Alain Passard is considered to be an idol by many chefs. Three Michelin star chef of restaurant Arpège in Paris, France, he is mainly known for inventing the vegetable to table movement removing meat from his restaurant and serving a cuisine that is mainly focused on seasonal vegetables.
Passard has been working with a mainly vegetarian menu at his restaurant since 2001. Although he decided to be a chef at 14 and says he’s never changed his mind, he did realise that he no longer wanted to work with meat.
His story is beautifully depicted in the first episode of Chef’s Table France, the third season of the successful foodie series just released by Netflix. In this documentary directed by David Gelb, Passard speaks about the influence his grandmother had on him and says he can still hear the whistle of the oven when she was cooking with fire. “Her cooking smelled good, it was generous. She had a delicate sense of cooking. I have her recipes but I have never been able to cook as well as her,” he says modestly. “Maybe she had a secret ingredient or else I don’t have her hand,” he says.
While vegetables have become more mainstream in restaurants today, his drastic decision to stop cooking meat could have meant ruin for his restaurant in Paris. He says that the decision was not understood at the time. The French chef opened the restaurant in 1986 after taking over the restaurant that was previous run by his own mentor Alain Senderens under the name Archestrate.
He received the first star in 1987, followed by a second in 1988 and a near perfect score in the Gault Millau Guide in 1990 (19/20). A third star followed in 1996.
Passard improvises and does use any recipes in his restaurant. He works with the produce that mainly comes from his two gardens and he is nearly self-sufficient. He decides on the spot what and how he will cook the ingredients he gets. “At Arpège, I have never written a recipe. I don’t want to be making the same thing next year. I want to move forward. It is complicated but that is how we progress. When I close my eyes at night, I know I have taken risks but my challenge is to make people happy every day,” he says.
While the restaurant used to be centred around meat (as most French restaurants) as Passard himself says, he was no longer happy with just serving a great plate of meat. “In 1998, something changed in me. Working with meat became painful.”
He says he did not know what happened but he needed to rest and take time off to think. “At that point, I realised I wanted to do something else, to change my job,” said Passard who constantly is in search of improving despite the fact that he has had 3 Michelin stars for 20 years.
“That year was very important, I got rest and distance from the restaurant. That retrospection gave me the idea that a beetroot could be cooked in a salt crust like meat, that celery could be smoked and a carrot grilled. I could use the school of fire to be at the service of a vegetable. I was enthusiastic and creative again. I found back my passion for cooking,” he says.
“I worked to find new combinations, I had a new outlook, new tastes, new smells, new sounds. I found pleasure again and I removed all the dishes that earned me three stars,” he says.
In France, it is nearly considered a crime for a restaurant to not serve meat. People were uncomfortable and many colleagues and clients thought the restaurant would not survive.
In 2002, he put together the first vegetable garden in Fillé sur Sarthe. In 2008, the second vegetable garden was set up in Buis-sur-Damville. Then shortly after, Alain Passard created the “Bouquet de roses” apple tart, a tart that honours both the flower and the fruit.
He says he is now less extreme and has added fish, poultry and shellfish to the menu. “My only ambition is to love what I do more and more each day. My garden saved my life.”
With excellent visuals and great music as well as an inspiring story of a master French chef, this is another must watch for food lovers.