates on his plate. For instance, the menu for his ‘the gardener’s lunch, winter 2018’ (€175) reads simply, ‘This morning, / the gardeners have blessed us / with a palette of flavours…/ Let yourself be guided by / the Chef’s improvisation / and experience a sensory stroll’. You forage through the gardener’s menu not to eat what you know, but what has grown. The ‘vegetable tasting menu’ (€320) includes dishes such as sushi beetroot flavoured with liqueur, vegetable burgers, multi-coloured vegetable ravioli, sweet onion gratin with young shoots, and carpaccio of celery with hazelnuts of Burgundy.

PASSARD FIRST LEARNT about the importance of produce from his grandmother, who he still believes is a better cook than him. He says, “My grandmother had a vision when she chose the ingredients to cook. I am still impressed by that. She knew how to buy the vegetables. It was important for her to find a beautiful fish, a beautiful chicken. For the vegetable, she had her own garden. So she didn’t need to buy any. She knew how to make ingredients shine on a plate.”

With 173,000 followers on Instagram, Passard has a robust social media following. A post of February 19th shows a basket full of Jerusalem artichoke, parsley, Milan sprouts and varieties of beetroots. Another recent post reads, ‘Red cabbage, purslane, chervil, rosemary, rutabaga ...Despite the snow, despite the cold, the baskets are still there!’ The photos on Instagram are mementoes of his philosophy. He says, “What I do through my Instagram account is remind people of the meaning of the seasons. It is winter now in France, so there are lots of underground roots that are of the season. I want to illustrate images that are of this season. Nowadays when you go the market people are lost. You go the market and you can find cucumbers and tomato in February, when they are summer vegetables. On my Instagram account, you only find vegetable of the season.”

In the mythologising of Passard, it is often said that the vegetables in his garden and those on his plate are ‘happy’. To the sceptic, this might sound kooky, but he has a simple enough explanation: “For the vegetable to be happy, it has to be a vegetable of the season. And it has to come from a real garden, with 100 per cent natural way of growing. It is important to keep this notion of pleasure. It means everything needs to be done with love.”