Take a duck, take a chicken, saw them longitudinally and sew together back a half of each. Cook in a cocotte full of hay. Here you have it: the Arpège signature poultry dish, inspired by ballet dancing. Alain Passard is not afraid of mutations,as he proved it in letting go of the flesh in 1998, when he decided that his one and only restaurant would serve only vegetables, a decision scandalous then and worthy of attention for the Ducasse and Robuchon of the culinary scene, them of the 20+ Michelin stars on three continents. Passard has three, for more then twenty years. The concept of executive chef eludes him, as the idea of menu itself. Each opening day, he’s at L’Arpège and operates his magic in person, according to what is delivered from his two gardens. “Gardens saved my life”, he says at the end of this episode. Voltaire is not far, and one muses what the writer would have thought of the Frankenchicken.
Some meat and seafood are back à la carte, but they serve more as punctuation than as the meal grammar. That day in 1998 when the chef decided that he had enough for his three star restaurant to be what he calls “une rotisserie”, he found his true call, whether or not he knew he wanted to be a chef since childhood, when his grandmother taught him “the school of fire”, something that sounds like a part of the dark arts but is the opposite. Playing with fire can make you a witch, but not working with it.
Different topsoils nurture different variety of the same vegetables; this is the essence of taste, and the cook needs the gardener as the gardener needs the cook. There is a lot of humility in the way Passard talks about his career, from his painful apprenticeship with a regal chef to the delight growing his own material brings him. The morning arrival of the vegetables and fruits feels like a nuptial parade, with an equal measure of sensuality and intense concentration. He’s a very quiet man, one that considering his behaviour and his track record you would never think has been accused of crime against the sacrament of French cuisine.
No wonder his true mentor was Alain Senderens, the chef who discovered his true call when he gave back his three stars to do the cuisine he wanted. Passard understood what chef he was after he got his. “A more than apt pupil, could do without so much meat” might have been Sanderens’ final verdict. Passard did that and went far beyond. His tasting menu at L’Arpège costs 150€ and is a succession of 14 dishes, a kaiseki during which fauna can be glimpsed among a rich flora. As three star lunch menus go, it’s the same price than everywhere else. The result, however, might completely change the way you look at a turnip.