The first international chef to chat to Élodie Nöel in our My Life in Plates series is the highly-celebrated French chef Alain Passard of three-Michelin-starred L’Arpège.
Alain Passard was recently awarded the Chefs’ Choice Award at the World’s 50 Best, while his Parisian restaurant, L’Arpège, took 8th place at the prestigious ceremony.
Detaching himself from the traditional French high cuisine, the chef decided to place the focus of his plates on vegetables when he took meat off the menu at his restaurant 20 years ago, bringing vegetables from side dish to centre stage.
Here, Passard chats about the dishes and flavours that marked his life.
What is your first memory of taste?
"I was born in Brittany so it was mostly shellfish. I remember eating them when I was 7 or 8 years old. In Brittany, we are raised eating seafood, fish that is just fresh out of the water. And it comes with a nice slice of toasted bread with butter."
What is the dish that made you want to be a chef?
"Truth is, it wasn’t a dish; the cycle of the seasons made me want to be a chef. My grandparents had a vegetable garden, I spent a lot of time there with them. I realised that nature had written a fantastic poem and that made me want to cook. I was determined. At 12 years old I knew what I wanted to do and that’s all there ever was for me. I was born in a very artistic family, my dad was a musician, my mum a seamstress, my grandfather was a sculptor, and I had a grandmother who cooked exceptionally well."
What is the dish that could make you cry?
"It depends on the season! Honestly, there is more than one... At the moment, it’s the summer, so I’d say the aubergine. It’s all about associations – a tomato on its own is delicious, but what is truly beautiful is the harmony. For example, I love a simple tomato carpaccio served with olive oil, no salt, no vinegar, the most simple dish ever. That way, you get the true taste of the tomato, there is no makeup. And we don’t peel the tomato, they come from our natural gardens."
Are your gardens organic?
"Our work is 100% natural, but unfortunately, it’s not the case for our neighbours, so we can’t use this word. Nobody can claim to be 100% organic nowadays. There is contamination in the groundwater, cereal producers spray pesticides when it’s windy, etc."
What is the dish that you don’t get?
"There are many! All those dishes which mix summer and winter in the same pot. I don’t understand why one would cook with tomatoes in January, use courgettes in February, peppers in December… It’s not my philosophy, it’s not what nature wrote. So, inevitably, this way of cooking gets out of line. It’s heresy because nature never wrote that there would be tomatoes in a garden in January; a tomato is a glass of water, it’s made to quench your thirst when it’s 30°C in the summer. Not in January when it’s 0°C. These menus that are the same all year long, it’s unacceptable. It’s an insult to nature’s plan."
What is the dish you wish you had created?
"There are plenty. I wish I created Pierre Troigros’ Salmon with sorrel sauce. I wish I created the Vol-au-vent, or Fernand Point’s Saucisson en brioche."
What is the dish you can’t admit you love?
"There is none, I have nothing to hide. I respect nature and the seasons. I am perfectly in line with what nature has created. For a treat, I am very fond of great traditional pâtisserie, like a St-Honoré with crème Chiboust, a Paris-Brest. I love tarts, like a simple apple tart cooked in a wood-fired oven and made with real apples picked on the tree in September. These kinds of dishes can move me deeply. And I love chocolate mousse, of course, when it’s perfectly done."
What is the dish you could eat every day for the rest of your life?
"I am not a creature of habit. Every day, I try to give myself new emotions, visually and in terms of taste and smell. I get sick of things quite quickly, I need to feel things to live."
What is the dish you are most proud of?
"It doesn’t exist yet!" He laughs. "It will come someday, hopefully… Cooking is like music, writing, or dancing, every day is the first day, and every day of work allows you to write another line, come up with new words, add a new flavour, a smell, a new musical note. I don’t think a lifetime is long enough to achieve your passion."
What is the dish that represents your cuisine the best?
"I don’t think it’s a dish, it’s more a spirit. Fire is an essential element in my cuisine, so are sauce and seasoning. It’s a “cuisine légumière” – vegetables are my trademark."
Is it a challenge for you to offer a vegan menu?
"It’s more than a challenge, it’s probably the hardest cuisine in the world to master because a recipe without butter, cream, cheese or egg needs to be really good. This is where the difficulty lies. It’s a cuisine that requires a huge amount of work and that’s what interests me. One day, I’ll make my restaurant 100% vegan. It’s a wonderful challenge for a chef."
Is it a cuisine that you personally enjoy?
"I can go on vegan diets for three or four months. Sometimes I can feel clogged up, I reject animal meat, cheese, butter, so this diet makes me feel much better and also it makes me work a lot. It’s an incredibly artistic cuisine, requiring strong skills and that’s why only a handful of chefs do it. Cooking something tasty without butter, cream, cheese, eggs, it’s hours and hours of work. Work is all I care about. This type of constraint is what stimulates my creativity."
What is the dish that reminds you of your mother?
"It’s a dessert, a rice pudding, with caramel in the bottom of the pan. We used to eat it about once a week when I was a child. It was wonderfully made and served with crème anglaise. It was art. I can’t achieve the same result, there was a softness to it and it was so smooth. We used to make it with raw cow's milk, which we got from the farm. It was very creamy, and I never managed to replicate this taste."
What is the last dish you had?
"I haven’t had lunch yet, but for breakfast, I had soft-boiled eggs. I like it in the morning, it gives me energy. An egg can be a true masterpiece, it’s an ingredient which can unravel unexpected creativity. I like it with bread from the farm, slightly toasted, with salted butter. For a good soft-boiled egg, it’s three minutes in boiling water, if the egg is room temperature. You need to take it out of the fridge the night before. I like when the white is barely cooked. In the morning, I also have green tea. I drink very little coffee. I love the flavour of great Japanese Sencha teas. I get them from Japan, between the Pacific Ocean and Mount Fuji. I can drink it all day."
What is the dish you’d make for the person you love?
"A soft-boiled egg!"He laughs again. "There is a real message in an egg. It’s birth, it’s lightness with the white, smoothness with the yolk. When you love someone, you want lightness, smoothness, softness. You want to have a child with the person you love."
What is your death row dish?
"Very simple. It would be six sea urchins from Brittany, freshly opened, with a glass of dry white wine, a Sauvignon for example. These are flavours that would remind me of my whole life."
What is the next dish you have in mind?
"At the moment I’m working on an idea that is rather complex, I’d like to cook a jardinière in a pig bladder. It’s a nod to the classic Poularde de Bresse en vessie (chicken cooked in pig bladder). We have been cooking meat in bladder for a long time; I think cooking vegetables that way would bring some interesting flavours."
Author: Élodie Nöel
Élodie is a French journalist who relocated to Dublin about three years ago. She immediately fell in love with the island and its amazing food and has been writing about it on her blog Lemon Lipstick. You can follow Élodie's food adventures on Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and Tumblr.