The Alain Passard episode of Chef’s Table shows a chef who took a major risk at the height of his career that, against all odds, paid off. By abandoning meat in favor of an all-vegetarian menu, Passard breathed new life into his restaurant, while also inspiring other chefs around the world to embrace the lighter side of cooking. Throughout this particularly melodramatic episode of Chef’s Table, Passard talks passionately about his vegetables and the craft of cooking them.
Who is Alain Passard?
Alain Passard is the chef/proprietor of L’Arpège, a vegetarian fine dining restaurant in Paris that currently has a three Michelin star rating, and sits at number eight on the World’s 50 Best restaurants list (Ryan Sutton is, however, not a fan). The chef eschews recipes in his kitchen, and instead emphasizes techniques and what he calls “gestures” when preparing fresh ingredients. After making the switch to an entirely vegetable-based menu, the chef also bought a farm and hired a team of farmers to grow produce specifically for his restaurant — an idea that has been copied by other high-end chefs around the world. “My gardens are a source of inspiration,” he says. “Fantastic for creativity.”
What was his journey through the culinary world like?
Alain grew up in a household full of people who liked to make things. He was particularly fascinated by his grandmother, who was a great cook and understood the “song of the fire.” At 14, Passard got a job with “one of the best chefs in France,” where the young cook learned a great deal about the kitchen. “We had to memorize everything, each gesture,” he says. Although Passard was committed to learning these techniques, he also realized at a young age that he didn’t always want to cook in a traditional French style.
In 1978, Passard heard that a chef named Alain Senderens was doing some interesting things in the kitchen, so he reached out and eventually got a job in his restaurant, L’Archestrate. Alain says that it was a “marvelous treasure” working with him. “He taught me to learn by simply observing him,” Passard remarks. “He taught me about his ideas for unusual flavors, his strange harmonies of flavors, his different way of cooking.”
In 1986, Senderens shut down L’Archestrate, and so Passard decided to buy it, along with the building — his mentor’s house — and turn it into a new restaurant. L’Arpège’s first and second Michelin stars came quickly, but the third was elusive. Passard eventually got this accolade by serving what he refers to “carnivorous cuisine.”
What was his “aha” moment?
After nabbing that third Michelin star, Passard felt tapped out. He describes this time as “a period of rupture.” The chef wanted to take a break from the meaty fare he was serving at L’Arpège and find something new. “Working with meat became very painful,” he says. The chef took a break for a year, and during this hiatus from the kitchen, he had the idea to start treating vegetable like meat. “This school of fire that is more present with animal flesh, I use it at the service of vegetables,” he explains. Passard was so excited by this idea that he decided to remove all the items from the menu at L’Arpège that had helped it earn three Michelin stars, and he replaced them with vegetable dishes.
Some gourmands and critics were shocked by the move, but Passard stuck to his guns and the restaurant kept its three-star rating from the Michelin Guide. “Culinary-wise, I was born after my third star,” he says. “It pushes you... It makes you want to go further, to advance.”
What are some of his most quotable moments?
On the style of cooking at his acclaimed restaurant: “At Arpege there aren’t any kitchen notebooks. I’ve never written down a recipe. We don’t record anything. We don’t write anything down. That forces us to keep looking. Next year, I don’t want to make the same recipes that I did this year. I want things to continue to evolve, because without that, there’s nothing.”
On the importance of growing good vegetables: “It’s on us, gardeners and cooks, to find the space to optimize the quality of the vegetables. We have two gardens that each have different soil. It is very sandy in the Sarthe garden, and there is clay in the Eure garden. We always try to plant vegetables that suit the different types of soil.”
On expanding his repertoire in the kitchen: “I am never happier than when I put my fingers on a new gesture or a new flavor. It feels wonderful. The feeling of sublime essence of life.”