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For any would-be restaurant owner, Alain Passard has an unusual piece of advice – always inspect the dustbins.
The tip seems more suited to in the realm of private detective agencies. But Mr Passard, proprietor and chef of Arpège in Paris, insists this is an ideal method of checking unnecessary waste.
He should know bes. Since earning Michelin’s Three Star accolade in 1996 at Arpège, 48-year-old Mr Passard has proved one of France’s most innovative and successful chef-restaurateurs. Mr Passard’s His reputation is now about to take a new turn following a move by Insead, the Fontainebleau-based business school, to treat Arpège as a case study.
“Alain Passard is a fascinating example of someone who has succeeded by being both highly creative and very efficient in management terms,” says Jean-Claude Larréché, Insead’s Alfred Heineken Professor of Marketing. “This is not really a classical case study but we want to use the example of Arpège to get MBA students thinking in innovative ways. Much of what Alain Passard has done breaks the rules.” says M Larréché.
Mr Passard began working aged 14 as apprentice pastry cook and Mr Larréché has been intrigued by his ability to take risks and break taboos.
For a start, Arpège is small and cramped by Three Star standards. Mr Passard bought the premises in 1986 because he liked the feel of the place, having worked there in his formative years in the late seventies 1970s when it was L’Archestrate. (The name Arpège was part tribute to his musician father, part canny need to have a letter ‘A’ so as keep the former restaurant’s engraved crockery).
The location in the largely residential seventh arrondissement is a bit of a culinary desert. Six out of Paris’s ten 10 Three Star restaurants are in the business-dominated eighth arrondissement on the right bank of the Seine. Unlike his peers, Mr Passard also refuses to have valet parking even though parking is very difficult.
In terms of image he has been media friendly, exploiting an infectious but unpretentious enthusiasm. However, unlike his peers, he has eschewed celebrity status and played down branding.
Such idiosyncrasies apart, Insead researchers were attracted by Mr Passard’s decision in 2001 to remove red meat from the menu and concentrate on a vegetable-based cuisine. The media dubbed him ‘Che Guevara of the carrot’.
Many restaurateurs predicted Arpège could not survive as a Three Star removing the staple of red meat. Not only did clients normally demand red meat, on the menu, the trade argued it would be impossible to sustain Three Star prices – €300- ($359-) plus per head without wine – with vegetables as the mainstay.
Mr Passard has proved the critics wrong, keeping his Three Stars and sustaining a business 60 per cent dependent upon foreign clientele despite the fall in US tourists after September 2001.
He was perhaps lucky the vegetarian switch occurred at the height of the scare of mad cow’s disease scare. , encouraging diners to experiment more with vegetable-based menus.Cutting red meat from the menu also had the side effect of reduced the requiredforthe size of costly wine stocks by one a one-third.
But Mr Larréché attributes his euros3.45m annual turnover and continued profitability to: “First being constantly been innovative; second combining creativity with very efficient management and consistent top quality and service.”
Mr Passard adds his own little recipe of success. The switch to vegetables gave his cooking a new lease of life, making and made him more inventive.
Less visible but of equal importance has been Mr Passard’s idea of creating his own supply chain. He now operates has two market gardens outside Paris, which supply all 100 per cent of his fruit and vegetables. The market gardens, using traditional farming methods, (including horse ploughing) wholly condition the seasonality of the menu. On Mr Passard’s his website there is a Decalogue of exhortations, the final being “Thou shalt respect the seasons”.
The market gardens permit complete control over produce, the type and quality of products. but this kind of farming is costly. Also, Mr Passard has discovered that the cleaning and preparation of vegetables is very time consuming. infinitely more time consuming than that for red meat. Thus the idea of vegetables being cheaper is largely illusory. However, the market gardens have attracted so much attention he is now being courted to supply vegetables beyond the confines of Arpège.
So far, Mr Passard has steered away from the chef-restaurateur business model epitomised by top chef Alain Ducasse, who has a has developed a large international empire spread across continents which that relies on accompanied by aggressive branding and resorting to external finance.
But the temptation to diversify is there. Monoprix, the French chain store, has asked him to requested he develop a line of “creative sandwiches”; he has collaborated with Christofle, the luxury tableware groupmanufacturer; and he takes on a growing load of private catering and international culinary consultancy. He has his eye on China and Japan, and is also looking at studying the possibilities of simplifying vegetable preparation for use in more modestly priced restaurants.
Such alternatives could cushion a business whose success rests on fragile components – continued passion for the kitchen, good health, control of costs in a labour- intensive process and exacting standards. If any of these elements begin to fail, Arpège risks losing its Three Star status.
The Insead case study reckons this would mean a 30 per cent loss of revenue. Worse than a downgrade by one of the ratings agencies, and the threat is enough to keep Mr Passard going.
RECIPE FOR SUCCESS
■ Strive for constant innovation. Alain Passard says the switch to vegetables gave his cooking a new lease of life, making him more inventive.
■ Take risks and do not be afraid to break taboos – not just with food but with location or valet parking.
■ Combine creativity with efficient management and consistent, top quality and service.
■ Think about diversification.