“The best cookery book in the world has been written by nature.” – Alain Passard
If Pierre Hermé is the Picasso of patisserie, Alain Passard is the Rodin of restaurants. Arpège, his left bank maison de cuisine, is located across from the Musée Rodin where he often strolls the magnificent gardens. At his informal 35-seater Art Deco space, there’s no dress code. The only rule is to book ahead to be sure of getting a table.
Most successful chefs diversify, open bistros, consult, travel, not only to make money but also to stay open to the possibilities around them, but for Passard it’s a different story. “When I realised the vegetables and fruits I was buying were not of the quality I required, I decided to grow my own and bought the Château de Gros Chesnay in the Sarthe region near Le Mans.”
One of Alain Passard's kitchen gardens
Today, with a team led by head gardener Sylvain Picard, Passard also has farms in Normandy and the Bay of Mont Saint-Michel to increase his organic herb, fruit and vegetable selection. Each potager (kitchen garden) is chosen for its soil and no tractors are used, just horse-drawn ploughs and lots of hard work. Clients can also order a weekly basket of seasonal jewels from the farm.
“Animals and insects ensure a balanced ecosystem. There are nesting boxes for birds and beehives to ensure effective pollination.” Honey from the hives is used in Passard’s signature mille-feuille dessert. Waste food from the restaurant is recycled, used as compost. Every day, vegetables arrive by fast-train in time for lunch. “Vegetables, the seasons, and colours inspire me, they are my muses,” he admits.
Die-hard organic foodies can order a vegetable basket straight from Mr Passard's garden
At Chez Passard there are as many cooks as there are gardeners in his potagers, and so that each understands the other’s work, every now and then the gardeners (including Sylvain) come to Paris and eat at the restaurant while the kitchen team visits the gardens.
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Alain Passard’s maxim is “the art of gesture,” and his space is an atelier for discussion and creation. “It’s really all about the five senses,” he says from his rotissoire. “And it’s all about the flame,” he insists. “I learned that from my grandmother, Louise Passard.” Mamie Passard’s portrait takes pride of place just outside the kitchen.
Beetroot sushi, photo courtesy of Santos Lemone
Sign up for lunch chez Passard and the first question asked, with the arrival of garden grown radishes, creamy Brittany butter and warm bread is “How long have you got?” If time is not of the essence you’re in for a voyage of discovery. “Any allergies?” Then it’s show-time.
Spider crab, photo courtesy of Alain Passard
“My kitchen is the Comédie-Française: when new apprentices arrive they go straight aux pluches (vegetable peeling) to see how agile they are; I watch the dexterity of their gestures, then, when they’re ready they’re on stage for their first service, their first leading role. Next, I take them to my gardens, to touch the earth, feel the vegetables they’ve been peeling, they return to the kitchen with new and often brilliant ideas.”
The 3-star-Michelin-star chef Alain Passard, photo courtesy of Douglas McWall
Passard, a talented artist, sculptor and musician, admits “My office was becoming an art gallery so I decided to take the empty boutique on 52 rue de Bourgogne, just around the corner from the restaurant, and create my own art space.” Naming it L’Arrière Cuisine (butler’s pantry) it’s a contemporary showcase for Passard’s vibrant creations, which capture and convey his picturesque and passionate pursuit for a technique revealing a clever balancing act of colour and texture that whets both the visual and physical appetite.
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Arpege restaurant, photo courtesy of S. Delpech
For the chef, technique, like taste, constitutes a life-long learning curve. “With the help of blacksmiths from the Art de la Plaine Foundry, Saint Denis, I was able to cast my giant lobster in bronze, to take my work to new heights!” he says proudly.
The Brittany-born chef continues to find the right notes at Arpège and in 2016 he celebrates the 30th anniversary of his restaurant. “We’ll party all year long,” he promises. At Chez Passard, you won’t have any difficulty eating your vegetables, for they never tasted so good.
One of the chef's vegetable gardens, photo courtesy of Aurore Deligny