“When he considers a turnip, it’s like he’s falling in love.”
That passion for turnips sets Chef Alain Passard apart from his peers in the world of haute cuisine. Fine French cooking revolves around meat, and the produce-forward menu at Passard’s Arpège in Paris seems to be its own storming of the Bastille.
The first episode in the French-focused third season of the Netflix documentary series Chef’s Table asks a question that creates a theme for the show: where does creativity come from when pursuing excellence in a tradition as full and developed as French cuisine? In his incredible documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, series creator David Gelb explored mastery and the sacrifice entailed in the rituals of sushi preparation. In previous seasons of Chef’s Table, the chefs featured on the show often sought to fulfill a tradition; it was enough to share the food of your childhood or your culture with the world in the language of fine dining.
But what happens when the rich vocabulary of your cultural tradition feels stale or stultifying? When Passard had a crisis, it was not one of incapacity—he has earned three Michelin stars. Rather, he felt stifled by the need to maintain the standards that had earned him that appraisal. As a chef, he could not sacrifice those standards with integrity, so he sought to escape the expectations placed on him by rejecting meat. It was, a critic says, “A crime against French Culture.”
The fruit of that crime was for a season a menu made entirely of produce. If you’ll forgive a further pun, fruits and vegetables, and even flowers, became the root of all Passard’s work. The day begins for Arpège with the arrival of the produce from Passard’s gardens outside the city. He doesn’t write down his recipes. He cooks what his garden is offering him. There are two gardens, each with a different soil, and he plants where it is best for the vegetable. For as Passard tells us, he asks of his ingredients, “Is everything right for it? It must be happy, like a human.”
Passard, too, is happy, because he’s doing what he is supposed to do—“When I was 14 I decided I wanted to be a chef, and I have never changed my mind”—and he has discovered a way to be both creative and true to the tradition he cooks in. He learned from his grandmother, whose dishes he still struggles to recreate. Though he knows the recipes thoroughly he still wonders if she has withheld a secret ingredient from him; the present never tastes as good as his memories. He learned from a great chef who initiated him into the “school of rigor.” And he apprenticed under Alain Senderens, who operated the restaurant Archestrate in the same building Passard now owns as Arpège. Senderens’ teaching, like the instruction of all great masters, was a “marvelous treasure.”
As Passard continues to challenge himself, however, he also becomes less rigid. What was at first a full rejection of meat has softened somewhat as, for example, Passard embraced a kind of dialectical synthesis, combining what he received with what he created. Now he includes some of the meat dishes that he produced at the height of his traditional service with the menu he created in his rebellion. Even the produce-based dishes reflect this dialectic; an apple tart comes as grandmother made it, but also as Passard has innovated, apple unspooled into ribbons and wound into roses and set in pastry.
Passard’s innovation illustrates the maxim that true freedom is found only in limits. Just like the vegetable, the human is only happy when everything is right for it. Passard has found his greatest creativity and freedom within the limits of French tradition and training, but that hasn’t prevented him from exercising creativity.
With Chef’s Table, David Gelb has produced a consistently beautiful documentary series that is also beautifully consistent in the values it promotes. Gelb’s projects have an immediately recognizable voice to them, one that observes the gestures that demonstrate mastery with the use of simple but easily parodied slow motion and classical music. By limiting himself to France, Gelb has introduced fresh energy to his series as he invites us to pull a chair up to the Chef’s Table and smell the melted butter.