The energetic portrait of Alain Passard that is the book’s frontispiece, reveals much of the man’s character: arms and shoulders thrust back, hands planted firmly on hips, right foot behind left, gaze intently fixed on the ingredients before him. The image captures a tiny, fleeting moment, the habitual stance familiar to the cooks in Passard’s kitchen. It’s an expressive pose—the moment of pause before action—when Passard searches the ingredients and himself to determine the outcome. It’s the artist taking a step back from the canvas to gain perspective on the work at hand.
The painterly metaphor is not a stretch. Passard insists on creating gorgeous tableaux—impromptu still lifes, really—with the raw ingredients for a dish. Sylvain, who tends Passard’s vegetable garden in Sarthe, southwest of Paris, admits to planting for colour because “that is important in Alain’s cuisine.”
What’s also important is the manner in which ingredients are transformed. On six separate occasions, like a technical mantra, Passard urges the cook to apply heat “gently.” That may have much to do with his medium. Passard long ago eschewed protein-focused cooking to embrace the vast and nuanced world of vegetables.
This call to tread softly runs counter to populist images of chefs at the stove with flaming pans. High heat has its applications but Passard reminds us that they are rare and that cooking is not flame-throwing.
That little piece of kitchen wisdom resonated, and reminded me just how difficult the lesson is to convey. (Perhaps that’s why he repeats it so often.) The uninitiated often equate pyrotechnics with professional skill.
When I taught young cooks, I liked to use a driving metaphor, reminding them that speed is quite often moderate. Drivers don’t get into vehicles and put the pedal to the floor from start to finish. The example was simple but only marginally effective. I made peace with the fact that only practice, and a few carbonized specimens, could really make that point.
Passard’s obsession with precise heat application is important. A burner, like a knife, is a tool and between high and low there are many options. Tweaking and adjusting temperature requires thoughtful practice that includes knowledge of ingredients and desired outcomes.
I made young cooks carry and use a thermometer to understand the difference between liquids used for poaching and boiling, a temperature variance of more than 70 degrees. Using thermometers also develops the skill of maintaining a consistent temperature over time.
It’s awkward for them at first and many young cooks balk, but at some point a wonderful and mysterious transference takes place. A cook begins to know through her senses—touch, smell, sound and sight—the exact nature of the process.
Cooking “gently” is about being mindful at the stove. It’s about raising awareness above the superficial frenetic activity of the professional (or any) kitchen. It’s the opposite of flaming bravado which, for the record, often signals a hurried (and sloppy) cook or too much fat in a pan.
Blain’s little book is a playful tribute to Alain Passard’s masterful skill. It’s a charming means of expressing the meditative attention, the continuum of care required to transport exquisite ingredients from garden to table.
 Christophe Blain, In the Kitchen with Alain Passard (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2013) 75.
 Blain 43.