When French chef Alain Passard announced in 2000 that vegetables would be the new focus of his cooking, it was as if David Beckham had declared he was swapping his football boots for a cricket bat. Here was a three-star Michelin chef, of L’Arpège in Paris, who had made his name as a master meat roaster in a country where trained cooks referred to vegetables as la garniture, the garnish. “I hadn’t spoken to a carrot for 30 years,” he says. “We have done nothing so far with a carrot or a leek, when you consider the possible compositions with spices, condiments, flowers, herbs and fruits. Vegetable cooking is the great cuisine of the future.”
Sceptical French journalists wrote that it would never last and food critics gasped at the price of his beetroot baked in salt crust, but thus began a period of becoming acquainted with the plant world and its infinite potential.Twelve years later, Passard’s intimate wood-panelled dining room decorated with his own vegetable collages fills up every night with Parisians and visitors who are happy to pay $375 without drinks to experience his culinary works of art (there is also a lunch menu for $140). Passard, who rarely leaves his kitchen except to check on his vegetable garden in Fillé-sur-Sarthe outside Paris, emerges to chat with diners, his eyes gleaming with enthusiasm for what still feels like a new passion.
“It’s incredible what happened to me,” he says, describing his almost overnight transformation to a vegetable cook.
Passard learned classic French cuisine by apprenticing at top restaurants around the country, and he worked with Alain Senderens at l’Archestrate, Paris, in the late 1970s. But his greatest influences came from within his family. “My father was a musician, my mother a dressmaker, my grandfather a sculptor and my grandmother a cook. Everyone knew how to use their hands.”
As a child, he was fascinated with colour and loved to make collages. This need for colour is what drew him to vegetables after years of meat cookery. “I wanted to bring cooking closer to dressmaking or painting. Animal cookery was no longer enough. There is a lot more room for creativity with vegetables.” Many bistro chefs in Paris (including Passard protégés such as Claude Bosi at Hibiscus and Pascal Barbot at l’Astrance) now feel the same way, featuring pedigreed vegetables on their menus.
Working in his organic garden, where he relies on horses rather than machines so as not to compact the soil, Passard has learned to embrace the changing seasons: “When I started working with tomatoes in July, I hadn’t touched one since October 15th of last year.”
His book , recently published in English, traces his journey of discovery. Who knew, for instance, that baby turnips could go with tomatoes, as in turnips and black tomatoes cooked in Beaujolais, served with boiled eggs? Passard has a particular fondness for tone-on-tone dishes, such as red beetroot with lavender and crushed blackberries, and purple carrots with purple basil and a touch of cinnamon. Braising vegetables in butter over low heat is a favourite technique, as is cooking them for a long time in simmering rather than boiling water, as if to gently coax out their flavour.
For this chef, who has relegated meat and fish to second place without giving them up altogether, there is only one secret to cooking with vegetables. “Respect the seasons, then do what you like and you can’t go wrong. Don’t try to mix winter with summer or spring with autumn.”
French chef Alain Passard is feted by chefs and diners alike for his wildly creative vegetarian cuisine, writes Rosa Jackson.