May the Force Be With Alain Passard

PARIS – On January 14th when chef Alain Passard boldly announced that the kitchen of his Michelin three-star restaurant Arpege would be devoting itself to vegetables, shock waves were felt throughout the food world.

But most journalists reporting the story got it wrong. While vegetables are now the focus of Passa rd’s ultra-modern cuisine, they are not the only ingredient on the plate. As revolutionary as Passard’s approach is, the shift is not towards vegetarianism, it is not aiming for nutritional balance (he has long been known for his hefty hand with butter), and its relation to the mad cow scare is only happenstance.

So while we will be seeing a lot more asparagus and spinach, carrots and beets, sage-filled ravioli and a medley of vegetables paired with couscous, Passard is also delighted to cook us his moist farm pigeon rolled in crushed almond candies, or dragée; fresh lobster from the bay of Granville in Brittany; and iodine-rich sea urchins, or oursins, served with nasturtium flowers and leaves.

Now that we have the facts straight, let me say that Passard is certainly part of a larger revolution, one I consider as grand as that revolution of the 1980s known as nouvelle cuisine. Until the last decade or so, vegetables have taken a major back seat to the protein sources on the plate: fish and shellfish, poultry and meat. They have almost always been little more than a garnish. Until Joel Robuchon made us fall in love with luscious mixed green salads and mashed potatoes, those ingredients were pretty much relegated to the home. How many of us have had a series of wonderful meals in French restaurants, only to suddenly crave greens, vegetables, anything that comes direct and fresh from the soil?

Passard, and many of his colleagues – namely the Pourcel brothers from Jardin de Sens in Montpellier and now Maison Blanche in Paris; Pierre Gagnaire, Guy Savoy and Guy Martin of Grand Vefour in Paris --- have long been vegetable advocates, serving creative dishes made up of nothing but, or using the carrot or the beet, the tomato or the radish as a starring ingredient.

Like the others, Passard’s focal shift did not happen overnight. As he likes to say, it could never have happened if he had not spent 30 years devoting himself to perfecting methods of cooking poultry and meat. His approach has always been unusual, one learned from his grandmother Louise Passard. While other chefs were oven roasting and grilling, searing and braising, he was there cooking his meats and poultry on top of the stove in a pan over the lowest possible heat in almost no liquid, a process that takes a lot of attention and a lot of time. But the result is meat and poultry that is ultimately moist and tender and full of pure flavors.

So today, he is taking that same gentle approach to vegetables and fish, cooking them ever so slowly in his favored salted butter. Again, the results are clear, pure, and admirable.

Passard likes to say of his new approach to vegetables: ”It is as if I had this friend standing next to me for 30 years in the kitchen, and I never even said hello!”

Likewise, he defends his pro-vegetable evolution by saying “’There are restaurants devoted to fish and shellfish, why not vegetables, too.”

A recent multi-course lunch at Passard’s modern dining room embellished with lovely Lalique glass panels copied from the old-fashioned railroad dining cars, suggests that he is making a fine start, but I would say he is only halfway there. Much of the problem was the very poor quality of the vegetables used (he needs to do research to find the many fabulous sources in Paris, right under his nose) as well as the overly experimental nature of many of the dishes. People may not scream at the though of paying 620 francs for a lovely layered affair of thinly sliced celery root filled with a chestnut purée, lasagna style, embellished with a fine and fragrant fresh black truffle cream. But they will blanch at paying 320 francs for a watery and tasteless turnip the size of a golf ball rolled in those almond candies and serve in a reduced onion sauce. I also feel that as Passard and other chefs delve into pure vegetarian menus that they need to learn a little bit more about balancing protein, fat and carbohydrates in a menu. While they should not be expected to be nutritionists, they need to think about satisfying a client’s need for a meal that contains at least some protein balance. They need to delve into pastas and rice, beans and legumes to balance out the pure dose of vegetables.

There are many lovely combinations to discover with Passard, and if you are willing to learn along with him, the ride could be exciting. As well as costly and filled with a touch of a gamble. I love his marriage of carrots with an iodine rich sauce of sea urchins; as well as his onions teamed up with chopped fresh pears, flambéed with pear William eau de vie, all united with a rich and endearing hazelnut sauce. Brilliantly, he cooks onions in lemon grass, or citronnelle, and pairs it with sole cooked in the sherry-like vin jaune of the Jura.

The shift towards vegetable dominance at the table is also calling for an overhaul of the Arpege wine cellar. Heavy reds don’t go well with this sort of cooking, so Passard will be changing his entire cave, adding more whites, particularly those with a vegetal bent, such as Alsatian Riesling, as well as pinot blanc and pinot gris. He favors wines from the chardonnay and Chenin blanc grapes as well.

Rightly, Passard blames standard vegetarian cuisine – with an approach that is based more on fear of food than on a love of flavors and variety -- for giving vegetables a bad name. He hopes that his approach, based on pleasures and delights and discovery will open our eyes. It is exciting, after all, for us to watch a top French chef delve deeply into this cuisine, attacking aromas and colors, nuances and fresh flavors. His experimentations with smoking, with slow cooking, with spices and condiments, flowers and fruits, with marvelous reduced vegetable stocks all have merit and can only open us up to an entirely new style of cooking.

Passard, who is 45, opened Arpege in 1986. He has had three Michelin stars since 1996. When he told Michelin of his plans, they suggested that is move was courageous.

“I am putting all the cards on the table. Putting myself and my entire career in question. My three stars, the public, my clients,” he says. Only time will tell.

84 rue de Varenne
Paris 75007
Telephone : 01 45 51 47 33.
Fax : 01 44 18 98 39.
Closed Sunday and Monday. All major credit cards. A la carte, 700 to 1550 francs, including service but not wine.