At This Paris Restaurant, It’s All About the Vegetables

Produce is the main attraction at L’Arpège.

(Photo: Alain Jocard/Getty Images)

May 6, 2014· 4 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

When the hottest, most humid days hit southeastern Iowa in the summer, sometime around mid-July, the idea of turning on the stove to cook anything is a miserable prospect. When walking is like swimming in a mix of heavy air and your own sweat, standing in front of an open flame is the last thing you want to do.

It’s a good thing, then, that unlike most residents, tomato plants love that kind of weather, the vines hitting their stride when the mercury and humidity are topping out. My dad’s default lunch on such days was a plateful of sliced backyard tomatoes, the Golden Queens and Amish Paste and Mortgage Lifters slicked with olive oil and sprinkled with salt. Sometimes a bit of basil may have been involved too. But even then, the meal wasn’t a salad—it was tomatoes, plain and simple. Remembering eating my own plate of them, a refreshing interlude during long, lazy summer-vacation days, is to recall some of the best meals I’ve had.

A perfect tomato may in many ways be a perfect food, but it’s not the kind of thing a chef can serve straight up at a high-end restaurant. Tomatoes have to be dressed up, topped with burrata or compressed into neat, gelatinous cubes, or deconstructed into different textures—summer’s essence turned crunchy or chewy or shaped into a liquid sphere. Whatever form they take, tomatoes undergo kitchen prep work that’s far more complicated than slicing and seasoning. Because who would pay $12 for a plate of tomatoes?

There is one restaurant, however, where this kind of “single-gesture” dish—sliced tomatoes, or one expertly cooked beet—may appear on the menu. And the pleasure of dining there will run you a few hundred dollars per person.

The restaurant is Paris’ L’Arpège. Opened in 1986 by chef Alain Passard, the restaurant had a 15-year reputation—one that garnered it three Michelin stars—for serving singularly excellent roasts. But in 2001, Passard decided he was through with cooking hunks of veal, lamb, and beef in his signature manner—exceedingly slowly, simply put—and more or less ditched animal proteins altogether. Instead, he’d build his menu around vegetables; a year later he planted the first of three gardens to supply his kitchen with the tomatoes, radishes, turnips, beets, and other vegetables he would cook with the occasional touch of meat or seafood. Mind you, this was four years before The Omnivore’s Dilemma came out, and five years before the New Oxford American Dictionary picked “locavore” as its word of the year. Farm-to-table restaurants in Brooklyn weren’t a thing in 2002, because Brooklyn was barely a thing in 2002. (Diner opened four years earlier, but.)

Basically, it was a revolutionary move, and one that, more than the decade later, is yielding fascinating results—at least according to restaurant critic Pete Wells, who writes about a meal at the restaurant for tomorrow’s New York Times. Wells says that Passard’s cooking “pulled me in like a conversation with a smart, literate, funny friend.”

“When he sent out a mirrored bowl of quartered baby turnips, sautéed in butter, with firm, barely sweetened rhubarb, I leaned forward—wait, what?—then sat up,” he continues. “The carrots and peas and so on tasted as bright and vivid as any I’ve had, but there was something more. If vegetables can have feelings, these did. They tasted happy.”

Passard’s approach is less singular in 2014 than it was at the turn of the millennium. Plenty of restaurants are raising their own produce these days (with varying degrees of dedication and success), and inventive, vegetable-centric cooking—not strictly nor dogmatically vegetarian—has replaced the scourge of the grilled vegetable tower and the grilled vegetable sandwich. But if Passard can cook turnips in a manner that makes one of the United States’ foremost restaurant critic’s ears and taste buds perk up, it’s not just because of his skills in the kitchen—it’s because of his staff’s skills as farmers too.

L’Arpège’s vegetables are grown at three locations, each with a different soil type, and none is so far from Paris that the morning’s harvest can’t make it to the kitchen, via high-speed rail, in time for lunch prep. In 2005, The New Yorker’s resident Francophile, Adam Gopnik, visited the garden at Fillé-sur-Sarthe, which was planted on the grounds of Château du Fros Chesnay a year after Passard traded roasts for greens.

“It is an organic garden but not merely an organic garden,” Mohamadou, one of the gardeners, tells Gopnik. “It’s a vegetable garden controlled by the beasts. Do you know a garden only by its sights and smells? No. You know it, too, by its sounds!”

The visitors cock their heads in the gasping heat and hear: the sounds of birds flying to nests specially provided for them in the orchard; the distant croaking of frogs in the ponds that Passard has dug in order to have natural predators for crop-eating insects; and, off in the further distance, the lovely, slightly ominous buzz of bees.

Building an ecology like this to raise those turnips and rhubarb may be one way to justify charging the $375 that Wells paid for his dinner, but it also speaks to the diverse inputs and influences that are all filtered into one dish at L’Arpège—or a plate of my dad’s tomatoes, for that matter. Organic farming, despite what consumers believe, is guided by a set of regulatory standards, and while it may cut many of the chemicals out of agriculture, it falls far short of this kind of holistic approach to raising crops. Even the mysticism of biodynamic farming doesn’t go quite as far.

Wells was frustrated by Passard’s response to his question about that star dish. “I did not create that dish. Nature created that dish,” the chef said through a translator, which does sound like a distinctly Gallic brush-off—at once dismissive and cocky. But when you think of the frogs that eat the bugs, the vipers that eat the mice, and the bees and other beneficial insects that dart around the gardens, you can see where he’s coming from.

With Gopnik, who speaks French, Passard was more forthcoming, telling him, “One sincere action from the garden is worth six skilled actions in the kitchen.” Which is why he’ll go so far as to serve a main course that’s just a beet—a beet that’s a French heirloom, one that Passard helped revive, grown in the fertile shadows of some centuries-old chateau, but a beet, cooked in salt, nonetheless.

Because I’m not as lucky as Pete Wells, who has an employer who flew him to Paris and paid for a $375 meal at L’Arpège, I plan to eat plenty of summer lunches of sliced tomatoes from my backyard instead.