In 2001 Alain Passard closed the doors of L’Arpège, his grand and successful restaurant in Paris, and disappeared for a year. He was in his early 40s and had been in the kitchen since he was 15, rising through the ranks to the very highest apogee of a three Michelin starred chef. He was burnt out, but worse, he was tired of what he was cooking. It was the time of mad cow disease and despite years searing his craft as a great rôtissier he found that he had become oppressed by ‘the weight and sadness of the cuisine animale.’
When he reopened the restaurant he announced that he would cook only vegetables. The world of French haute cuisine was appalled. Nouvelle cuisine had lightened French food, but the great restaurants were still stuck in the mud of fois gras and demiglace. Passard risked his reputation, his clientele; everything. And prevailed, he kept his Michelin stars and has gone on to influence a generation of chefs — from the bistronomy kids in Paris to Dan Barber the leader of the farm-to-table movement in the US.
Passard is now almost 60 and unlike many other French chefs of his status who are distracted by international restaurant empires and diffusion lines of cookbooks, cookware and TV shows, he still cooks in the kitchen every day. He owns three kitchen gardens in different regions of western France, Sarthe, Eure and Manche, each with their own terroir. In this way he can farm organically, nurture his own orchards and honey bees and plant beds and grow grand cru vegetables. The produced is picked in the early morning and sent by TGV to Paris. No chemical cleaning, no refrigeration. When he opens the vegetable box every morning, Passard holds up each fruit, smells each earth clotted root and then considers what to do with them. Each day is a new inspiration, a new menu. To improvise at a three star level and to have continued to do it for 15 years is the mark of an extraordinary chef.
After years of yearning, my boyfriend took me to L’Arpège for lunch for my birthday. The restaurant is in the upper bland environs of Paris’ 7e arrondissement. The dining room is not very big and arrival is cramped by the door which opens into the front desk and nearly falls down an adjacent staircase. The decor is cream and beige, blandly deco muted elegant. The atmosphere is calm repose with a background susurrating clatter of waiters carrying plates and bottles of wine between serving stations and diners. We ordered the Gardeners’ Menu, which, at €145, was the bargain prix fixe option; in the evening a 12-course tasting menu costs almost €400.
When he first went over to vegetables Passard eschewed all meat and fish; but he has since rescinded such fundamentalism. We began with a little heap of black-edged radish slices which hid a nugget of poached turbot. Monochrome simplicity, softly mustard crunch. It was early October and a summers’ end ratatouille came next, a deconstructed scattering of slivers of courgette, a spear of yellow pepper, circles of grilled onion and cherry tomatoes confit like squashed pillows. A gratin dish arrived, covered with a fine film of onion slices under a delicate scrim of grill-melted parmesan. Then a perfectly Passard composition: a dish as pretty as a picture, a bouquet of flowers, and other instagrammable clichés: spirals of acid green romanesco, a wedge of maroon speckle fig, purple red cabbage strands, red strawberry, pink frilled radish. It was dressed in a honey vinaigrette and black pepper and tasted as fresh as a daisy.
This was not vegetarian cooking. No pulses or carb to weigh in, no heavy cream to smother. It was instead about cooking vegetables. Simply and carefully to reveal clear and delicate. ‘Gentle slow simmering and liaise with a little butter,’ as Passard explained to the New York Times in 2001.
A plate of steak tartare was put in front of us. It is my boyfriend’s favourite dish and he smiled. And then smiled again when he realised it was not beef, but a trompe l’oeil of chopped and mayonnaised beetroot topped with a circle of horseradish cream and a coin of carrot to look like a poached egg. I had not realised before that beetroot was so rich. We looked at each other a little askance across the table, because it kind of tasted like steak tartare too.
Recent reviews have complained that the dishes at L’Arpège can be variable, that producing so many different plates every day, adapting, reinventing, is not conducive to a consistent standard of excellence that Passard’s Michelin rating and his prices might demand. But I think it is a price worth paying for the close adherence to seasonality, to the moment, to freshness. You are not eating a plan, but an arrangement; inevitably, it is a little looser. And sometimes a little repetitive.
The beetroot tartare was followed by a beetroot steak, because, well, the beetroots were ready for harvesting that week. This beetroot was very large and had been salt baked and carved into a thick wedge which, like a good bit of roast beef, leaked a dribble of bloody jus across the plate to mingle with a slice of pear and a quenelle of glossy, dark onion. Beetroot is rich, it is also sweet; I found myself havering through this second helping. It was bold and good, but it was quite plain. And I wondered — and not for the first time during the meal, because the ratatouille had been a little underwhelming and the medley of vegetables and fruit had been a little sweet — if I missed the leavening of acid. There was a fish carpaccio and a dish of mussels with red onions to provide an iodine interlude, but with these too, I longed for the sparkle of lemon. Vegetables are sugars and sun. We had eaten 50 shades of green and pink and red and purple, but vegetables can, in the end, be a little one-note.
We drank our coffee and nibbled at one of those great smorgasbords of French petit-fours that is the very definition of post-prandial replete. A flaky munch of wafery palmier, crack of tuile, the delight of unwrapping a homemade caramel from its cellophane twist. What nonsense it is to niggle.