When Gourmet Abu Dhabi kicks off this Friday, we can expect an embarrassment of edible riches - exquisite steak, delicate foie gras, briny sea food and ... yes, vegetables, courtesy of one of France's most famous chefs, Alain Passard, who will be making his second appearance at the capital's food extravaganza. "I had an amazing time there last time," he says. "It's one of my most fantastic memories, and I am looking forward to returning."
Passard's restaurant L'Arpège, in the 7th arrondissement of Paris, is in the unique position of being the only three-star Michelin restaurant that not only celebrates vegetables, but puts them centre-stage - a concept that still remains a culinary challenge to most of Passard's peers. It is still possible to enjoy the finest French haute cuisine without setting eyes on a vegetable. This is a country where foie gras and meats with rich sauces are often prized over the humble legume. A reader of a restaurant review wrote to me after a visit to a highly recommended Parisian bistro where, when asked what was available for vegetarians, received the brusque but symptomatic Parisian reply: "hospitals".
Vegetarian restaurants and menu options in the French capital generally lag behind their European neighbours, with only a few overtly healthy would-be bohemian outposts. In fact, Alain Passard is not a vegetarian, and does not even care for the term, believing that "the real malady and unhappiness of vegetables has always been the vegetarian restaurant". His own establishment serves meat and fish too, but it is the poetic qualities of vegetables that are the focus, a love affair that is integral to his lifelong passion for cooking, which was inspired by his grandmother Louise, whose picture hangs in the restaurant.
However the crucial change in his style of cooking came in 2000 when the chef tired of preparing meat. "I think I had gone a long way in the preparation of poultry and red meat," Passard says, in his kitchen at L'Arpège. "I aspire today to respond to another desire, which is to explore the vegetable. I drew a line without regret under 12 great classic dishes of the restaurant; it was a genuine moment of calling everything into question. I have the sentiment of a fantastic adventure which goes right to the heart of my passion."
The menu at his restaurant reflects this new direction, where meat is sidelined in favour of an exciting range of vegetable creations. Passard's passion extends to the organic cultivation of a wide range of forgotten varieties, and to this end he has set up three kitchen gardens in different regions of France, which supply L'Arpège with all of its vegetables. This means that produce can have a genuine stamp of its area: sand in the Sarthe for carrots, asparagus and leeks; clay in the Eure for celeriac and brassicas, and alluvia in the Manche for herbs and spices.
This approach equally applies to the fish and meat used in the restaurant, which comes from liked-minded professionals for whom sustainable, organic production, taste and quality take priority. Passard recognises that the change in his cooking style coincided with the BSE outbreak in Europe and a growing awareness that vegetables should play a more central role in our diets. Passard does not speak much, but his expressions and gestures say everything. I am invited into his kitchen to see what his food is really about. Later he reproaches me for my questions: "You've seen me cooking, you've spent the morning with me in the kitchen. What more could I tell you in an interview?"
It is always thrilling to see a great French kitchen in action and some 15 young chefs are busily at work when I arrive at L'Arpège to meet Passard. Bowls of colourful root vegetables, including varieties you are unlikely to find outside chef Passard's gardens, look glorious in their freshness. Shelves of beetroot are hidden under a thick blanket of coarse sea salt prior to a gentle two-hour roast after which the crust is broken to reveal the very essence of the vegetable. Brightly coloured purées sit in steaming bowls of water ready to be piped into delicate tartlets as an aperitif nibble. A young apprentice has the seemingly impossible task of rolling strips of peppery turnip into spirals around discs of the root vegetable, magically interleaved with truffles, taken from a brimming bowlful of the fragrant black diamonds.
Unpeeled shallots simmer in butter with bay leaves to form a pod of exquisite purée, perhaps to accompany the gleaming Dover sole that is being filleted with medical precision, next to wriggling Breton lobsters. The attention paid to sourcing meat and fish shows that L'Arpège is not a vegetarian restaurant and has no axe to grind: it is simply a question of accent and Passard puts that accent on his beloved vegetables.
