“…it is nature that dictates my actions.”
Born in 1956 at La Guerche-de-Bretagne, in Brittany, Alain Passard’s father was a musician, and his grandmother a great cook, by his own description. The dishes she prepared at her wood-fired hearth still linger in his memory, yet, to this day, he finds them impossible to reproduce, hinting at a near-mythical quest for a lost sensual world. She imparted a love for the transformative flame, the “song of the fire,” that she would tell the young boy to listen to. By the time he turned 14, his dream was to become a chef.
He began his career at Le Lion d’Or in Liffré, a small town in his native Brittany where he worked for the Michelin-starred Breton chef Michel Kéréver from 1971 to 75. He learned the fundamentals of classic French cuisine, before joining the kitchen of Gaston Boyer, a renowned classicist, at the 3-star La Chaumière. His first stint at l’Archestrate in Paris was a brief but disproportionally formative experience due to the chef Alain Senderens’ mentoring. In 1980, Alain Passard obtained two Michelin stars at Le Duc d'Enghien at the Enghien Casino, at the age of 26! Another two stars followed at the Carlton in Brussels in 1984.
In 1986, he bought the l’Archestrate from his former mentor, Alain Senderens, and gave the restaurant a new name, l'Arpège, the French term for arpeggio, a chord broken into a sequence of notes. Being a music-lover and saxophone player, Passard may have chosen the term to represent the many elements necessary to create a well-tempered experience.
Some artists venture out and thrive in changing environments; others prefer a stable periphery for inspiration. Alain Passard is of the latter sort. With becoming chef/owner of l'Arpège, he had found his creative home. Redesigning the space to his taste in an Art Deco style, displaying some of his own works as an artist in stained glass and collages, the restaurant quickly grew to be in every way a place of unique artistic expression. How completely his individual vision held sway would manifest itself at the end of the century.
By 1996, l'Arpège had earned its third Michelin star and Alain Passard was known as the master of rotisserie cooking, slow roasting meats to perfection for hours with a passion for the open flame that harked back to his grandmother’s injunction to listen to the song of the fire. But by 1999, his penchant for meats had run its course. He stopped being an active part of his restaurant, considered even to change his profession, until he was struck by the idea of opening his kitchen to the seasons, of letting nature with her infinite riches of things grown from the earth be his exclusive guide. After a year of studies and experimentation, he contacted the Michelin and Gault Millau guides to inform them that all the dishes he had received his stellar awards for were about to be struck from the menu. He would cook exclusively with vegetables. There was shock in the culinary community, and he was warned he might lose the reputation he had built. But Alain Passard, like a true artist, has only ever listened to his heart. The change was made. And the stars remained.
There were no half-measures either. Passard now owns and operates three vegetable gardens in various areas of northern France, where he farms exclusively with organic methods. Plowing is done the old way, with draught animals (tractors pollute, their tires crush earthworms), and habitats for wildlife are incorporated. Hedgehogs and birds and other small predators are welcome to do their share in maintaining the natural order of things. 400 kinds of vegetables are grown throughout the year, strictly in season, together with herb, red and black fruit production. Produce is harvested daily when at its crest and driven to l'Arpège to be used within hours. The menu is a constant act of improvisation, following the dictates of nature.
And, compared to his professional fellows, 534 of whom elected him best chef in the world in 2017, Alain Passard is a sedentary creature. He doesn’t run other restaurants elsewhere in the world, or travel much, other than to his vegetable gardens. He has maintained a 3-star rating at l'Arpège for 20 years, and is hands-on every day, a happy man, flourishing, fulfilled and without equal.