Tuesday, 10 September 2013

In the Kitchen with Alain Passard

If you approach In the Kitchen as a Christophe Blain book, it’s likely you’ll be disappointed. Blain’s comics have always been a vessel of artistic hedonism, rich in story, large in character, ridiculously over-endowed in art and spectacularly coloured. In the Kitchen is somewhat of a departure for Blain, a non-fiction ‘collaboration’ with thrice Michelin-starred French chef, Alain Passard. Passard’s initial wish was to work on a book with an illustrator who would help him better explain his methods and recipes through a visual breakdown and representation, but what developed is a documentary style  narrative, with Blain accompanying him to various locations as they conduct a lengthy running-dialogue/ interview on cooking and creating,  punctuated with recipes at the end of each passage. Over a period of  3 years, Blain visits Passard at his restaurant, L’Aperge, his home, his gardens, talks to his workers and colleagues, and eats heartily all the while.
I would imagine there’s always some thought given to the Venn diagram of audiences you’re tapping when marrying 2 well-known and highly regarded figures together on a project like this, resulting in crossover appeal to comic fans who may not be interested in cooking but are picking up the latest Blain book, and cookery fans who don’t read comics but do follow Alain Passard (the French edition sold 25, 000 copies in the first 2 months of its release). How best to cater to both without risking alienation?  Blain begins by interpolating himself into the narrative as the slightly bumbling but game artist; we see him receive a phone-call from (presumably) his agent:
‘a book on a famous chief? …oh, chef.’
‘Alain Who?’
‘No way.’
‘Well it depends, let’s see…’
‘Will he let us eat there? For, um, research?’
He straightaway establishes that connection with the reader ‘hey, I know nothing about any of this either, let’s just amble along together and see what it’s all about’. The easy, affable air he projects is key in the development of the reader’s comfort and trust.Throughout the book, he serves as the reader stand in cum guide,  explaining more specialist terms, interjecting when confused, even drawing himself in a more traditionally cartoony style than the others and using his signature caricatured nose, making it easier for the reader to interpose and align with him.  It’s a simple, easy to follow technique that never resorts to dumbing down.
Passard is the other crucial element here, the book hinges on his personality and rapport with Blain and while he perpetuates a few of the stereotypical chef characteristics: intense, driven, exacting, a tad eccentric, he comes across as an intelligent and thoughtful man, with a dry wit, respected by his staff, gardeners and customers. Most notably his sheer passion for cooking and what he does radiates from the page, as he explains how the soil and techniques from his 3 gardens produce very different vegetables, as he drags a table into the sun to better show Blain the colour of a beetroot, as he discusses the importance of harmony and composition on a plate. These are the kind of things you would perhaps smile wryly or roll your eyes at, but Passard’s passion is so complete in its definition, his need and desire to do this thing and to do it properly, explore it thoroughly, to be immersed in its details, to do this thing that may not be important or explicable to others or may not even be important, but gives him meaning- that passion ascends the insularity of its subject, and is understandable and admirable to most.
I am not a great restaurant patron, so it was surprising to me how much attention is paid to Passard’s cooking with mainly vegetable ingredients. In the French restauranting world, not working with meat is eccentric and a novelty for even a chef, and when he first removed meat from L’Aperge’s menu in 2001, the move garnered a sizable amount of press coverage. Passard’s reasons for not working with meat don’t stem from any humane or ethical grounds; he was bored by meat, uninspired, and the humble, overlooked vegetables presented a challenge. ‘I couldn”t work with it [meat] every day,’ he sighs to Blain, massaging his temples, ‘Just thinking about it makes me tired.’ ‘The chef has truly become a gardener,’ says sous chef Tony, equal parts awed and horrified.
Blain manages a variety of tones and moods over the duration of the book; there’s a fantastic passage where he and Passard go  and spend the day in one his gardens (a ‘garden’worked on by 7 people, spread  over 170 acres, of which 9 are used for farming and produces 27 tonnes of vegetables a year), and as night falls, Alain insists on cooking a meal in a little shed attached to the houses, aided only by torchlight, while Blain attempts to take notes and ward off the attentions of the dog at the same time. I am pretty sure drink was involved.
It’s a hugely enjoyable read, engrossing even to the novice (like me) in the machinations and workings of running a prestige restaurant: hearing about how dishes have to be patented, how different times of the day attract different crowds: the evening crowd is more statusy, there to impress and be seen, more interested in dining at one of the best restaurants and not really concerned with the food, whereas the afternoon tends to see people who know and appreciate their food. Passard respects both, but trusts in the afternoon crowd more, choosing to experiment  and test new dishes with them.
It’s gratifying to see artists try new genres within the medium, and curious also to see Blain adapt his style to the material, and the choices he makes. He forgoes any strong colouring, using clean white backgrounds, unlined panels and many many speech bubbles. It’s obvious, I think, that those choices were made -wisely- because there was large amount of written text to fit in (3 years, remember), and the addition of any background or stronger colour palette would have been overwhelming. If you’re one of those people who bemoan the falling word count in comics, you’ll be thrilled with this: text in bubbles on top of bubbles, floating text, text  in diagrams. On first reading, I didn’t notice just how much text and how many bubbles (My God, the bubbles!) there were, which is testament that it works. I like this book very much as an example of what comics are capable of and the sheer diversity and possibilities of the medium, and yet I would imagine for the non comics reader, it is difficult or tricky to follow (it contains 15 recipes, but they are printed on separate pages in ‘prose’ format).
That quick energy and frenetic line of which Blain is master is perfectly suited to reflect the bustle of the kitchen, and that ability he has to transmute such a jocular and pleasing quality in his illustrations is present here, too. The combination of the two allow him to infuse any text with life, and between all the simmering and sauteing, and the conversation between Blain and Passard, the book exudes an ensconcing warmth. It’s a great comic, regardless of whether you hold an interest in the subject matter, and one you should seek out.

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