Alain Passard, Revolutionary 3-Star Michelin Chef Who Went All Veggie

En Cuisine Avec Alain Passard

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!

Alain Passard at l'Arpège
Alain Passard at l’Arpège

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.

Kitchen of Alain Passard
The Kitchen at l’Arpège, by Christophe Blain

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.
Do I sit on my three stars, no, I stay standing—as if there is a fourth star to go after.

Alain Passard, Chef’s Table France 2016
Alain Passard with sous-chef Tony
Passard with sous-chef Tony,
pondering ingredients

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.

Sylvain, Gardner for Alain Passard
Gardner Sylvain Picard explains his placement of fava beans.

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.
I want to treat vegetables like fine wine.

Alain Passard, Mission of l’Arpège
Alain Passard's Fraises aux éclats
Fraises aux éclats

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.

Arriving at Alain Passard's restaurant
Blain’s first visit to l’Arpège

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.

Endnote

En Cuisine avec Alain Passard is also available in English as In the Kitchen with Alain Passard.

Other Resources

About Carol A. Seidl

Serial software entrepreneur, writer, translator, and mother of 3. Avid follower of French media, culture, history, and language. Lover of books, travel, history, art, cooking, fitness, and nature. Cultivating connections with francophiles and francophones.

11 Comments

  1. I admire his artistry, but I need my meat. My son’s a vegetarian and he doesn’t look any healthier than I do…

  2. I would be curious as to why Passard went vegetarian and then partially backslid. For most people who go vegetarian, it’s either health or concern about animal abuse, but maybe Passard just wanted to try something new.

    After learning, however, that lunch starts at $200/person before adding wine, I think I’ll have to pass

    Sounds like a wise decision. I can’t imagine a single meal being worth that much, no matter how much attention is given to what kind of soil the turnips are grown in. $200 is more than half of what I normally spend on food in a whole month. Given the vast number and variety of restaurants that must exist in Paris, you could try a whole range of different experiences for the same money.

    Have you ever dined at a 3-star Michelin restaurant? 2-star?

    I’ve never checked, but I really doubt the kind of places I go to (even in foreign countries) are rated by Michelin. The “Eater” review of L’Arpège suggests that the value of their star ratings may not be all it’s cracked up to be. The place is raking in all that money and doesn’t even make sure there’s toilet paper in the bathroom? How many other things are they being sloppy about? One suspects the place may be coasting on hype rather than maintaining its standards.

    I thought carte meant “menu” rather than “men”, though if the latter translation is correct, the function of restaurants must be intriguingly different than generally believed. Also, I assume the gardeners who run the terroirs are known as terroirists?

    On the whole L’Arpège sounds like it would appeal to rather the same sort of people who would vie to get into that rather stiff Proust dinner party. Whatever the actual quality of the experience, it’s more about the prestige of being able to say one was there.

    • Good question regarding Passard’s motives. It seems that at least initially he personally lost his desire to prepare and/or eat meat. Passard’s menu had been meat-centric which meant a lot of carcasses in the kitchen each day and a certain repetitiveness that accompanied their preparation. He was sick of dealing with them. In my reading of the book and other materials, there’s no indication that the switch was ethically based. More like a chef having a midlife crisis. In order to remain interested in cooking, he had to do something completely different. In doing so he gained a deeper and deeper appreciation for vegetables. He gave up meat, smoking and booze. I know he’s resumed the latter two habits which makes me wonder if he also sits down to a plate of steak from time to time. In any case, his diet appears to be much healthier after the switch.

      Thanks for being such a thorough reader—even caught the pop up typo!!!!! Yes, the Eater review was pretty bad and justifiably so. I’d be pissed if I had a similar experience. The reviewer rightly points out that any establishment can have a bad day. Very true but I think his bill was around $400. For that kind of money, mistakes aren’t forgivable. I much prefer falafel and a Coke (and three more days in Paris).

  3. Interesting to think how the world evolves — for years, food trucks have been offering more & more veggie fare — as for 200 stars = $200 lunch — haven’t tried lol

    • Yes. I remember when you had to be careful about choosing a restaurant if you were planning to dine with a vegetarian friend. Today, it’s rarely a concern although somewhat more difficult for vegans.

  4. So very French… At 200bucks I will pass too.
    (Are you in France now? I’ve lost track of time these past weeks…)
    Bandes dessinées now? Interesting. (I’m a big fan.) Which authors do you like?
    Au revoir.

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