Alain Passard is a culinary legend.
And l'Arpège, his Parisian restaurant on rue de Varenne, is partially responsible for his legacy. It was at this address where he got his start by assisting Alain Senderens at l'Archestrate and first experienced the hardships of the profession. He purchased the restaurant from him in 1986, giving it the name it carries today. There, he was progressively awarded one, two, and then three Michelin stars, which he has since kept as he continuously refines his cuisine. It is inside those walls that he perfects dishes such as his famous "poulet au foin" (chicken cooked in hay), and passes on knowledge to the young, bright, upcoming chefs in his kitchen.
But it was a decision that he made in the late 90s that forever changed l'Arpège: Passard abandoned red meat and re-centered his cuisine around three elements that he deemed far more essential: fish, poultry, and vegetables. Most of all, vegetables. Sylvain Picard, head of one of the three vegetable gardens that supplies l'Arpège, politely remarks that his boss did a 180 by cutting "all ties with animal tissue." Passard himself remains more poetic on the subject, explaining that he decided to devote the entirety of his art to vegetables in order to "master the raw materials" and transform any vegetable he touches into a "grand production."
And yet, early this past November, Alain Passard was prepared to set aside his vegetarian-friendly habits for one day on his property at Bois Giroult de l'Eure. He has accepted an invitation to take part in the annual challenge of the Aberlour Hunting Club, a seasonal restaurant that celebrates Saint Hubert (the patron saint of hunters) by inviting a chef to dream up three exceptional dinners centered around game meat and single malt pairings. Thus, in the middle of the Normandy countryside where he typically goes hunting for mushrooms and vegetables, Passard plans to cook wild game, for real.
It's already pitch black outside when we reach the chef's Normandy retreat, an hour and a half from Paris. It's pouring rain, and we can barely make out the edges of the building that he bought in 2005. He settled here in order to establish a new, gigantic vegetable garden that stocks the pantries at l'Arpège with fresh, seasonal ingredients, and also, perhaps, to escape the chaos of the capital whenever he damn well pleases.
At the end of the main alley, a sizeable, rectangular edifice appears with its large windows and old stones. Inside an immense reception hall—once in ruins, but newly refurbished—the chef is expecting us for dinner.
In a nod to his client (for whom everything begins over the stovetop), the architect devised an entryway that leads to an open kitchen. The staff from l'Arpège is in full swing, setting up tables and prepping for the feast that is about to happen. A few feet from the front door, Passard is working hard in the kitchen. Our arrival barely seems to have broken his concentration and yet he still turns to face us, waving a tasting spoon. "Hey, boys! Don't just stand there. Come here."
We put down our coats, shake our umbrellas, and then his hand; one that's produced tens of thousands of legendary dishes and suffered many a knife injury in the process. "How was the trip?," he asks, before telling us more about his home. "This place is for comrades; for friends. We organize a lunch about once a month out here so that people can come see the garden. Tonight is going to be delicious because I picked plenty of good things from the garden."
The "garden" he speaks of is over 12 acres and employs five gardeners. Along with the Gros Chesnay—located near Mans—and the Porteaux garden, in the Mont Saint-Michel Bay, the Bois Giroult property is Passard's third vegetable garden. Raspberries, strawberries, and root vegetables such as beets, celery, and kohlrabi are grown here in the clay soil typical of the Normandy region before making their way to the tables of l'Arpège. Passard seems to place as much importance on growing the vegetables as he does on cooking them. He has nothing but praise for the gardener's profession—especially when it comes to the work of Renaud, his year-round gardener: "The garden is an artistic terrain. Curiously, gardeners have been somewhat forgotten, but they are artists in their own right, with incredibly well-developed senses—it's uncanny."
Tonight, however, we have come to see him cook wild game. And we shall get game, even if he consistently brings the discussion back to the things that comes out of the earth—out of professional habit, perhaps, or simply blind passion. "Basically, game meat isn't really my thing. I prefer vegetables. But there isn't much of a difference in how you approach a duck versus a chicken. The important thing is to memorize what you've put on the stove or in the oven and play with it."
Discreetly, the maître d' nods at the chef and Passard gets the message that service is about to begin. He invites us and the 30 other guests to sit at a table which stretches almost 33 feet long and faces the kitchen, reaching towards the immense fireplace at the other end of the room. From this new perspective, we are taken aback by the ease with which the chef directs his staff: gently, fluidly, unhurriedly.
