How Great Paris Restaurants Do It

By Thomas McNamee

Published on July 10, 2001

Up in Belgium, a dozen tubby-looking chickens die for a noble cause. These chickens, of the ancient variety known as coucou de Malines, are not actually obese. Most of their apparent bulk is feathers, so thick and fluffy that the little bird within can keep warm with only a thin, soft skin and very little fat. Because of that delicate skin, they are not plunged into hot water and rubbed naked by a big machine like their more ordinary brethren; they are hand plucked. They have also grown up on a diet devised for them by their breeder and his friend Alain Passard—who is the chef of a three-star restaurant in Paris called Arpege, the worthy destiny toward which the dozen dead coucous de Malines are now speeding in a tiny refrigerated truck.

Extraordinary foodstuffs are the foundation of the great restaurants of France. Outside Paris, there is what amounts to a city devoted to them—Rungis, built to replace the late, lamented Parisian central market, Les Halles. Rungis is alive only when Paris is asleep: At four in the morning, the lights of the Pavillon de la Triperie (offal pavilion) blaze down on thousands of heads, tongues, livers, shrink-wrapped bundles of hearts, crates of brains. The bar at the poultry pavilion overflows with guys in bloody aprons, smoking, drinking coffee or red wine. The seafood pavilions cover indoor acres, and are full of glistening rascasses (scorpion fish), john dories, conger eels, spiny lobsters; everything looks fresher than anything I have ever seen, but the fish brokers prod, sniff, argue, reject. The pickiest of them will bring his haul to the likes of Jean-Pierre Vigato, chef of the restaurant Apicius in Paris—a two-star establishment, where I, supposedly, am helping make lunch.

A company in Pennsylvania called L'École des Chefs arranges weeklong internships in a number of restaurants in France, all of which rate two or three stars in the Guide Michelin. Most of the interns are home cooks—passionate amateurs like me. But in the kitchens of Apicius and Arpege, I feel like the right fielder from the Joe's Auto Parts softball team studying under Babe Ruth, so I quickly decide that my internship had better be more note taking than onion chopping. Interns usually spend long hours at each station—a whole day, say, of pastry, another of fish; and so on. I'm looking for something other than technique, though I'm not quite sure what yet.

I begin this assignment with a certain skepticism. At Arpege, the dinner tasting menu costs 1,200 francs per person. That's 200 dollars to you, pilgrim. Service and taxes are included; wine is extra. Surely, no meal, even this ten-course lollapalooza, could be worth maybe 300 bucks a head. Then I sit down for lunch at Arpege with Annie Jacquet-Bentley, creator of L'École des Chefs, and four hours later, when I float past the undulating pearwood paneling of the dining room and out into the street, I have begun to understand. I am not drunk. I am not stuffed. Every tiny bite has been...the only word is sublime. This one meal has proved to me, beyond the slightest doubt, that food can be a work of art.

I'm even beginning to understand why such food costs so much. These fish come from boats that race in from the sea so fast that their catch may arrive on the restaurant's doorstep still gasping. These restaurants make everything from scratch, by hand. The china, the silver, the crystal are the best. Behind the scenes and in the dining rooms (which at both Arpege and Apicius are quite small), there are people everywhere, polishing surfaces, touching up nicks, watching to see if you are starting to think about wanting something.

Arpege buys almost all of its supplies directly from farmers, dairymen, and cheesemakers who brook no compromise of quality. The baskets of humble winter vegetables delivered to Apicius this morning reincarnate a 17-century Dutch still life. Still, I ask myself, how good can a carrot be? Then I bite into one and find out. ''For things this good you must pay,'' says chef Vigato. For staff this good, you must also pay. The waiters and the cooks at Arpege and Apicius are startlingly young, and, as they arrive in their civvies, look unprepossessing. But once in uniform and in motion, they do their jobs with such grace that the ardor essential to such perfection becomes invisible. I have been expecting noise: shouting, clanging pans, passionate expostulation. I have been expecting unbearable heat. But here the ventilation whispers, and only the clop-clop of chopping and a brief functional exchange (''Two eggs, please…thank you'') punctuate the silence of utter absorption.

