Q&A and a few laughs with Chef Alain Passard
Chef Alain Passard is perhaps the most highly acclaimed chef in the world when it comes to vegetarian cooking. His restaurant, L’Arpège, has consistently been awarded three stars since it first opened, and is currently the 12th best restaurant in the world. It was also the first restaurant to have a menu with a strong vegetarian focus, making Chef Passard a culinary trendsetter.
On a recent trip to Paris, I had lunch at L’Arpège, where the world-renowned chef had very graciously agreed to be interviewed by VeggieBuzz. As I was finishing my meal, the chef greeted me and invited me to join him at his table where he was going to have his lunch. I relished the opportunity to find out more about his vegetarian-focused philosophy!
Sumati: Do you eat lunch at L’Arpège often?
Chef Alain: Yes, I have lunch and dinner here every day on the weekdays. The restaurant is closed on the weekend, so I spend time at my garden in Normandy, which is where I eat on Saturdays and Sundays.
Sumati: How long have you had the garden?
Chef Alain: I acquired my first garden back in 2001. That is when I started to focus more on vegetables at my restaurant. It covers 10 hectares now, and is managed by 10 gardeners. Back then, this was a completely new concept, but today, every chef has a garden, and menus all over the world have vegetarian and vegetable-focused dishes.
Sumati: So you’re a vegetable forward restaurant, but it’s not just about the vegetables. You also serve meat. Could you explain the concept a bit more?
Chef Alain: I don’t like to think of it as a concept, it’s just the food I like to cook. I focus on vegetables, but I do serve meat as well. The experience depends on the diners and how they feel about the food.
Painting is one of my passions, and I love working with color. So I serve food that helps me channel that passion. Vegetables allow me to do that because they are so colorful. I do enjoy cooking with and eating fish and meat is ok. But I much prefer vegetables, as they allow me to connect with my passions and put art on a plate.
Sumati: Do you think you were the first to start this trend?
Chef Alain: (Laughs) Well, I started it in 2000 and at the time, perhaps the people of France weren’t really ready for it. But now, all the restaurants and the chefs say, “Oh, I have my garden too!”
Sumati: As you said, people weren’t ready when you first started. What challenges did you face in getting people to accept your ideas?
Chef Alain: It was difficult for people to accept the idea, but I stayed focused on my work and determined about my dreams. You cannot get anywhere without working for it, so I did that, and people liked my food. I always try to stay focused on the future and I never look back.
Sumati: In general, what do you think of the quality of vegetables available in Paris?
Chef Alain: Comme ci comme ça. The market in Paris is not very good at all. Most of the vegetables are from Morocco! One thing that upsets me is when vegetables are sold out of season. You cannot have tomatoes in January! The seasons for vegetables are decided by nature. We cannot change that.
That’s why I prefer getting vegetables from my own garden. We grow and prepare our produce according to the season.
Sumati: What is your favorite vegetable?
Chef Alain: My favorite is aubergine, because purple is my favorite color. I also love using tomatoes. The tomato season has just begun, which is why there are so many tomato dishes in today’s menu. I use a lot of garlic, but at the moment its not really in season. I love using garlic in May and June as its very young and versatile. When cooked it results in delicious flavors with minimal spice.
With vegetables, there are lots of creative possibilities. They are seasonal and have many colors, textures and fragrances to play with.
Sumati: Aubergine is a common component in Middle Eastern cooking as well. Do you like Middle Eastern food?
Chef Alain: Oh yes, I especially love Mutabel. I also love any dishes with zucchini, peppers, artichoke and garlic. If you like I can share a Mutabel recipe with you.
Sumati: Actually, I’d love it if you can share the recipe of your beetroot tartare with me – that and the vegetable risotto were my favorite. (Sumati to myself: this one's a long shot, but it doesn't hurt to ask! )
Sumati: Are there any chefs that inspire you?
Chef Alain: I am inspired by nature. There are many great chefs around the world and I respect them all, but I don’t copy or follow anyone. I just cook the food that I enjoy. In fact, I don’t even have a cookbook at home! I just draw inspiration from what’s around me to create my recipes.
Sumati: What other restaurants would you recommend to vegetarians in Paris?
Chef Alain: I would recommend L’Astrance, Septime and Saturn. These are all my children (they all belong to chefs who trained under him) and have plenty of vegetable dishes as well. Also David Toutain and Le Chatomat are great.
Sumati: I’ve observed that you’re very hands-on with everything at the restaurant. Do you think you would try to open another restaurant at some point?
Chef Alain: No, not at all. I want to stay here. I have been here for the past 30 years and it’s the only place I will ever be. I don’t see myself anywhere else and it’s impossible for me to be in more than one place at the same time. I would just like be here every day. This restaurant is my home.
I also make it a point to interact personally with all my diners. When they come to L’Arpège, they’re coming to see me and my cooking, so I make sure that I am always present.
Sumati: Do you travel frequently?
Chef Alain: No, I spend most of my time here. I enjoy my work too much and cannot be away from the restaurant for too long, so I do not travel a lot. But recently, I cooked in Shanghai, and I have also been to Mumbai to cook. Other than that, I am here.
Chef Alain: I love the dessert on today’s menu – mille feuille, but without cream. It has plums. In other mille feuille, there is a lot of cream. Personally, I hate using cream. It’s a way of disguising the lack of flavor. I don’t use eggs or cream in my desserts. Only flour, butter, pastry and fruits.
Chef Passard is a true inspiration for those who want to follow their passion. Despite his immense success and acclaim, he stays focused on his work and on doing what he loves.Sumati Menda
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