Downstairs the patisserie is hard at work preparing the chef's most famous recent creation la taste bouquet de roses: an exquisitely beautiful dessert, in which strips of apple are delicately teased into forming opening roses over a fruit purée. Our photographer was forbidden from taking pictures of this closely guarded secret preparation. A few hours into the service and activity in the kitchen is reaching a peak when Passard makes his entrance, exercising an eagle eye for any detail that does not meet with his approval, keeping his staff concentrated and attentive to even the smallest misjudgement.
An overloaded tartlet is pointed out - "Hold on, that won't feel good in the mouth, it's too bulky" - a critical eye cast over the catch of the day, and an exhortation to "broaden horizons" galvanises his team into working with seemingly effortless co-ordination. He turns to a selection of vegetables, arranged like a still-life painting, behind his kitchen range and holds up particular varieties in wonderment at their loveliness. With great care and infinite respect, he prepares some violet carrots, gently simmering them to encourage them to bleed their essence and colour into a tiny quantity of concentrated liquor. It is a gentle and loving style of cooking, a long way from the violent jets of charring flames more often seen in a restaurant kitchen. "You must always treat vegetables gently," remarks chef Passard, as the lunchtime service begins.
An invitation to lunch with Passard is guaranteed to bring a smile to any food critic's lips. There ensues a series of dishes whose colour, perfume and luminosity are balanced with the art of a master chef, accompanied by sublime, crusty, country-style wholemeal bread and the best salted butter I have ever tasted. Highlights include a startlingly fresh carpaccio of scallops, an extraordinary sweet and sour chicory salad with a praline dressing, colourful vegetable gnocchi and, perhaps most indicative of the chef's fertile imagination, a risotto in which rice plays no part (instead, celery is transformed into lookalike grains of the cereal, gloriously finished with a rich herb sauce and a generous sprinkling of black truffles).
Two giant truckles, a mature Comte and a young crumbly Salers, make a spectacular cheese course, before a seemingly traditional baba tops off the meal. Originality is brought to this classic French dessert by a sprinkling of delicate dice of crystallised vegetables - sweet and perfectly appropriate. The secret of Passard's success becomes apparent when the chef comes out of the kitchen to join his guests, seated contentedly in the sleek dining room. A smile for some, a gentle squeeze of the arm for others, an exchange of news with regulars, and some loving attention for a solitary Japanese cafe - this is not the traditional atmosphere of a three-star Parisian restaurant, where rigid formality often leaves little opportunity for small talk, and puts a heavy responsibility on the cafe to match the grandeur of the establishment.
To eat at L'Arpège is more like being invited to the house of a sublimely gifted friend; an impression seconded by the staff who, despite their professionalism, remain friendly, helpful and never intimidating. Passard does not ape the celebrity dining experience practised by some. The restaurant has no valet parking and no excessive branded marketing - the chef is driven by a love of cooking, rather than a love of glitz.
As the restaurant begins to empty, Passard settles down to enjoy lunch with friends, and an invitation to pull up a chair and join them allows me an insight into the private world of Passard - his love of the countryside and his future plans. Ordering dishes from his staff, just like any other cafe, albeit with a cheeky smile, Passard's choice is simple: pan-fried fish, topped with a grating of fresh horseradish - an excellent tip for adding character to the dish.
His love of music particularly that of John Coltrane, is well known, and accounts for the name of his restaurant (arpeggio in English). Relaxing with a cigar, another of his passions, Passard spoke with unbridled enthusiasm of his future trip to Abu Dhabi. "You can't imagine the choice in the fish market - incredibly fresh, fantastic," he says. Below he shares one of the favourite recipes of the restaurant, the legendary oeuf - egg, cream, sherry vinegar, and maple syrup all served in the shell. "Are you going to publish my recipe in Abu Dhabi?" he asks. "That will be great."
Alain Passard will be hosting Epicurean Promotions at the Shangri-La Hotel, Qaryat al Beri, from February 16-19. Visit www.gourmetabudhabi.ae.