At Apicius, the fish chef is scraping meat from tiny frogs' legs one by one. The pastry chef brings silky sheets of pasta to a young guy who scores them into squares, centers clumps of raw lobster and chopped vegetables in each, and ties them with threads of leek green into a pouch for steaming. Another chef is paring vegetables into the classic olive shape. A very young apprentice is—unbelievably—peeling grapes. Another slings a great glop of butter into the potato puree and starts whisking. He licks his fingers, adds butter, and licks again. The big pot of boned pigs' feet on the stove needs stirring; this I can do.

Jean-Pierre Vigato does not perform tasks like these; great chefs don't do much cooking. He tastes things, and corrects them. He watches. He thinks, invents, experiments, and perfects. Vigato is a tall, commanding presence, but as he comes in the cooks hardly even look up. For me, the American, Vigato wants to make his ketchup dish. A thick chunk of skate wing sizzles in clarified butter while Vigato reduces old sherry vinegar to almost nothing, then adds brown butter. Into that goes the spoonful of Heinz. Vigato grins. In go minutely diced red pepper, apple, lemon, celery—the pepper first peeled, the lemon without a trace of rind, the celery stringless and preblanched. Capers and parsley. Vigato slides the fish on top of a little spinach salad, drizzles a trail of the chunky sweet-and-sour sauce over and around it. I operate the knife and fork, and oh, Lord! It's the classic raie au beurre noir, but not. The savage intensity of that super-reduced vinegar, the vividly distinct sweetness of pepper—this is Bach counterpoint. Then Vigato walks me through the preparation of several of his signature dishes, ''classique Apicius'', including the potently sweet-and-sour foie gras de canard and the dessert the kid was peeling grapes for.

The first customers arrive. Vigato works the dining room, smiling, laughing, accepting kisses and praise. A star, and no wonder. But back here in the kitchen we don't look like stars. Our aprons are spattered. We've got Band-Aids on our fingers and grease in our hair. We are the proletariat. Then Annie comes in, and I happily morph from intern to diner. At the table, a potato-leek soup wearing a cap of truffle cream and sliced raw truffle evokes wet winter woods and fireplace smoke. Three little oysters, a few leaves of cress, a little heap of caviar, and you can smell the icy ocean wind of Brittany. Annie has the aumoniere (money pouch) of lobster, and I the frogs' legs in a ring of pastry. Notes of mild herbs and only a squiggle of sauce in each dish amplify the flavor of its principal ingredient. Next, Annie, with not a spare gram on her but more appetite per kilo than any other woman in France, chows down on a sort of burger composed of the aforementioned boneless pigs' feet, wrapped up in crepine (the lining of a pig's stomach) and sauteed.

Vigato is famous for his Dionysian transformations of such homely ingredients, and also for unlikely combinations. While Annie munches happily on connective tissues, I confront a sauce based on the gooey crud that you take out of lobsters' heads, reduced with...meat juice? and served with a white hunk of steamed Atlantic bass. I harbor considerable doubt—but I should have known. Vigato's meat-and-lobster sauce is one of the most intensely delicious things I have ever tasted. Next, Annie chooses a half dozen cheeses, and polishes them off in ascending order of stink. I can barely manage two. The wine steward fairly glows in our admiration of his white minervois, La Tour Boisee '97, and his rich, deep red cotes de cabardes, Chateau de Salitis '95. Our all-chocolate dessert includes a slice of oozing marquise, a bit of mousse, some cake, a sorbet, and a chunk of barely sweet chocolate. Am I dead yet?

Every great French chef, like every other self-respecting French person, has a philosophy. Vigato's fusion of earthy peasant cooking with epicurean refinement not only tastes yummy but also embodies the clashes of nostalgia and innovation, rich and poor, high and low that characterize our fin de siecle. He likes to hoist a little glass of something in the late morning with his garrulous gang of pals at the Caves Petrissans, a venerable old Paris bistro—but it's white nuits-st-georges in the glass. He hachis parmentier, the French shepherd's pie—but it has fresh truffles shaved into it.

