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Thursday, March 04, 2021

The French Connection: Chef Alain Passard on how fruits and vegetables are his true heroes

He also talks about the grand feast he's helming at Amer Fort.

Written by Anjali Abhyankar |
Updated: December 10, 2017 12:02:35 am
Alain Passard King of green: Alain Passard (L) and one of his signature dishes. (Photo: Anjali Abhyankar)

At 9 am on a foggy November morning in the capital’s Aerocity, Alain Passard sips his coffee with evident relish. It’s hard to believe that the sixty-three-year-old Michelin starred-chef just stepped off a flight from Paris mere hours ago and, even as we chat over uttapam and parathas, is readying for an onwards flight to Jaipur.

Arguably the world’s best-known vegetarian chef, Passard is helming a super-select cocktail dinner at Jaipur’s historic Amer Fort that will kick off Bonjour India, an Indo-French collaborative festival that will run until February next year.

Though the prospect of cooking in an alien environment may be daunting, Passard, chef-owner of L’Arpege, Paris, is confident that what works in France will work in a fort thousands of miles away!

This confidence isn’t misplaced as Passard is no stranger to taking risks. Back in 2001, he stunned his patrons when he decided to take meat off his menu at L’Arpege — unheard of in a country with a strong tradition of meat and charcuterie. And Passard was at its vanguard, having spent over three decades perfecting the art of slow roasting meats. “I felt I had learned everything I could from meat, and, as a chef, I felt I needed to take a risk and do something different,” he says.

Poultry and fish appear occasionally on the menu, but red meat is still a strict no-no. L’Arpege — French for harp, in tribute to his musician father — has now become synonymous with its innovative pairings and all things vegetarian. However, Passard admits that his palate is guided by cyclical moods — three months ago he turned vegan, just to challenge his cooking further.

While he may have eschewed meat, traditional French techniques such as confit, normally associated with meats, are now lovingly and painstakingly applied to cooking vegetables: a traditional steak classic has thus evolved into a beetroot tartare, “There is a creativity with vegetables that you don’t find with animal tissue. There is a lot of enchantment in vegetable cookery,” he explains.

Today, Passard is as much a farmer and crusader as he is a chef. Wanting complete control over the quality and seasonality of his produce, Passard purchased three farms outside Paris in 2002. Focussing on natural, sustainable agricultural practices, everything is sourced responsibly and home grown, making for very low carbon footprint.

Growing up in a small village in coastal Brittany, Passard had creative influences close by, very early on. His father was a musician; grandfather a sculptor, and his grandmother a cook. A dab hand himself with the saxophone, Passard says, “They taught me the importance of having a good hand, and that’s what I wanted to pursue. And ever since I was 14, I knew this (cooking) was the most beautiful job in the world. It has filled my memories since.” In fact, Passard credits his grandmother’s eclectic cooking (her seafood stew which back in the day, combined curry powder and parsley) and her handwritten cookbook (with some Indian recipes, hence his fascination with India) as his earliest cooking inspiration and memory.

After cooking for close to 50 years, having a “good hand” still resonates with Passard. “Indian cooks have the most beautifully evolved hand for cooking and blending flavours,” he says, and his main fascination, it seems, is with Indian breads, “I would love to transport a tandoor back to France, just for the breads.” Passard sings paeans to parathas and naans, and mentions curry powder as an inspirational flavour; though, he admits to using very few spices in his own cooking. “My fruit and vegetables are the true heroes so I like very little interference from distracting ingredients,” he says.

Given this sentiment, it is surprising to learn that Passard enjoys Indian food immensely, which, despite being rich in its vegetarian base, relies heavily on the liberal use of spices and protracted cooking times. “I have a lot of Indian diners and patrons at my restaurant in Paris. Getting them in is the easy part, being a primarily vegetarian restaurant — the surprise when they see the simplicity and respect with which we treat the produce, that is the true reward.” His celebrated ‘Bouquet De Roses’ apple tart — which features on the dinner menu at Amer Fort — for instance, honours both the fruit and the floral shape it is inspired by.

A description of his food philosophy reveals the union of Passard’s two passions—music and cooking, “I think the movement is towards seasonality and finding a rhythm and place for cooking slowly in our daily life. And when you go to a restaurant, you will witness the singularity of the chef’s oeuvre, much like a good play or opera.” When it comes to describing his own cooking, he is more reticent, “I don’t want to be labelled or compartmentalised.

Perhaps, after my death, someone will come up with a signature term,” he says charmingly tongue-in-cheek. Indeed, that perhaps may prove to be Alain Passard’s epitaph, but for the moment his final advice is, “always stay passionate and motivated and have the will to work.”

The writer is a Delhi-based lifestyle journalist.

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