Why Alain Passard left Paris to travel to Launceston TAFE

Chef Alain Passard and sous chef Manon Poisbeau teaching TAFE students in Tasmania.
Chef Alain Passard and sous chef Manon Poisbeau teaching TAFE students in Tasmania. Photo: Chris Taylor

Two weeks ago when Melbourne played host to what is arguably the world's most famous listicle, most of the planet's top chefs obligingly flew into town to perform their role in the annual PR circus. For many of them, the World's 50 Best Restaurants event is a no-brainer junket: a rare chance to gossip, get loose and swap war stories with restaurant peers from around the globe. For others, it's more of a duty; the professional equivalent of putting in an appearance at a party to avoid looking rude. At least a handful look like they're there at knifepoint, purely to keep their investors and marketing teams happy.

But there they all were, wearing their red scarves, complicit by their attendance in yet another countdown of Eurocentric, male-dominant, degustation-based, look-at-me restaurants.

But one of the feted chefs was notably absent. French chef Alain Passard, whose Paris restaurant L'Arpege came in at No 12 on this year's list, didn't make it to Melbourne. On the surface this might not seem especially remarkable, except for the fact that Passard was actually in Australia at the time. He was a mere one-hour flight away from all the back-slaps and baubles. But rather than joining his fellow chefs in their champagne-soaked celebrations and bar-top can-cans, Passard was spending time with culinary students at the Launceston campus of TasTAFE.

Chef Alain Passard (right), Jacques Reymond and L'Arpege sous chef Marine Hervouet at TAFE Launceston.
Chef Alain Passard (right), Jacques Reymond and L'Arpege sous chef Marine Hervouet at TAFE Launceston. Photo: Chris Taylor

Even by Passard's own unconventional standards, it was a surprising place for him to be. The acclaimed 60-year-old chef is famous for never leaving France. In fact, he seldom leaves his post at L'Arpege, which has held three Michelin stars since 1996, and which he closes every weekend so he can personally tend to the three biodynamic vegetable farms he owns outside of Paris that service the restaurant.

So how did a travel-shy, kitchen-tethered chef like Passard agree to leave his dominion and fly halfway around the world? And – if it's not too impolite to ask – why to Launceston of all places?

The coup can be chalked up to the persistence and dare-to-dream vision of TAFE education manager Christopher McGimpsey. For the past two years McGimpsey has been looking for novel ways to not only increase the number of TasTAFE's culinary course enrolments, but also to arrest the attrition rate among existing students. His big idea was to invite world-class chefs to the Launceston campus in the hope that their lustre would help inspire the students to see cooking as a rewarding vocation.

"In the past, students have done a week's placement in a restaurant," says McGimpsey. "I looked at doing that on steroids by bringing these chefs in. We're looking to create moments that might help inspire people to join the industry."

Last year McGimpsey was able to woo the likes of Tetsuya Wakuda, Mark Best, Jacques Reymond, Donovan Cooke and Dan Hong to cook alongside the students at specially convened dinners, but this year he wanted to raise the bar even higher.

Passard was always on his wish list. But no one thought he stood a chance.

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"Everyone was telling me not to even try, including [former Marque chef] Mark Best, who'd worked at L'Arpege for a few years," he says.

But an unwavering tenacity, coupled with a gift for internet stalking that would impress even the Russians, landed McGimpsey an appointment with Passard, and a chance to make his pitch.

"I thought Passard was probably at that stage in his life where he was thinking of giving back," he says. "So I highlighted some of the educational disadvantage in Tasmania. Some of the low literacy and numeracy rates, and some of the at-risk youth. He has an affinity with that, employing a lot of at-risk youth himself to work on his farms. So my pitch to him was based around those values."

He needn't have been so calculating. For his part, Passard was a pushover.

"I said yes straight away," says Passard, speaking through a translator while sipping Darjeeling tea in the TasTAFE kitchens. "Because I wanted to see this part of the world. Australia is unique. And Christopher thought my style of cuisine would work well in Tasmania because I work a lot with vegetables and fresh herbs."

It just so happened that Passard had never heard of Tasmania, and McGimpsey believes that this ignorance, far from being an obstacle, may in fact have been a plus.

"If you know the man, and know what makes him tick, I think the obscure was a lure," says McGimpsey. "The fact it was a little bit left-of-centre actually appealed to him."

For one of the world's hardest working chefs there was an additional appeal about making the long-haul trip down under.

"In my job, people don't sleep much. So the opportunity to sleep for 24 hours on a plane was a gift. I took it straight away."

Inside the Launceston college Passard looks every bit the culinary guru in his white jacket as he paces from station to station inspecting the students' mise en place. He's not here to give them tutorials or master classes. He's here to give them the experience of helping him prepare a three-Michelin-star-quality meal, and whatever bragging rights go with that.

"Their exposure to this genre of food is probably something that's doing their heads in," says McGimpsey.

The veteran Melbourne chef Jacques Reymond, who returned to TasTAFE this year to assist with the Passard visit, believes it's an opportunity that most trainee chefs around the world could only dream of.

"They have the chance while chef Passard is here to work with the best produce in the world," he says. "And to learn some new techniques that only someone like him can teach them."

Reymond believes bold education initiatives like this are absolutely essential at a time when the industry faces a chronic chef shortage. The irony isn't lost on him that while the restaurant elite was toasting placings on the World's 50 Best list, egged on by a fawning food media in love with winners, a large proportion of the hospitality industry was struggling to find chefs to fill their shifts.

"The top 50 restaurants in the world will never have this problem," says Reymond. "They'll always have people queuing up to work for them. The problem is there aren't only 50 restaurants in the world. There are 50 million."

Two years into the TasTAFE program, it's perhaps still too early to measure its impact, although McGimpsey notes that enrolments by international students, who he says place a huge value on working alongside international chefs, have quadrupled in a year.

He hopes the program works both ways too. Students get the benefit of meeting top-drawer chefs, but the chefs in turn get exposed to native Australian produce which they may choose to add to their menus when they get back home.

For Passard, it's possible that he thought a trip to the other side of the world might also have a personal knock-on effect. He may have thought the change of scene would do him good, and help him to reclaim the culinary mojo that some critics believe has recently deserted him. Ryan Sutton, from the influential US food site Eater, described his meal at L'Arpege last July as one of the worst he had all year, describing it as "a study in average, unevenly cooked fare". It's a view shared by the Sydney Morning Herald restaurant reviewer Callan Boys, who recently in these pages hinted at similar disappointment.

As he forensically inspects a student's bisque in the TasTAFE kitchen, Passard certainly doesn't look like someone whose place in the culinary firmament has been shaken, or whose passion for cooking is on the wane. The role of mentor sits very comfortably on him. The balance of the bisque makes him happy. A nearby tray of baby carrots, elegantly peeled to his specifications, unleashes a rush of Gallic ebullience.

"I want these students to see that cooking can be like art and music and painting," he says. "A kitchen shouldn't be seen as a kitchen, but more like the backstage of a theatre."

As he nears his own retirement, Passard believes he has a responsibility to pass on everything he's learnt; and also, more importantly, to convey the beauty of the cooking profession to anyone who doubts it.

"It is the chef's duty to transfer his knowledge, and to pass on his skills to the younger generation," he says. "I spend my life teaching. Every day I'm teaching. It's even in my name, Passard; the one who passes on."