The food at Arpege, on the other hand, appears at first to have been born in a realm of pure abstraction. Where Vigato is big, bluff, bold, and direct, Alain Passard is slightly built, elegant, contemplative, and unabashedly artistic. His cooking fits precisely the definition of Apollonian: characterized by clarity, harmony, and restraint. He abhors the fire of undisciplined grilling, ''everything tasting of carbon''. For Passard, the essence of civilization is the taming of the flame. His coucous de Malines cook slowly, slowly, in only a smidgen of butter, in a pan whose temperature never exceeds 100ºC (just over 200ºF). The bird must be turned by hand, never breaking that precious skin, for an hour and a half. Lots of things cook long and slowin the Arpege kitchen—leeks, cabbage, pork, pigeons, duck—all in pans or on the rotisserie. Passard disdains ovens. ''The oven dries everything out,'' he says. ''It's blind. In my kitchen you see the food, you smell it, you listen to it.''

One of Passard's greatest dishes involves no cooking at all: a teardrop-shaped mousse of raw langoustine and caviar, all caviar texture gone, leaning on an equally ethereal avocado-and-olive-oil mousse in a martini glass. ''I've always loved the combination of gray and green,'' Passard says, ''and who thinks of caviar apart from its texture? Here I have not only the colors I love but two pure abstractions of flavor.'' I learn an astounding amuse-bouche: With a paring knife, you cut the top off a very small brown egg (the first of many opportunities to smash this dish to smithereens) and ever so carefully pour off the white. Next you set the shell to bob in barely simmering water. When the yolk is hot but still liquid, like the inside of a good fried egg, you sprinkle it with chives and a grating of all-spice. You whip a little cream with aged sherry vinegar and pipe that up to the brim of the hot eggshell, and top it off with a tiny dribble of maple syrup. Sounds like almost nothing. Tastes like nothing else in the world.

The Arpege kitchen is surprisingly small. Each person has a station from which he rarely moves. The first order comes in, barked once by the waiter and repeated by Jerome Boudereau, the mild-mannered sous-chef who rules the kitchen absolutely. The Dutch fish cook, Jan de Boer, reaches into a refrigerated drawer for the scallops. The Belgian sauce and roast specialist, Gunther Hubrechsen, and the French grill man, Julien Bobichon, stick fingers into the requisite sauces and then into their expressionless mouths. Over the half-height wall, in the garde-manger (cold-stuff department), one baby-faced lad separates herbs and greens into portions, and another passes a handful of wafer-thin sliced cauliflower into the hot room. Not a word is spoken. Passard arrives. A waiter helps him into his white jacket. A second order rings out, and a third. Next, six warm plates appear before Bordereau. On four of them, a lad places a perfectly olive-shaped glop of parsley emulsified with olive oil. Tokyo-born Fumiko Kono, a soup-and-vegetable cook in training, adds a dollop of dense cabbage sauce. Hubrechsen adds a silver-dollar-size puddle of raisin and currant llime sauce. ''St-jacques pretes?'' calls the sous-chef. ''Trente secondes,'' comes the answer. De Boer unskewers four brochettes of scallops and cauliflower. A saucepan clangs to the floor, and somebody hisses, ''Merde''. Bobichon gently places two slices of seetbread topped with sliced chestnuts. Hubrechsen's hand reaches over with a dribble of truffle fondue. Bordereau adds a dab more sauce. By some mystery, at that instant a waiter appears with a silver tray to bear the food into the dining room. Now, imagine: They can keep this up when 40 dishes are under way at once.

It comes down to this: I used to deem Tuscan cooking the best. ''A thing on a plate'' was my aphorism for it; let the ingredients speak. Now I know that I was confusing ordinary cooking with artistry. Now I think that a hundred-dollar lunch is a deal. In my internship, I didn't learn how to make puff pastry or master Six Time-Saving Secrets of the Great French Chefs. I learned that bringing to cooking the rigor and passion and limitless labor of the artist can transform food into an experience as deep and memorable as that of more enduring works. I learned that doing it demands a life spent doing it. Great art is always expensive, always rare, always oblivious to the injustices that make it possible. The fact that these astonishing meals disappear into one's experience of them, in fact, gives them a unique power rooted in mortality. The coucous de Malines die and are made glorious for our pleasure, and in doing so they disappear. Like them, we shine, if we're lucky, and then we die.

Continue to Next Story

Want more SAVEUR?

Get our favorite recipes, stories, and more delivered to your inbox.