It is a relief interviewing the svelte, impishly handsome, intoxicatingly charismatic Alain Passard on the phone and not in person, for concentration's sake, and even then I could listen for hours and hours. Passard, a French three-star Michelin chef and widely acknowledged demi-god of the culinary firmament, is coming to Belfast, to cook in a restaurant run by one of his former employees.
At the beginning of the noughties, Passard famously, and scandalously, switched his three-star L’Arpège’s menu to mainly vegetable-based dishes, with the produce coming from his kitchen garden just outside Paris. Outraged Parisian gastro-carnivores cried “c’est un gimmick!”, “ce n’est que du marketing!” especially as his already high prices, even for three macarons, remained just as vertiginous. The French public could not imagine paying €300 or so for a dinner of, well, vegetables.
But the prodigiously innovative cooking proved itself, and besides, there were eggs, some meat, “meatiness” (examples are his famous egg and maple syrup amuse bouche, “steak” tartare made not of beef but of smoked beetroot with horseradish, and chips from Jerusalem artickokes rather than potato), and fish dotted around the menu.
Now, the rest of the world has caught up with Passard's vision. Farm-to-table and restaurant vegetable gardens are the new resto-norm and he is rightly acclaimed as a great culinary visionary, along with Michel Bras and René Redzepi, both of whom take their inspiration from the nature surrounding them.
And like them, instead of branding his talent by opening more restaurants, he prefers to stay firmly in the original, and send his disciples out to preach his gospel. Now it has reached Belfast – and the master is on his way. He will cook a charity fundraising dinner at Alain Kerloc’h and Stevie Toman’s Belfast restaurant, OX, on Sunday, April 13th, as it celebrates its first year as a trailblazer of modern Irish food.
It is all the more extraordinary that Belfast should be welcoming this culinary superstar as appearances by Passard outside l’Arpège are very rare. Not for him the promotions, the sponsors, the huge glitzy fundraisers. If you want to discover his art, however, (delicate paper collages and bronze sculptures) it is on show in his gallery, next to the restaurant.
Passard rarely even sets foot in other chefs' kitchens, especially not those who have worked in his, knowing too well the torture it is for his pupils to feel judged by him in their own maison . But OX's Alain Kerloc'h was Passard's maitre d', not his seconde , and the bond between the two feels palpable as Passard talks about Kerloch's years at l'Arpège.
“I remember a man of extraordinary finesse and talent, with an extraordinary contact with the clients. I haven’t seen many like this one! He was always very regular, constant in his mood with a permanent, generous smile. This is a different relationship than with my chefs, Alain is like my little brother.”
I ask Passard what is he expecting of this trip? How is he preparing for it?
“It is very important to me to help the The Children’s Heartbeat Trust (beneficiary of the fundraiser). I love that I can make a difference to such an association, and of course the first birthday of a restaurant is always a great celebration. Ireland itself is a grande première, this will be my first time on Irish soil and I am looking forward to discovering the town of Belfast, the people . . .
“But I never prepare for any trip, I don’t even want to think about it beforehand. It’s more creative to arrive so lightly. Especially as this is a rendezvous I could already see myself repeating every few years. And each time the experience will be different.”
And the dinner itself? “I take the same approach as in my own cuisine. I have no cookbooks, no recipes written down. I am on a constant, daily quest for innovation – like nature’s renewal itself. In France, my cookbook is my vegetable garden and I am always looking for new terrains as inspiration. I work in the same dynamic as an artist, my cooking is like one of my paintings, my collages, sculptures or pieces of music. I look for new tastes every morning from what nature presents me with. My priorities lie at the bottom of my casseroles. It will be the same at OX.”
Tickets for the dinner, which starts at 7pm, cost £200 to include wines, and can be applied for by emailing email@example.com. All proceeds will go to The Children’s Heartbeat Trust, which supports families of children with heart disease (including Stevie’s Toman’s daughter, Eva)