Alain Passard's decision in 2001 to transform his three-star Paris restaurant l'Arpège famous for its slow-cooked T-bones, lamb and duck into a temple to the vegetable raised many an eyebrow in the world of haute cuisine. For the erstwhile master rôtisseur, however, it constituted a culinary rebirth. "Vegetables were a resurrection for me," Passard says. In seeking to define "the first vegetable haute cuisine," Passard has since created such signature dishes as beetroot in croûte de sel and onion flambé with pears and praline sauce. But perhaps his greatest contribution to French cuisine has been the notion of the grand-cru vegetable. "Like a wine with its label detailing the region, vintage and winemaker," he says, "today, a carrot needs to have its passport, its provenance, and above all, a savoir faire behind it." Passard's obsession seems to be catching: beef may still be a regular on Paris menus, but the grand-cru-vegetable trend has been spreading across the city, from Michelin-starred restaurants to neighbor-hood bistros. (See pictures of Paris expanding.)
A sign of the changing times was the recent high-class produce market chef Alain Ducasse organized at the Plaza Athénée Hôtel, where guests met the producers of the otherworldly fruits and vegetables Ducasse serves at his eponymous three-star restaurant, www.alain-ducasse.com: from Buddha's hand citron to rare Ligurian purple asparagus. Ducasse says his love of rare and impeccable ingredients grew from an early exposure to Mediterranean produce. But when he left for the capital in 1996, a multi-course homage to the vegetable like the Jardins de Provence menu he'd served since 1987 at Monte Carlo's Louis XV was dismissed as beach chow by Parisian epicureans. "Twelve years ago the vegetable was an accessory, like the make-up of a woman," Ducasse says. "There were serious Parisian foodists who told me, 'This Mediterranean cuisine isn't serious. Here we want turbot, we want sauce, we want beef!' "
That isn't an issue at Pierre Gagnaire's three-star restaurant on Paris's rue Balzac, www.pierre-gagnaire.com, where customers happily indulge in a six-course, all-vegetable menu légume. Gagnaire regards himself as a culinary musician who knows that a world-class vegetable can make the difference between a sonata and a symphony. "Give me a violin that's only average, and I'll still be capable of making it cry," he says. "But give me a Stradivarius, and I will go further still ..." To create his endive sorbet with coquelicot vinegar, artichoke and truffle raviole, or cinnamon-grilled leek velouté, Gagnaire draws from the 1,700 vegetable and fruit varieties grown in nearby Carrières-sur-Seine by renowned market gardener Joël Thiébault.
A veritable historian of obscure and forgotten varieties cardoons and parsley roots, purple carrots, and broccoflowers Thiébault has become synonymous with grand-cru vegetables, praise he shrugs off. "The merit of the market gardener is to seize the moment when a product has reached the height of its gustative quality," he says. "But it's what the chef will do with it that makes it a grand cru."
Despite Thiébault's modesty, his name is proudly touted on chalkboard menus at gastronomic bistros like Les Fines Gueules, www.lesfinesgueules.fr, where owner Arnaud Bradol serves up creations such as beetroot raviole of seasoned crab splashed with truffle oil. Meanwhile, at Racines wine bar, www.morethanorganic.com, owner Pierre Jancou is among the few privileged chefs to get their produce from the garden of none other than Passard, www.alain-passard.com, who created the 10-acre (4 hectare) Fillé-sur-Sarthe plot in 2002 to realize his ambitions for l'Arpège, and grow the types of extraordinary vegetables that today are changing the vocabulary of contemporary French cuisine. "We're still at the beginning," says Passard. "We've only exploited 10% of a carrot's potential!" Whatever comes next, Paris gourmets will surely be eager to taste it with or without the beef.
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