He seems relaxed in his long apron, which falls at his ankles, and inside of which he seems to control everything. From a distance, one can tell that he takes pleasure in orchestrating this improvisational choreography; a sizzling, Passardian dance. He moves with the sounds of the kitchen from one task to the next, his shoes gliding across the floor tiles.
A classic l'Arpège amuse bouche comes out first: a "chaud-froid," an egg with four spices and maple syrup. The egg is opened while still raw, using a toqueur to ensure even breakage. The whites are set aside, and the yolks become reincorporated and cooked inside the shell in 160° F water. Once cooked, a cold whipped cream composed of the egg whites, fleur de sel, the famous "four spices," Xérès vinegar, and fresh chives are added. The maple syrup comes in at the end, giving the dish a note of sweetness that oozes out of the shell, and good enough to sing about.
The appetizer comes next: a Chausey lobster grilled in "armoricaine," a classic sauce made from fresh fish stock, tomato, brandy, curry, and clarified butter that's absolutely delicious. The lobster melts in your mouth. To satisfy those with big appetites, the chef was wise enough to leave a few extras out on the table.
We decide to pay Passard a quick visit in the kitchen, where he is busy with a large casserole, preparing a broth from what's left of the lobster. Later, he'll filter the broth and improvise a nage. Despite our unscripted interruption, he offers us a taste: "You'll see, it's basically spring water." Lured by such a metaphor, we grab the spoon as he stands in suspense, watching closely for the early signs of sheer ecstasy. As the first mouthful hits our tastebuds, he seems thoroughly amused with himself and yells "PAOW!" without warning, the sound of exploding flavors.
We sit back down at the long table in time for the first main course: wild boar with endive confit in a mead sauce. This is the first appearance of game tonight (and baby boar, no less), and yet the star of the plate is the endive: it's cooked to perfection and gently charred to bring out its character and titillate your organoleptic receptors.
We catch Passard as he's running back to the kitchen so he can put words to what we've just experienced: "The burnt edges are an artistic technique; it's what we used to call 'the grill.' Cooking with a wood-fired oven is a type of cooking where the imprint of the fire is much more powerful: You can taste its golden flavors, it's a little more humid, and just really something else! What's remarkable is that it requires the cook's full attention. That's how you learn the most."
On his way out with a firm step, he concludes, "In this dish, the sauce does everything."
The second wild game dish is a masterpiece of culinary eugenics: a haute couture, pheasant-mallard combo. Rather than deciding between serving pheasant or duck, the chef took out his sewing needle and cooking twine like a makeshift surgeon and fused the two wild fowl together, stunning our palates in the process.
It is yet another example of Passard's ability to master every element, from the prep to cooking. "My cooking demands that you apply yourself. You have to be able to play the music of each ingredient, and in order to do that, you have to control each gesture. If you mess up, it's because you failed to hear the fire's quiet chant," Passard explains.
For dessert, he brings a miniature version of his famous "Bouquet of Roses" apple tart. After developing the concept in total secrecy, he has been serving this creation since 2011. Like a pastry goldsmith, Passard lays out his apple slices vertically, topping them with a filet of milky caramel. Rolled up as straight as arrows, the thin apple strips are meant to give off a stronger aroma, transforming into different hues of rose while baking.
As we lift our forks to our plates, Passard discusses the organic relationship between chefs and their kitchens—something that, according to him, is becoming lost altogether. "In the kitchen, there should always be a sense of pleasure. We become robots with all these programmed things, from thermometers to sous-vide machines. What happened to the school of fire? Where is the flame now? It's a formidable power, and unfortunately, it's on the brink of extinction. Before, there were exchanges. Today there is nothing. The work of the cook is to get his hands in the pot."
Passard runs his own hand through his hair as he emphasizes the concept of "erasing the gesture"—a dogma in his kitchen. "The whole point is to understand how to erase the hand, how to delete the gesture. You can create an incredibly creative space with just three small actions. You have to know how to master your senses in the kitchen as though you were working with a famous perfumer."
The evening is dying down. While guests search for their winter coats and hats, the chef discreetly retreats to the fireplace. As always, he likes to stay close to the fire. He strikes his final match of the evening to light a cigar, one of his guilty pleasures. "Ah, well, that's my own personal dessert. It's my mille-feuille," he retorts in a cloud of smoke.
Sprawled in his chair, he savors the smoke and a whisky, and starts dozing off. He's exhausted as any pro-vegetarian chef would be after being asked to cook meat all night long.