Not so long along, vegetables played a secondary role on the world’s best tables, back up dancers to a star piece of red meat or fish. But thanks to the visionary work of French chef Alain Passard, vegetables now take centre stage at restaurants around the world, from Los Angeles to Tokyo.
A maître rôtisseur, Passard opened his much-revered restaurant l’Arpège in 1986 and quickly made a name for himself with his impeccable slow-roasted meats. Then in 2001, he stunned the (food) world when he announced that red meat and fish would no longer appear on his menu. He seemed like an eccentric outlier at a time when molecular cuisine and meaty mains were, literally on everyone’s lips. Today he’s looked at as the pioneer of back-to-the-land cooking, not only for his emphasis on vegetables but also for his commitment to cultivating them with the utmost respect.
I had the pleasure of eating lunch a few weeks ago at one of Passard’s three farms, Bois Girault, in Normandy. He cultivates more than 500 varieties of vegetables there, using low-impact techniques inspired from permaculture, a beyond-organic gardening method that uses natural systems and relationships between plants and animals to promote healthy soil for sustainable agriculture. He uses animals instead of machines to work the land, and incorporates natural pest control methods—like pond frogs to eat salad-hungry bugs. Passard’s carefully tended vegetables are driven into Paris every day in time for lunch at l’Arpège; they never see the crisper drawer of a refrigerator, which perhaps accounts for their intense flavour.
Passard sees a world of creative possibility in cooking fruits, herbs and vegetables, far more than in working with animal proteins. Something I particularly like about Passard is his preference for simple vegetables, like the common carrot or turnip, which he manages to turn into rare delights. The succession of bright salads and lightly-cooked vegetables that made up our lunch were proof that he is still being inspired by the garden almost 15 years after putting the harvest at the centre of his cooking. A simple salad twinkled with bright edible flowers, vegetable-stuffed zucchini blossoms were as delightful to look at as they were to eat, and a surprising dessert paired luscious roasted plums with sorrel leaves.
Passard may have shocked the world in 2001, but his dedication and artistry in all things vegetable have taken root. It’s a delight to see the number of restaurant-owned farms cropping up across the world, as more and more chefs realize that Passard was on to something when he walked away from meat all those years ago.