PARIS – Back in 2001, in the throes of a “mad cow” crisis, chef Alain Passard flung himself into turning his three-Michelin star restaurant into a temple dedicated to worshiping vegetables that he grew himself, a move he says saved his life.
“I wouldn’t know how to cook if I didn’t have my gardens. I don’t know how I would do it. Vegetables saved my life,” Passard told EFE in an interview.
In the kitchen gallery of L’Arpege, his restaurant in the Rive Gauche area of Paris, onions, beets and asparagus take center stage in the artworks surrounding the chef. He painted the pieces himself using collage, recreating some of his recipes, like asparagus, pear with lemon and red sorrel, or mushrooms with lemon and thyme.
His restaurant is a favorite of French President Emmanuel Macron, who took the King and Queen of Spain there to dine during an official visit last year. It is also among the best eateries in Europe, claiming the top spot on the Opinionated About Dining’s list two years running (2016 and 2017).
In 2016, Passard was recognized as the world’s best chef by La Chef magazine and he picked up the Diners Club Lifetime Achievement award.
Suffice to say that his move toward vegetables was worth it: meat and fish have become accessories to his menu, only featuring in one dish each day.
“Doing this 20 years ago plunged me into unknown territory,” he said, adding that lots of chefs wouldn’t have bet on his approach. “It was also complicated with the customers, the restaurant was empty, there was nobody, but we started from scratch,” he continued.
At the end of July, he will offer a master class in wartime cookery, inspired by the book that sold the most copies in 1940, “Cuisine et restrictions” (Cuisine and restrictions) by Edouard de Pomiane, a means of exploring the inventiveness of opening a fridge and moving away from the excesses of meat.
“At the end of the war there were huge restrictions on meat. People were eating lots of vegetables so when the war ended there was a meat party, it was put on a pedestal and vegetables became the garnish,” he said.
“But it’s coming back, it just needs time.”
Passard’s advice for good cooking is to keep it simple, concentrate on quality produce and to pay attention to the seasons. He also advises foregoing overpriced organic products in favor of setting up a vegetable patch.
And what advice would he give to someone looking to eat well? “Respect the seasons and don’t complicate things. Pick some turnips, carrots, cabbages, onions, garlic, chives, put them in a pan with a little water, a knob of salted butter and leave it to cook. Once the water has evaporated it’s ready,” he says.