Alain Passard - Chef, Full Steam Ahead!

“I am looking to the future of cuisine”, says Alain Passard, three star chef who, after thirty years of career knows how to liberate himself from the rules of engagement by a return to the essential with his focus on the humble ingredients of the vegetable garden. With this return to basics, he has created his own vegetable gardens, and by respecting the flavours of the seasons, he proves that simple is best.
After a brilliant debut in his region of origin, Brittany in France, from the age of 24 Passard went on to build his reputation at Gaston's Boyer's La Chaumiere in Reims, followed by a stint at Alain Sederens' Archestrate in Paris. His first restaurant was the Duc d'Enghien at the Casino of Enghien, where he is awarded first one star, and then two, before departing for Bruxelles for two years as the chef of Le Mariton, where in a mere two years he also earned two stars.

But things really started to take off for Passard the moment he returned to Maestro Sederens' restaurant, at the corner of rue de Varenne and rue de Bourgogne in Paris. Reborn as L'Arpège, from this time in 1986, he quickly made himself at home, being awarded the distinction of three stars in 1996, which only served to make the place more inviting.

Twenty-one years later, the same intimacy still exists between chef and his dining room: he will greet the clients to make sure they are satisfied and won't hesitate to join his friends for a coffee or dessert in the middle of this temple dedicated to taste. Certainly, his admirers are delighted to be in close proximity to the chef.

If music be the food of love...

The restaurant, decorated in hues of sand and beige, is sober yet inviting, and gives off an aura reminiscent of art deco elegance, thanks to the Lalique glass and the panelled walls. Pan accompanied by two nymphs can been spotted, and with reason, as music, symbol of this well-named restaurant, l'Arpège, is in evidence throughout the menu. “To cook you must use your ears” says Alain Passard, “which makes cooking the cousin of music.” It will not surprise you to learn that this chef's parents were musicians, and that he is a talented saxophonist.

In the kitchen, (small but ergonomic for the team of 18 who work there), Passard leads as a conductor of an orchestra who knows every instrument intimately, and knows how to maximize its worth. Patisserie, rotisserie - because flame brings food to life - meat, vegetables, and it is since 2001 that Passard has been focusing on a cuisine with greater emphasis on vegetables.

The vegetable gardens set the tone

“I am convinced that in ten years time we will be speaking of vegetables as with certain grands crus,” explains Alain Passard. For this reason he has increased his team to include eight full-time gardeners in the chef's three vegetable gardens sited in different regions of France. The first, originally 1000m2, now covers two hectares. The Arpège's garden is sited on former 19th century vegetable garden in the château du Gros Chesnay in Fillé sur Sarthe. The garden is still laid out using the well-conceived methods of that era: orientation due east, gullies to drain the water, wide alleys to allow the passage of horse and plough... It is Devine, a horse of 12 years experience, who turns and aerates the top layer of soil. Sylvain Picard, the head gardener, ensures that market gardening is practiced naturally here, respecting the soil and ecosystem of the vegetable garden.

“Certain products grow better in the sandy soil of the Sarthe than in the heavy clay soils of the Eure” explains Passard, who also has a vegetable garden at Buis sur Damville. He has also recently acquired another garden at Baie du Mont-Saint-Michel to benefit from the particularities of soil adjacent to a marine environment.

Gardeners and chef experiment continuously with soil and varieties of vegetables to find the best combination and deliver a unique flavour on the plate. “We are not looking to serve something sensational, but rather to serve something exceptional!” notes Alain Passard.

Everything is considered with respect to this alchemy. All artificial products are forbidden. Vegetables, aromatic herbs, red fruits, edible flowers numbering hundreds of varieties, are the result of organic farming and are harvested by the gardeners themselves. A truck delivers daily to the restaurant and brings back all the organic matter from the kitchen to augment the compost heap. Almost self-sufficient thanks to the 20 tonnes of vegetable, herb and fruit produce grown each year, L'Arpège is often sought out to sell its harvest to other restaurants.

“My garden has become our source of inspiration. It lends itself to consideration of colours, drawings, flavours, which help develop the creative spirit of my team.” Choosing a vegetable-based cuisine seemed daring in the beginning, but it seems it was simply the vision of a chef delighted to go green.

Claire CAYLA
Janvier 2008


84, rue de Varenne
75007 PARIS
Tel: +33 (0)1 47 05 09 06