Meet Alain Passard, the greatest vegetarian chef in the world!
It’s a little disconcerting to meet a world-famous three Michelin star French chef when he’s dressed in just pyjamas and slippers. It’s even more bewildering when you know that Alain Passard, this particular chef, perhaps more than any other, has been responsible for a revolution in world cuisine. You’d expect him to be more… imposing. Perhaps even a little pompous. But here he is in his pyjamas and slippers in India, checking out the produce at Tijara Organic Farm, Rajasthan.
Passard, once a master rôtisseur, celebrated for three decades as the purveyor of the most divinely tender slow-cooked meats, is now almost as much a farmer as a chef. In 2001, he took red meat off his menu and to focus on vegetables and fruits instead. That was a huge risk to take at least business-wise, at a time when economies were booming, food was extravagant, and health concerns minimal.
But now, 16-odd years later, Passard is practically the world ambassador of international vegetarian cuisine. Though this position wasn’t something he set out to acquire.
“At the time, I felt I had learned everything I could from meat, and I needed to take a risk and discover something new,” says Passard about his journey as a chef.
Today, his much-revered art deco Paris restaurant, L’Arpège, the name is a tribute to his musician father and his favourite unhurried pastime, the saxophone, has become an icon of creativity with vegetables. Thanks to him, vegetables now take centre stage across the globe, not only for his accent on them, but also for his promise to nurture them with paramount respect.
Passard’s menu is mainly veggie-centric, with a dash of seafood and chicken, but no red meat at all. “There is an allure in vegetable cuisine that is completely transparent,” Passard explains. His prudently tended vegetables are transported into Paris every day, right in time for lunch and dinner at L’Arpège. Never once do they see the crisper drawer of a refrigerator, which possibly explains their penetrating flavours. And once these vegetables are over for the season, they are over. Other veggies come in instead.
Life au natural
For Passard, life revolves around his farms and his kitchen. Wanting total control over his ingredients, he purchased his own farms in 2002, about 138 miles away from Paris.
“We have fantastic asparagus, peas and baby vegetables, and leaves like sorrel from our gardens at the moment,” he says. These are just a few of the 500 fantastic varieties of vegetables he grows by means of natural practices. He fosters connections among plants and animals to boost vigorous soil for sustainability.
His focus is on natural practices. Instead of using machines on his farms, for instance, he uses animals. And when it comes to pest control, chemicals have been replaced with natural pest control methods. A good example is their use pond frogs to eat leaf-ravenous bugs.
“We are at the commencement of everything we are yet to live,” says Passard. “I think we will return to seasonality, and that will increase the place of cooking in everyone’s lives. Because of that, whenever you will go to a restaurant, something unique will happen. You’ll witness the singularity of a chef’s work, just like a good play or an opera.”
Passard comes from a family of creative minds. His father was a musician, mother a seamstress, his grandfather a sculptor and grandmother a cook.
“They taught me the importance of having a good hand, and that’s what I wanted to pursue,” says Passard. “I was also attracted to the gourmet aspect of my profession; the stimulation of all the five senses, the dance and the chant of the fire. I grew up in a small village, filled with good craftsmen. Ever since I was 14, I knew it was the most beautiful job in the world, and it has filled my memories ever since.”
It helped that his mentors were expert chefs like Michel Kerever, Gérard Boyer, Gaston Lenôtre, and Alain Senderens, who taught the ingredients of being a good cook – focus, persistence and precision.
“Always, always stay passionate and motivated,” he says. “You need the will to work, because nothing happens without work. By all means, avoid lassitude. This you can do by always being creative and respecting the seasons. Things work out on their own. What grows at the same time, pairs beautifully at the same time.”
The magic of the Indian bread
At lunch, Passard is fascinated by the food. “I love these tomatoes,” he says. But the Indian village style of making bread blows his mind, and he has to jump in and try it himself.
“I appreciate the the precision and focus of Indian cooks,” he says. “Cooking in India is an art because of its diversity, its simplicity, through its colours, its tastes, and its originality.”
His Paris restaurant serves many Indian customers. “They come with a real passion for the vegetables we serve,” he adds happily. However, he does not advise budding Indian chefs to abandon their country in favour of international kitchens.
He says, “Indian chefs have so much wealth in their soil. I would want to work for them, just so that they can teach me their cuisine, and how to make their bread!”
If he were to make an Indian dish, he says, he would focus on vegetables. “Seasonal vegetables, of course, maybe some melting onions, with a touch of curry, a few turnips with Indian herbs, all very tender,” he says. “I would love to share a four hands menu with an Indian chef, so we could share anecdotes about India’s cuisine.”
* Rapid Fire
What is your favourite comfort food?
Which is your favourite Indian dish?
I love Madras curry.
What do you cook best?
Vegetables and shells.
Do you cook at home?
Which Indian dish would you want to learn?
I would want to learn to make their bread.
How do you deal with a Michelin star inspector?
You can’t really manage them, it’s more them that manage us! It’s a very respectable tradition.
From HT Brunch, June 11, 2017
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