I love to cook and I love French bandes dessinées, so when I learned that the comic author and artist, Christophe Blain, had written a book about one of France’s top chefs, I wanted to check it out. Published by Gallimard in 2011, En cuisine avec Alain Passard is the first graphic nonfiction to enter the domain of a master chef. Blain spent 5 years working on the book, during which time he soaked up the ambiance of a bustling 3-star Michelin kitchen, sniffed and savored dozens of dishes made from the freshest of produce, and observed Passard in action at his Parisian restaurant, l’Arpège. Talk about a dream assignment!
The 65-year-old Passard is considered one of the world’s greatest chefs. He began a rocket-fueled apprenticeship at the age of 14, under the tutelage of the Michelin-starred culinarian Michel Kéréver, and has rarely slowed down since. By the time Passard was 26, he had earned a 2-star Michelin rating. At the age of 31, he opened his own restaurant, l’Arpège, which earned a 1-star Michelin rating in its first year. In 1996, l’Arpège jumped from 2 Michelin stars to 3 where it has remained ever since.
You might assume that after achieving the ultimate prize awarded to professional chefs, Passard might have solidified his repertoire, making only seasonal changes to l’Arpège’s menu and offering a few daily specials. This has not been the case. Passard maintains that he has never written down a single recipe. His cooking is always evolving. Each day presents him with a new challenge as he surveys the morning’s ultra-fresh deliveries and decides what to prepare. Stagnation is simply not a part of his DNA.
Yet, gourmets and critics alike were shocked in 2001 when Passard, who was known for the finest rôtisserie, announced that he would be plucking meat from his menu and rooting his dishes in vegetables. The following year, with a new vegetarian carte, he again earned Michelin’s highest honor.
Je m’assois sur mes trois étoiles, non, je reste débout—comme s’il y en a une quatrième à aller chercher.Alain Passard, Chef’s Table France 2016
Do I sit on my three stars, no, I stay standing—as if there is a fourth star to go after.
L’Arpège today, and the one that Blain reviewed, is no longer strictly vegetarian but red meat remains off the menu. What’s more, the portions of fish or fowl that sometimes accompany a plate are smaller than they once were. Vegetables are now front and center and any flesh that might appear on your assiette is delicately portioned—a supporting cast member on an epicurean stage.
Passard supplies his kitchens, in part, with produce from local farmers. Since 2002, however, he’s also purchased three of his own farms and hired gardeners to run them that are as passionate about agriculture as Passard is about cuisine. En Cuisine gives us insight into two of these terroirs, providing examples of the careful scrutiny given to soil, weather, air quality, crop proximity, and other land management issues. As well as the scent, color, crispness, and general well-being of each root, bean, leaf, fruit, stalk, or berry.
Each farm is located in a different department in Northwestern France. Passard insists that a turnip grown in sandy soil tastes different than one grown in clay. He repeatedly performs trials, varying the growing conditions of a given crop to determine which farm and which field within that farm yields the ultimate specimen—one worthy of entering his kitchen.
Je veux faire du légume un grand cru.Alain Passard, Mission of l’Arpège
I want to treat vegetables like fine wine.
En Cuisine also includes 15 of Passard’s improvised recipes. Most are simple and Passard adds some notes about how you can alter the end result, depending on the ingredients you have on hand. I found the recipes interesting but somewhat anemic. Blain admits to not being a cook. He has never tried to recreate any of Passard’s dishes at home (nor have I). Perhaps in order to keep things simple, Blain and Passard chose formulations that would be easy for Blain to illustrate and describe. At least one recipe, called Fraises aux « éclats » de berlingots à l’huile d’olive, seems suitable for making with preschoolers. The dish consists of sliced strawberries, sparsely arranged on a plate, dusted with chips of hard candy, and ringed by a few drops of olive oil.
While reading En Cuisine, I enjoyed pondering the life and unrelenting dedication of one of the world’s greatest chefs. Hopping between Blain’s terse handwriting and simple illustrations, I found myself wondering if perhaps I should abandon my usual frugality and dine at l’Arpège this summer when I visit Paris. After learning, however, that lunch starts at $200/person before adding wine, I think I’ll have to pass. For that kind of money, I need to be sure that my meal will far exceed something I can make at home. While Blain regaled over each dish he was offered, his depictions failed to convince me that a meal at l’Arpège would be a forever-treasured experience.
What do you think? Have you ever dined at a 3-star Michelin restaurant? 2-star? Where was it? Was it worth it? Do you feel there are cheaper and equally delicious alternatives for burning your disposable income? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
En Cuisine avec Alain Passard is also available in English as In the Kitchen with Alain Passard.