Confession: I am an amateur foodie only. I drive less than five miles from my home to Bacco Ristorante where Chef Luciano Del Signore prepares a world class three-course vegan menu sourced from local farms that changes weekly and satisfies all taste fantasies.
In all honesty, before I began writing this article, I thought Michelin only made tires and was unaware that a three-star rating is often considered the highest restaurant honor.
I learned that as of 2014, there are only 27 three-star Michelin restaurants in all of France and thought it most would be very difficult to navigate the country as a vegan. In fact, the state of vegetarian and vegan dining in France has been referred to as "wilted."
However, times are changing, and the role of the ethical chef, sensitive to the demands of food production on the environment, is emerging. Few chefs present this better than Dan Barber, of Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns, and his book, The Third Plate, a read I highly recommend.
Are there similar efforts in Paris? The answer is yes and I was more than a little excited to be invited to not one but two three-star Michelin restaurants this week that place vegetables at the center of haute cuisine dining.
Lunch was at the new effort by Alain Ducasse in the Hotel Plaza Athénée, re-opened September 1st after a complete remodeling (full disclosure: it had a three-star rating before it closed and has not yet been rated again). The room features a stunning mixture of crystal, silver and light but the tables are oak without tablecloths, which apparently is risqué in the world of Parisian fine dining. Ducasse heads a food empire with dozens of restaurants worldwide but he was inspired to create this one dedicated to "naturalness". Although animal products are on the menu, the focus is on grains and vegetables with lentils and quinoa leading the way.
When I indicated that I ate vegan, I was greeted with "Perfect monsieur, the chef will prepare a special meal of plants for you" — far from a wilted response. Following were seed crackers, carrot soup, rice bread, vegetable consommé, baby cucumber salad, beet and orange salad, vegetables from the Versailles gardens with wood mushrooms, a terrain of vegetables on quinoa, rice and artichokes, lemon sherbet, and lemon grass tea made from fresh cuttings off an herb cart.
Not bad for an impromptu vegan meal. It was finished off with a plate of dark grapes on the vine and dark chocolate, tailor-made for artery health. Although the number of courses were more than I can count in French, the meal was still natural and light and I walked away counting my blessings for a once in a lifetime opportunity to savor the work of a genius of an ethical chef.
The dinner invitation was at Arpege by Musée Rodin, where Chef Alain Passard has been creating masterpieces and three-star ratings for decades. A special treat was the near constant presence of Passard tending to diners, answering questions, smiling, explaining the food in a charming way. Passard shocked the French food world in 2001 when he eliminated red meat from his menu (although small amounts have crept back in). Again, while there is fowl and fish on the menu, the vegetables grown in biodynamic gardens owned by Passard on the outskirts of Paris, are king.
When I informed the waiter of my food preferences, I was again told that the chef would love to create a plant-based menu that was low in oils. Plates starting arriving with wasabi sushi, consommé, carpaccio of tomato, salads with daikon radish, sautéed vegetables, potatoes in herb reductions, strawberry sherbet, and cooked pear.
Four hours later, satisfied but not stuffed, I pinched myself for having met a man dedicated to a healthy clientele and planet. Barber, Ducasse and Passard all seem focused on merging fine cooking with responsible business practices, cognizant of the fact that it takes up to 160 times the land to raise red meat as it does plant-based staples.
One more honorable mention goes to Santiago Torrijos at Atelier Rodier in the 9th district. This small but elegant eatery was written up in an article in the New York Times on vegetarian food in Paris and the suggestion was to let Columbian-born Santiago create a menu. He prepared a multi-course menu of salads and an entrée that featured a single carrot on a plate finished in sea salt — exactly the type of dish Dan Barber talks about in The Third Plate — letting the earth and the farm dictate the menu.
What is the point of all of this other than great dining? I will probably never be back to any of these places and I will be packing own my lunch for work in a few minutes (back to reality as my fellow Detroiter Eminem sings). However, great chefs can have great influence on our eating habits and are more highly regarded than ever.
I am encouraged to see ethical cuisine enter even the most hallowed of dining worlds providing the message that we live on one earth with limited resources and a responsibility to think of future generations. Plants can feed the hungry of this world with more nutritional density and much less land and energy expense at the same time creating a fraction of the greenhouse gases. The new French Revolution can help remind us that a conscious plate is one that, like the U.S. food plate, is predominantly filled with plant based choices.
Photo courtesy of Dos Santos Lemone