Hubert Burda Media

Of Root Vegetables, Cigars & Women

These are the passions of ALAIN PASSARD, whose restaurant in Paris has earned itself the reputation of maintaining a three-Michelin-star status since 1996. By Paul Ehrlich

You’d imagine that one of the world’s greatest restaurants would do a great steak. But at L’Arpege, which has had three Michelin stars since 1996, the main ingredient in its kitchen is vegetables.
In 2001, its chef and owner Alain Passard astonished the food world by removing red meat from the menu, dedicating himself to cooking primarily and creatively — some say even poetically — with vegetables, supplied exclusively by his three gardens (two for vegetables, one for fruit trees) run completely organically.
Passard recently revisited The Sukhothai Bangkok Hotel to produce a series of lunch and dinner menus featuring innovations of French cuisine. While there, he shared how the dish is his “canvas”.
You are a pioneer, especially in the movement towards kitchen gardens.
It’s my passion. I’m not out to inspire anyone but my clients who visit my restaurant. I’m trying to make vegetables as if they were fine wine, the best of the best that one can enjoy, so people can talk about carrots and other vegetables the way a sommelier would of a wonderful Chardonnay. But if I bought [vegetables] from one of the best suppliers, it would just be someone else’s produce. It wouldn’t be extra special; it wouldn’t have its own identity that it needs to be interesting. I can only do the best in my own garden since I can control the exact quality to my standards and requirements. They are also my sanctuary — I can wander there and get inspiration. I have silence. I can imagine.
You don’t like meat, but are brilliant at cooking it.
I’ve been around meat for a very long time, and cooking it for many years. I understand its popularity, so I can still create beautiful dishes around meat even if I am not personally a big fan of it. It’s about having a passion for food and cooking. If something catches my interest and my eye, it becomes a source of inspiration. It really comes down to the quality of what comes within reach. If on Thursday there’s a higher-quality Bresse chicken, I will use it. If on Friday there’s a beautiful lamb shank, then it will be on the day’s menu. I love diversity in my cooking.
Many Michelin-starred chefs open more than one restaurant — in cities like Tokyo, Las Vegas and New York — to cash in on their fame and reputation. You’re one of the only three-starred chefs to stay put in your own restaurant.
Yes, I just have one address. I love my restaurant. It’s my home. I don’t need to go anyplace else. I have my team here. I have my farms here. My restaurant only has 45 seats. Before and after dinner, I go and talk to each of my guests. I’m extremely happy to hear what they have to say. It is important. It would be too bad if I didn’t hear what people say about my food. If the restaurant is elsewhere and I am not there full-time, it is stupid. It’s just a name. It’s vulgar. It’s not the same at all. I am responsible. The client has to know where the chef is; to be able to talk to him and feel his personal touch. Otherwise it’s not really your own except in name. People also come to my restaurant for big occasions like weddings, birthdays, anniversaries and big meetings. It’s nice that I am there to thank them for choosing my home. Also, my team needs to see me — the cooks, waiters…all of them.
Is that what helps make a great chef?
It’s not about being the best, the greatest, the brightest. It’s about being a teacher. It’s being behind my staff to make them become better. To inspire.
I heard that you’re a bit of a ladies’ man and have three passions — root vegetables, cigars and women.
(Laughs) Well, yes but I also have more passions than those: Bronze-sculpting, for example. My work is in my gallery and appears in my cookbooks.
What do you enjoy eating at home? What is in your refrigerator?
Vegetables. All the vegetables from my garden. I eat lots of salads with beetroots, beans and turnips. I also enjoy soups. I love tomato tarts and caviar d’aubergines — especially putting the aubergine in the oven and making a puree out of it. As I do for my restaurant, I cook at home based on what is most seasonally fresh. In winter, it could be celery and mustard soup. In spring, velouté of asparagus with sorrel. In summer, cold tomato with orange blossom water. Fall could be a sweet chestnut soup with black truffles.
You’ve been to Bangkok before. What is the connection you have with this city?
It has a mystery. Asia really appreciates good chefs. It is also inspiring for my cooking; like the fin sushi legumier a la betterave (fine beetroot sushi) I served here.
What is your culinary philosophy?
I work by instinct mostly. I don’t take too many notes. I work by my senses, instincts, touching and tasting. I have one restaurant so all my passion, interests and thought processes go into this one place. I have more time than other chefs to think about this place. Some of my friends are travelling so much they don’t practice anymore. The chef must be like a painter, a musician, to making cooking like art. I don’t believe in trends. I wouldn’t know one or follow one. I make my own trend.
What would your last meal be?
Nothing. Just drink Chateau Latour 1961.
But if you ate something with it?
Good bread with salted butter (laughs). I was raised on it and I’ll die with it.
What inspired you to be a cook rather than a doctor or painter?
My mother was a tailor and designer. My father was a clarinet and saxophone player. My grandfather, a sculptor, and my grandmother was a cook. So I grew up in a world of artists. Since I like eating, I decided to be a chef. It was that easy for me to choose. I knew by 12-years-old that I wanted to be one. I felt that was my passion right away. I was always amazed by my grandmother working at the fireplace while she cooked. Fire caught my imagination.