Over the years, Passard has managed to make vegetable-based cuisine more than fashionable and now he cooks mostly with produce sourced directly from his farms in northern France.
In 2000 Alain Passard shocked the gastronomic world when he announced that he would stop using red meat in his kitchen. At the time, mad cow disease had spread around Europe, and his move was generally seen as a PR stunt. Although since then the strict rule against red meat has been somewhat relaxed, you still see hardly any beef or lamb in his kitchen. Instead, Passard cooks fish, shellfish, poultry, game and (of course) lots of vegetables. Whilst much of the food at L’Arpège looks deceptively simple, the products used and the techniques are what makes it some of the most distinct anywhere. The produce comes mainly from his farms in the northwest of France. They supply him with formidable vegetables, grown organically. Every day, the fruits and vegetables are sent to the restaurant in the rue Varenne by TGV, which accounts for a part of the costs of a meal here.
Even now, Passard is as fascinated by a beautiful turnip as a little boy is fascinated by a train or firetruck. That explains his approach to cooking, and the philosophy behind it. His techniques are interesting, as he slow-cooks nearly everything on the menu. That is not always the most consistent way of cooking. Since much of the meat and fish is cooked on top of the stove, which means it cooks slowly, it is imperative that you come to the table on time. Otherwise, you risk getting a dry duck leg, or overcooked turbot, which is not ideal when you pay over €100 for a portion. But when you do get there on time, you’ll be amazed at what this kitchen produces.
For a restaurant with such stratospheric prices for both wines and food, the decor is simple. Compared to other Parisian three stars, it is even basic, and barely worth noting, except for the Lalique crystal on the walls. Yet, the restaurant attracts a cult following, due to its spontaneous, inspired cuisine and the charisma of the chef.
As mentioned earlier, Passard is capable of brilliance. The Breton lobster with smoked potatoes and vin jaune from the Jura, for instance, has become a legend. The lobster is meltingly tender and pairs perfectly with the potatoes and sauce. It’s a simple yet incredibly effective dish, minimalist and to the point; which is all that Passard’s food is about.
He advocates a cuisine that demands the least possible human intervention. His beetroot is a great example of this philosophy. Expensive, but oh so good, it will forever fix your idea of what a beet should taste like – earthy, sweet yet salty at the same time. The flavours are complex and challenging in this beautiful dish that comes in at around €60 per portion; incredibly pricey, but incredibly good.
It’s not unusual for Passard to come out of the kitchen just when you’ve finished eating a dish of duck. He’ll tell you about the bird’s liver and insist you try a bit. The finished dish is as simple as the others: a grilled slice of foie gras, with a little sauce from time to time or maybe a date confit. Yet again, the superb product makes it stand out. Here the foie gras is so fresh that even when grilled, the texture stays springy, nearly firm, which you rarely get this with cooked foie gras.
The dishes on the lunch and tasting menus change constantly, depending on Passard’s mood or on what was delivered that morning, so it’s impossible to describe a ‘normal’ menu. But, to sum it all up, this is a cuisine that by no means can be called modern, but seems contemporary in its simplicity. In some ways, one can argue that Passard is the pioneer that has led to the ever more reduced plates that we see in the New Nordic movement.