In the 21 years I've lived in meat-loving France, I have devoured every part of the cow, the sheep, the lamb, the chicken, the duck and the pig, not to mention practically every type of game imaginable. But suddenly I find myself sitting in the finest restaurants in Paris, eating course after course of nothing but vegetables--vegetables that have been transformed by the city's best chefs into the most exciting cuisine I've tasted in decades.
Vegetables have always been a mainstay of French home cooking but little more than an afterthought in restaurants. It wasn't long ago that the word vegetable on a menu here meant one of four things: steamed spinach, boiled green beans, steamed potatoes or french fries. But now French cuisine is in the midst of a radical change. Call it the Vegetable Redemption, as those former second-class citizens at last attain the first-class status they have long deserved.
Let me be clear: I'm not talking about vegetarian cuisine. I'm talking about a cuisine that uses vegetables liberally and creatively and that puts them on equal footing with meat, poultry, fish and shellfish. I'm not talking about a diet cuisine or one that focuses (or even pretends to focus) on nutrition or ethics. I'm talking about taste, pure and simple.
The green movement gained notoriety in December, when chef Alain Passard announced he was going to stop serving meat in his Michelin three-star restaurant L'Arpège in order to devote the major portion of his menu to vegetables. The Paris daily Libération, which broke the story, quoted Passard as saying, "I haven't eaten meat for a long time. And recently I've had a hard time finding inspiration for my cooking in animals." Although his decision coincided with mounting fears in Europe about the safety of the meat supply, its roots reach much further back. As Passard often says, "For 30 years I had this friend standing next to me in the kitchen, and I never said hello." Other talented chefs, such as Pierre Gagnaire at his three-star restaurant Pierre Gagnaire and Guy Martin at the three-star Le Grand Véfour, as well as Guy Savoy at his two-star restaurant Guy Savoy, have been championing vegetables for years, both in their kitchens and in their cookbooks. Once these chefs were considered iconoclasts, but now their ideas are being embraced by the mainstream.
Each of the chefs I've mentioned prepared a special all-vegetable meal for me, some coming up with six or seven courses. But most of the dishes, or variations of them, can be found on their menus. Look what happens when chefs truly pay attention to vegetables!
For Alain Passard--a chef who is peripatetic and fidgety--cooking with vegetables seems to be the yin complement to his yang personality. He turns tangy arugula into a soothing soup laced with Parmesan cream, or simply cooks up white onions and then teams them with a brilliant green parsley sauce and curry powder. Passard says that the ambience of his kitchen has changed since he took all of the meat and most of the poultry off his menu: "People are calmer and quieter. It is less like working in a noisy factory, more like working in a designer's atelier."
At Guy Savoy, the unusual combinations, such as carrot soup with star anise, thrilled me. Savoy has been a vegetable advocate all his life. His father was a gardener, and every vegetable young Guy ate came from the family's plot. "Focusing on vegetables today allows us to come up with an entirely new vocabulary," he says. "And vegetables can play so many roles in a meal. They can be the principal element; they can be a side dish; they can be a simple seasoning." Temperature and texture play roles too: Vegetables can be served lukewarm or chilled, crunchy or soft. "Each approach changes the nature of a vegetable as well as our reaction to it," Savoy notes, adding that "vegetables get us excited in a way that meat and poultry can't. Think of how we feel when we see the first asparagus in the market, the first baby peas. It is a sign of spring--of hope."
At Le Grand Véfour, Guy Martin does to vegetables what most cooks do to meat: He makes an osso buco of carrots instead of veal shanks. Or he roasts tender, whole zucchini in parchment, as you might do with fish. That's because his mother gave vegetables the respect they deserve when he was growing up. "My mother's culinary repertoire was vast and varied," he says. By the time he was 18, he figures, he'd tasted every kind of vegetable in France, including unusual ones such as crosnes and celerylike cardoons.
Pierre Gagnaire doesn't shun the animal kingdom, but for him, vegetables provide the creative spark that pushes his cuisine forward. He extends to vegetables the same complex, audacious thinking that he applies to all his cooking. Some of his dishes use six or seven vegetables, but even his simplest preparations are astonishing. Gagnaire's salad of sprouts and apples with nasturtium leaves shows off his philosophy of cooking with vegetables: "Their combinations are almost infinite. They alone allow cuisine to evolve."
Vegetables should enjoy their preeminence while they have it. Gagnaire predicts that one day soon we'll be seeing yet another culinary movement.
Call it the Fruit Redemption.