Where do you begin with a celebrity whose name is tossed around in culinary nobility, whose fare is highly prized and an experience to aim for, who creates art with organic ingredients and lets the food do the talking more than he… There´s all this flourish and the language barrier to add to it. But begin we must, and so we do, not completely lost in translation, with a little help from friends; enlightened in his presence and confident that food will be the universal language.
High Tables brought forth haute cuisine from the award-winning hands of Chef Alain Passard to commemorate the third edition of Bonjour India – the four-month long festival of friendship between France and India, spanning 33 cities, to provide a deeper insight into the bourgeoning relations between the two countries and explore future partnerships. So first, tell us Chef, “What will you be serving at the dinners in Bombay and Delhi´, the former of which we were euphoric to partake in at Vetro at The Oberoi to experience a taste of L´Arpege in India. “This is my 11th trip to your country, so I have generated a sense of the palates here, having travelled to several states, yet each time is different from the last,” responds Chef Alain,
“This time around, it´s an extensive spread, of Tasting and Vegetarian menus, handcrafted to suit the occasion.” Take a look at the Vegetarian Menu inclusive of Jerusalem Artichoke Veloute with horseradish cream to start off to the White Asparagus with Green Tea and fresh sorrel; the Beetroot Meatball and Fennel with smoked tomato sauce and Bouquet de Rose with caramel sauce to finish. Vegetarian vignettes that the chef takes pride in.
Rewind to 2001 when L´Aperge jumped on to the veg wagon, and vegan furthermore, and you get an insight into the importance of legumes on the menu at the 3-Michelin establishment that is on the World´s Top 25 Restaurants to Dine at today; that brought about an evolution in the method of cooking, eating and dining right from its inception in 1986 and that continues to keep its founder at the top spot, not just in Paris, or in Europe, but the world over. “So what made you shift drastically from meat to mock meat´, we tease. Says Chef Alain, “I acquired acres of farms in 2001, about a mile from Paris and I planted fruit trees which I used in my food at L’Aperge. Today, too, I love using these as well as celery in the winter and beetroot, leeks and turnips. There is such a veritable abundance of organic goodness to benefit us within and the environment without.” The men at Michelin defend their rating of L´Aperge as, “Precious woods and a Lalique crystal decor provide the backdrop for the dazzling, vegetable-inspired cuisine of this culinary genius. He creates his astonishing dishes from organic produce grown in his three vegetable gardens´. Creativity and variety, with subtlety, these are the tenets of his cooking, where the freshest, highest quality of ingredients make up a garden – le jardiniere du Passard – brimming with colours, flavour, forms, character. It´s a radical, theatrical performance and all the world´s Alain Passard´s stage. “And how do you put to rest the tiny bit of heresy surrounding L´Aperge that it is ridiculously expensive for a vegetarian meal?´ Read Euro 800! States the chef with ease, “The first menu for lunch is priced at Euro 175 and a 12-course dinner is at Euro 400. Dissenters will come and go, the show must go on.”
Creative cunning and simplicity stems from his training and learning under mentor Chef Alain Senderens from whom he purchased then restaurant L’Archestrate and created L´Aperge – earning him his first Michelin-star in that very same year and two thereafter. By 1996, Chef Alain Passard was among the handful with 3-Michelin-stars which he has retained since and ensures it takes his baby to the heights – right now at No 19 on San Pellegrino´s prestigious World´s Best 50 Restaurants. The man himself has received their Lifetime Achievement Award (2016) and a significant cultural recognition for fostering French culture in the “pepite” at the Lalique Globale Cristal Awards prior (2010). After all, he did place culinary gems on the plate in a land where meat rules the roast (pun intended)! Which brings us to the handcrafted Tasting Menu at High Tables.
To whet the appetite, we had Chef Alain´s signature Hot and Cold Egg with 5 Spices, of warm poached yolk with sherry vinegar-infused whipped cream, chives and Canadian maple syrup; a Creamy Celery Risotto with Black Truffle; Braised Lobster with Fresh Peas in yellow wine sauce and Roasted Lamb Chop with aubergine caviar. Desserts remain the same for the plant and meat eaters. “I eat everything!” exclaims Chef Alain. “I need to. L´Aperge did go non-meat for those many years but today we have meat on the menu again, fish and chicken et al, though in limited quantity. On my farms, interestingly, you will find chicken and cows as my pets for that´s the life I lead. Simple and rustic, in tune with nature.” There´s less travel undertaken as well and more time spent on his interests which revolve around music, sculpture, painting and amassing a collection of his artworks in his gallery.
Would it surprise you to know that he can wield a saxophone with as much passion and dexterity as he can a knife! “I come from a family of musicians and it was my grandmum who taught me everything I know today in the world of cooking.” With no formal education, Chef Alain went on to gain experience of traditional cooking methods at Le Lion D´Or and the art of precision at La Chaumiere. It is a wonderful profession, noble and in service, but most importantly one based in creativity which is of course instilled in me from my family.” Art is art in all its wondrous forms. And cooking touches upon all five senses resulting in the ultimate experience.
When you throw in equal, if not more, amounts of hard work and foresight into this cauldron, you get a successful chef who knows how to please his guests and stay at the top of his game. Lest we leave out a little known fact that creative ingenuity bears strains of insanity, remind us, for it takes bit of both to foster an evolution. Whether it be shutting down your multiple Michelin-starred eatery at the age of 40 and disappearing for a year to come back and change the taste of it entirely or never having written or recorded a recipe, not one single one, ever! Or refraining from the “norm” of expanding your brand and sticking to just one restaurant, literally one L’Aperge.
Then is a fourth Michelin star next for the one L´Aperge? “I do not clamour for one. Yes, I challenge myself and think outside the kitchen, but what has to be shall be,” smiles the chef who is not to be defined by vegetarian cooking but by the ability to cook vegetables innovatively, who “exposes” his skill and his creations with a unique “Arriére” Cuisine concept a few metres away from his fine-dine and who believes people must enjoy every nuance of the food they consume. “People in India love to eat and I quite enjoy the street food from all over, especially the variety of vegetables available in abundance. I will keep coming back,” Chef asserts. Yes, you must. Probably succeeding his trip to the Australian outback, where seafood and vegetables abound, or post a skydiving expedition that he indulges in oftentimes.
Chef Alain Passard really is action-packed.
This article was published in the UpperCrust Apr-Jun 2019 issue. Photographs are courtesy UpperCrust magazine.