Alain Passard was born in 1956 in La Guerche in Brittany. He was initiated into the pleasure of food by his grandmother Louise Passard, who was a skilled cook. They shared a close bond, the grandson gleaning culinary secrets over his mentor’s wood-fired range, where Louise Passard could usually be found. It wasn’t long before Alain began to have his own creative ideas, on which the two would happily collaborate. Once she recognised her grandson’s passion for cooking, Louise Passard introduced him to all its pleasures: the enjoyment of eating, the excitement of the market, the frenzy of preparation – everything involved in transforming a meal from a ritual to a celebration. Considering the success that was to come, it was an invaluable experience.
Alain Passard started his career at the Lion d’Or in Liffré, where he worked from 1971 to 1975 with Michel Kéréver, one of the rare Michelin-starred chefs in Brittany at the time. Here he refined his cooking techniques, learning new skills such as serving large groups and mastering the preparation of poultry chaudfroid, lobster en Bellevue, tiered pastry creations, and clams with truffle sauce. Next, from 1975 to 1976, he worked with chef Gaston Boyer at the three-star Michelin restaurant La Chaumière, reputed for its classic French cooking. Then in 1977, he joined chef Alain Senderens at L’Archestrate, where he found himself in an exceptional atmosphere. Alain Passard would come to view this experience, as part of a team bustling around the restaurant’s small kitchen, as a baptism by fire; here, cooking and passion were inextricably linked. The result was inspirational.
After three years at L’Archestrate, in 1980 Alain Passard started his solo career as a chef at Le Duc d’Enghien in Enghien-les-Bains, north of Paris, where he obtained two Michelin stars. He was 26 years old. Four years later, he went to the Carlton in Brussels, which also gained two Michelin stars. Finally, in 1986, he opened L’Arpège (formerly L’Archestrate), at the intersection of Rue de Varenne and Rue de Bourgogne in Paris, which immediately began to accumulate honours, culminating in three Michelin stars on its tenth anniversary in 1996.
Since 2000, Alain Passard has been refining his menu to concentrate on products from the sea and the soil. “I feel that I’ve fully explored poultry and red meat; today, my inspiration comes from vegetables. I have deliberately chosen to take 12 classic house specialties off the menu and I have no regrets about it. It is a conscious reappraisal of what I want to create. I feel that this fantastic adventure is allowing me to follow my passion.” In keeping with this new direction, Alain Passard focuses on aromatic herbs and spices to bring out the flavours for which he is searching. His goal is to create a cuisine that has not yet been explored to its full potential. For Passard, working with vegetables is a means of encouraging the replanting of the earth: of learning a new language with a new vocabulary.
This ambition gave rise to the three kitchen gardens currently cultivated for L’Arpège. The first was established in the Sarthe in 2002, the second in the Eure in 2005, and the third in the Manche in 2008. Maintaining three gardens in three different regions gives the vegetables a true taste of terroir: the sandy soil of the Sarthe is discernable in the carrots, asparagus and leeks; the clay of the Eure in the celeriac and cabbage, and the alluvial soil of the Manche in the herbs and spices. “Today, for a total surface area of six hectares, we discuss carrots and beetroot like one would discuss Chardonnay or Cabernet Franc – our aim is to grow vegetables that are grand cru!” The gardens produce 40 tonnes of vegetables a year using methods that are 100% natural, including animal-drawn equipment for cultivation and harvesting. This gives L’Arpège the rare, if not unique, advantage of being self-sufficient in vegetables, herbs, spices and certain fruits. Twelve gardeners work at the three sites to provision the restaurant with the produce it requires, as well as supplying selected customers when the harvest allows.
For all these reasons, dining at L’Arpège is a truly unique experience. Alain Passard is an artist–creator who has discovered his calling and shaped his career as he has wished, disproving the critics who predicted a bleak future for the chef when he started out. So much the better for us!