Push Your Boundaries: Lessons From Netflix's Chef's Table
“I have a sentence that explains it all. When I was 14, I decided to be a chef. I have never changed my mind.”
Since 1986, Alain Passard has been a Michelin star chef. He earned his first star a year after opening, the second shortly thereafter, and the third star in 1996, which he has maintained to this day. You might ask, as we did, ‘How did he maintain three Michelin stars for over 20 years?!’ How did this man motivate himself to keep getting better? How did he keep pushing his own boundaries and making new discoveries?
It might be partly attributed to his instinctive cooking style. In Passard’s kitchen, nothing is written down. There are no notebooks or even recipes. Instead, a daily improvisation forces him to continuously evolve in the face of the unknown. Every morning, he receives fresh vegetables from his personal garden, and waits for inspiration to strike. He’s constantly taking risks to maximize quality and creativity.
More importantly, he treats his work like art.
Passard learned this lesson at a young age, as his family was full of artists. His grandmother was a cook; his grandfather was a wood sculptor; his father was a musician; and his mother was seamstress. He became an artist simply by being around them and mimicking their gestures.
“In cuisine, in music, in sculpture, in painting, everything is here. Either we like the gesture, either we like the hand, or we don’t. Me, I love it. It might be the sense I like the most. Maybe even more than the sense of taste. And this hand, if we want it to be more beautiful, we must work seven hours, eight hours, ten hours in the kitchen every day. This makes the hand more precise, more accurate and more elegant. That’s the trick.”
In other words, love + persistence = elegance.
Perhaps it was this pursuit of elegance that led Passard to stop cooking meat altogether in 1998. This was a drastic move, especially for his clients. Over the course of fifteen years, Arpège had become known for its meat dishes, and the decision to take meat completely off of the menu shocked both the French culinary world and the Michelin star judges. At first, Passard was hit hard by the critics and his customers. Some regulars even stopped coming to Arpège to dine; yet Passard was determined to cook a vegetable menu that was worthy of his three Michelin stars.
“I realized I wanted to do something else…I wanted to create again.”
The results of his shift to nature are breathtaking. (You’ll just have to watch the episode to see for yourself.)
Passard makes people look at food differently. As, Ingrid Astier, author of Inspired Cuisine: The French Audacity, puts it: “Alain Passard put vegetables at the center of the world of Arpège. All of your life, you thought that the onion, the beet, celery, were supporting actors or even extras. And suddenly, the guest star is the lead actor. You eat a dish, and you never can see cuisine in the same way.”
Perhaps this is because Passard allowed himself to be reborn as a different kind of chef.
“I had to learn again,” he exclaims, with a childlike excitement in his eyes.
“In my life as a chef, I get tired with the usual. I don’t want to do the same thing every day…I’m never happier than when I put my fingers on a new gesture, or a new flavor. It feels wonderful. The feeling of the sublime essence of life.”
He still has his three Michelin stars, even after making the shift to a more vegetable focused menu (some meat has weaseled its way back in for his clients); but stars were never Passard's driving force.
“My only ambition is to love what I do more each day. Just the idea of a job well done. No outside projects, needs, or dreams…I love my job more than anything. This place, it’s a space for myself. It’s marvelous…I find things that I can’t find anywhere else.”
We all want to find success in our jobs or with our works of art. But what few of us might realize is that the more success you achieve, the more the pressure will be placed on you to maintain and improve upon that success. So it seems that we have to be prepared to constantly renew things and embrace change, no matter what age. That’s why we must always seek to push past our boundaries and always be learning. After all:
“You really become a cook between 40 and 50 years old. Before that, it’s school and research and doubt.”
Hope for us all.