Long considered one of the finest and most poetic chefs in Paris, Alain Passard caused a commotion in the world of haute cuisine when he resolved to devote the menu of his Michelin three-star restaurant L’Arpège to vegetables. He then planted a deluxe permaculture garden on the grounds of a chateau 230 kilometers southwest of Paris that now supplies his restaurant, the vegetables zipping north on the TGV to be prepared within a few hours of being picked. Meat was not banished entirely, but since his conversion in 2001, Passard has become France’s first great chef de la cuisine végétale. The “Passard effect” has led to the sprouting of vegetable main courses at other elite Paris restaurants, and in 2011 L’Arpège celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary, all its stars intact despite the move Michelin had initially deemed “courageous.”
Passard conceived of The Art of Cooking with Vegetables to celebrate this anniversary, yet the slim cookbook gives only the slightest hint of the drama and grandeur surrounding its author, his restaurant, and his garden. Rather, it offers a quietly passionate expression of the culinary artist at work in a medium of vegetables, fruits, herbs, and spices. While the book’s title suggests a sweeping philosophy of vegetables or a comprehensive introduction to Passard’s culinary worldview, it is not so much the French companion to Alice Waters’s Chez Panisse Vegetables as a more abstract reflection on color, flavor, and surprising relationships. Its original French title, Collages et Recettes, better captures the work’s scope, a collection of 100 recipes arranged by season and accompanied by the chef’s own kaleidoscopic collages that evoke correspondences between the finished dish and the way that colors and shapes inform Passard’s mode of composition.
Cookbooks occupy an ambiguous territory between fantasy and function, and Passard’s book excels in its demands on the imagination. In doing so, it leaves behind some of the more prosaic details that would ease the leap from perusing dreamily at the kitchen table to taking action at the stove. This is not surprising from a man who has said his last meal would be, “An empty stomach—I would fast and then open the most beautiful cookbook, the one I’ve been waiting for all my life.” Passard’s recipe collages are less compelling as artworks in their own right—photographs of the unusual dishes would likely have been more inviting as well as more instructive—yet their forms emphasize the artistry with which Passard assembles harmonies between unlikely partners. Pink grapefruit and green peas are “two accomplices” that “lead us to an unexpected pleasure garden” (p.28), while “the black tomato in league with the red pepper” are “two big personalities from the summer vegetable garden” that make for “a stunning encounter” of red and deeper red (p.58). Pears and black radishes echo each other on the plate as pale, stewed, “boat-shaped” slices yet layer sticky sweet against a tougher, almost turnipy flavor under a drizzle of buttery lemon juice and olive tapenade (p.82).
These single-gesture or two-note concoctions are deceptively simple, yet their success requires an exquisite intuition for seasoning, techniques, and timing that the spare instructions cannot make up for. In attempting these recipes, the home cook grasps uncertainly at the alchemical je ne sais quoi needed to transform a head of raw red cabbage with pink garlic and tarragon into “a firework which explodes with sparkling flavors” convincing to anyone but the most committed vegetable lovers (p.72). The lavish hues of blood-dark whole beets sprinkled with lavender flowers, set on a sauce of blackberries, purple basil, balsamic vinegar, and soy sauce, emulsified with milk, were intoxicating in the mind’s eye (p.70); yet the chaos that ensued in their preparation plating with two other Passard dishes left this cook feeling more like an aspiring conceptual artist reproducing Sophie Calle’s monochromatic meals from Double Game.
This is not necessarily a failing, however, and quite in line with the spirit of The Art of Cooking with Vegetables. Here, Passard challenges us with the whimsical decadence of getting the odd couple of turnip and tomato drunk together by dousing them with an entire bottle of Beaujolais (p.66) or trying “the simplest recipe in the book,” which entails baking four yellow beets encrusted in 4.4 pounds of salt as though they were lamb or duck (p.94). Contrary to the nutritional wisdom of conventional vegetarian cooking, Passard offers these vegetables as part of an extravagantly unbalanced meal.