In an early spring garden tucked into the Santa Cruz Mountains, Alain Passard knelt beside a patch of young Chinese cabbage, carefully rubbing the leaves between his fingers. He made his way through the garden, stopped next to some red mustard and plucked a leaf to taste, then some sorrel, then the yellow bud of flowering Chinese broccoli, and the thick, dewy leaf of ficoide glaciale, a salad plant whose succulent leaves are covered with minuscule silver dots so that it looks as if it’s covered in fine frost.
Passard, the chef of L’Arpege in Paris who six years ago made what was considered a revolutionary move by publicly declaring that his Michelin three-star restaurant would shift its focus from his signature meat dishes to vegetables, came to California last weekend to cook dinner with chef David Kinch at Manresa in Los Gatos and to visit Kinch’s garden.
“I’ve been a big fan of L’Arpege for 20 years,” said Kinch. “The first time I went was an eye-opening experience, and every few years I’ve seen how his food has changed.” He said he sought a collaboration because Passard’s restaurant gardens were an inspiration for his own. The dinners took place over three nights, with each chef creating four of eight courses.
“We talked about what was in the garden and what we would plant for the dinner and hoped the specialness of the vegetables speak for themselves,” Kinch said.
Passard agreed, explaining, “I knew we shared a profound respect for the provenance of ingredients.”
Passard has set up two potagers, or kitchen gardens, on several acres in Normandy and Brittany, where he’s from. The properties provide all of the vegetables, transported by high-speed train, for the restaurant in Paris. Passard said he recently purchased another property near Mont St. Michel. “If I didn’t have my gardens, I would no longer love to cook,” he said.
More than a year ago, Kinch set up his own potager at Love Apple Farm in the Santa Cruz Mountains, run by grower Cynthia Sandberg. Now he says there are 45 vegetables and herbs in the ground with more on the way.
Kinch picked up armloads of vegetables for dinner -- white beets, turnips, rutabagas, baby carrots, baby leeks, mache and tiny breakfast radishes with their tendril roots that grow in the new hoop house among the kohlrabi, peas and “freckles” lettuce.
At dinner in Manresa’s pretty dining room, in the heart of Los Gatos’ tiny downtown, the tiny radishes, some no bigger than the tip of your finger, showed up as an amuse bouche with a little bowl of creme fraiche mixed with tarragon and a touch of fleur de sel.
Then came a small tangle of baby spinach and a quenelle of carrot-orange mousseline.
The first course arrived, a consomme of osetra caviar, and Passard himself soon followed. He enthusiastically made his rounds in the dining room, dressed in a black button-down shirt, a pair of Levi’s and his white apron.
‘So much flavor’
You never would have known that he had arrived in California that same day and had cooked both at L’Arpege and at a special event for 100 people the night before in Paris, going back and forth between his restaurant and the fete foraine that he had set up in a courtyard in the 16th arrondissement.
“How is it?” he asked, referring to the consomme prepared by Kinch. “So much taste, so much flavor of the sea, oui?” Miniature black pearls of osetra caviar and flecks of wakame, or kelp, and laitue de mer -- seaweed from Brittany -- were suspended in the gelee-like broth, set with gelatin from long-cooked turbot and infused with wakame. It was served with seaweed brioche, buttery and toasty and stippled with laitue de mer.
A rustically beautiful block of hand-churned salted butter placed on a tile of granite was set on the table. Kinch commissioned cheese maker Soyoung Scanlan of Andante Dairy in Petaluma to make the butter specifically for this dinner.
“We did some experimenting to get the right salt flavor,” Kinch said. It was his gift to Passard, whose use of the famous salted butter of Brittany is an integral part of his cuisine.
“The [salted] butter is like a little test for the vegetables,” said Passard. “When cooking with it, it brings just the right seasoning” to highlight the pure flavors of the vegetables. “You have to treat the vegetables delicately, to preserve their essence.”
Baby leeks came to the table, cooked softly in butter and served with an emulsion of Bagaduce oysters and Muscadet vinegar that Passard’s “right hand,” Julie Coppe, brought with her from France along with the beechwood to smoke the potatoes in another dish and the mustard from Orleans that Passard makes with a maitre vinaigrier.
Monterey Bay abalone was served with a slow-cooked “broken egg” and 12 different vegetables from the garden, including watermelon radish, the blossoms of Chinese broccoli, baby fennel, beet greens and braised white radish. That was followed by a filet of tender monkfish with a sauce made of Passard’s moutarde d’Orleans and smoked fingerling potatoes garnished with Persian cress.
One of Passard’s signature dishes came next: sweetbreads with sliced chestnuts and black truffle sauce. Although he eschews red meat, he said he couldn’t take the sweetbreads off the menu at L’Arpege. “People always ask me for the sweetbreads with truffle sauce and chestnuts.”
Kinch’s roast spring lamb with young root vegetables was served with a puree prepared with “forgotten, lonely greens,” in Kinch’s words -- tatsoi, red Russian kale and Toscana kale, red mustard greens -- “kind of like a compost sauce.”
Meanwhile, the kitchen was a swarm of cooks and servers. Passard or Kinch hovered around the plating station, watching the composition of a plate of colorful baby carrots set on a Valrhona chocolate sauce flavored with ginger, hazelnut oil and the juice of lobster.
“It’s the easiest thing in the world to take some foie gras and truffles and make a luxurious, delicious dish that’s intellectually stimulating and has an artistic nature to it,” Kinch said. “Doing that with a carrot is a completely different thing.”
The chef at table
The hour was nearly midnight and the clutch of diners still left in the restaurant were polishing off their final courses. Dessert was the carrot dish with chocolate sauce from Passard, a Meyer lemon souffle served with Meyer lemon cream, a compote of three kinds of mandarins infused with hibiscus and garnished with mint, and a candied willow leaf mandarin set in custard.
Passard was about to sit down to his own dinner. He said he liked the unexpectedness of a table being set for six in the middle of the dining room just when others were finishing up their meal.
A white tablecloth was unfurled across a big round table and set with silver, wine glasses and carefully folded napkins. Passard passed a plate of Bagaduce oysters, an omelet with morels that he had asked Kinch to prepare, the seaweed brioche and blocks of the salted butter. “Where’s the fromage?” he asked, and a platter of domestic cheeses arrived.
Passard breathed deeply from his glass of Cheverny, a Sauvignon Blanc from the Loire Valley. “Peach -- white peach -- pineapple, mango, honey.”
He was lost in another garden.