Graphic novel meets cook book in comic tribute to Alain Passard's L'Arpège

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Acclaimed comic artist Christophe Blain goes through the swing doors to paint a lively portrait of the magical world of L'Arpège, the three Michelin-starred restaurant of Alain Passard, writes Luke Blackall

The mysteries of the modern restaurant kitchen have long been explored in the media through photographs, fly-on-the-wall documentaries and reality shows.

But a new book throws open the swing doors in a refreshingly (graphic) novel way.

In the Kitchen with Alain Passard is the work of Christophe Blain, an award-winning cartoonist, who spent time following French chef Passard around with a notebook. Passard, 57, is known as a master for turning gourmet meals out of the humblest of vegetables and his restaurant, L'Arpège, has three Michelin stars and was ranked number 16 on the most recent list of Restaurant magazine's The World's Best 50 Restaurants.

The book itself is not only Passard's method, but also the personalities, politics (and surprising politesse) of one of the best kitchens in Paris, with 15 recipes sprinkled in.

Blain said that initially it was Passard's idea to have an illustrator work with him on a book, as he thought it might help explain the process of putting together his recipes. But this developed into a series of cartoons, depicting the workings the chefs and vignettes from all aspects of restaurant life.

"I was there, I saw, I ate and I re-transcribed exactly, as spontaneously as possible, what I saw, heard and tasted," he said. "There were no other things that guided me in the concept, other than to stay loyal to what I saw."

Blain's minimalist inkings, unconstrained by panels, paint a fascinating portrait of life at a top restaurant. Through working with him and getting to try his adventurous fare, Blain found that at heart, Passard is a fellow creative.

"He functions very much like an artist, that fascinated me," said Blain. "He creates a world around himself, which protects him – a world built in his image. His personality is a mélange of many things."

Blain adds that he found himself drawn towards Passard's "obsessions and fascinations". "He goes completely mad when he finds a thing that he likes very much," he says. "It's that that I wanted to capture: 'What does this guy have in his head, that allows him to create food like he does?'"

Recipe and all illustrations courtesy of Chronicle Books

John Dory with Bay Leaves Under the Skin: Serves 4

With the point of a sharp knife (I use a utility knife), make a slit lengthwise in the skin of a 2¼-pound John Dory or porgy, on each side, without touching the flesh.

With both hands, ease the skin away from the flesh, creating a good space between the two, and slide 4 or 5 fresh bay leaves under the skin on each side.

In a large, oval fish frying pan, brown the Dory in a bit of olive oil over high heat, 7 or 8 minutes on each side. Set it on a hot ovenproof serving plate in an oven preheated to 200C.

Allow it to cook for 20 minutes more with the heat turned off and the oven door ajar. Just before serving, pass the John Dory under the broiler, daub it with a chunk of salted butter to give it a good sheen, and show it to your guests. On the still-warm plate, use a fish knife and spatula to remove the fillets.

Serve them on warm dishes with a few drops of olive oil, a pinch of fleur de sel, and, above all, the precious juices spooned from the bottom of the cooking plate!

Garnish with a seasonal vegetable—cabbage heart, chopped tomatoes, or eggplant caviar.

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