Life is funny. I started The Kale Project because I couldn’t find a job in Paris. I started the Project because while wandering the Seine is a lovely occupation, when you leave a bustling city like New York, the pleasures of macarons and escargot only last so long until you need more. I started the Project because I had an internal fear that if I did not do something in Paris that I would not be able to find a job when we eventually do move back to America. And I started The Kale Project because I just couldn’t get past the fact that the French did not grow a cabbage as ancient as kale.
And now here I am today… with an article in the New York Times and the experience of a kale menu dégustation by Alain Passard of Arpège. As I said, life is funny and also really awesome.
Rockstar journalist Elaine Sciolino contacted me back in July about her interest to learn more about the Project. I could not have asked for a better writer to do something on kale in France. In fact she is someone I’ve always admired as her book Le Seduction was one of the first I read upon arriving in Paris. I knew this woman had figured out how to deal with the French in a clever way – it became somewhat of a French handbook to me, although I always thought that the seduction part would always be a lot easier if I could easily communicate with people. Now two years later, as French phrases flow out of my mouth with a lot more ease, I am finally able to put into practice Elaine’s idea of how the French play the game of life.
I had the most incredible time with her and well-known French food critic from the newspaper Le Monde, Jean-Claude Ribaut as we went to markets, Madame Mustard’s farm, Arpège and another small bistro in the 19th, O Divin. It was the journey of all journeys and one of which I feel so grateful to have experienced.
To start, Elaine and Jean-Claude attended the pop-up event at Babel in early September. I gave then tastings of les kale chips, kale smoothies, kale salad and kale pesto tartine. For Jean-Claude it was the first time he’d ever tasted or seen the vegetable.
The following day the three of us headed out to Madame Mustard’s farm and no question went unanswered. While driving to the farm, Jean-Claude shared that he had in fact written an article for Le Monde back in 2001 about cabbages for every season including kale (or as it was referenced chou frisé non-pommé/chou plume) but did not realize he’d written about kale since the vegetable is so unknown here.
And then came the lunch at Arpège. Many people have said to me before, “Oh you must go talk to Alain. He has farms. He grows his own vegetables. He must start growing kale.”
But think about it: I’m this American chick with broken-French. Do you really think that I’m going to approach a world-famous, three Michelin star French chef such as Alain Passard and ask him to plant or use le kale? Heading to the smaller, newer restaurants that aren’t entrenched in French food tradition is one thing… but Arpège? It was always going to be something I saved for later. Much later. If ever.
Until Jean-Claude insisted that Arpège was the place we would go with our crate of Madame Mustard’s kale. Monsieur Passard happily accepted the challenge and spent the next three days working with and imagining the dishes. Then on Monday afternoon, we took our place for the kale menu dégustation. And it was gorgeous.
As Monsieur Passard does (rumor has it he’s quite the flirt), he frequently came in and out of the kitchen to chat and smile with patrons and made his way over to us to explain each dish.
The starter was a simple ravioli with kale in a light tomato bouillabaisse with a dash of fresh pepper. The second course a 50/50% combination of kale and onion with finely diced chives on top. Monsieur Passard explained that the acidity of the chives were a great balance with the alkaline taste of the kale. I made a mental note to include chives in my next raw kale salad.
The third course was by far one of the simplest but also my favorite. A kale purée of 95% kale and 5% courgette topped with a crème du speck. I hadn’t even heard of speck before this meal and it was the perfect flavoring to mix into the creamy soup. Jean-Claude remarked that the taste was “paysanne and country rustic.” Indeed and added with the crisp country bread at the table, I could have eaten this soup all day.
The fourth course was perhaps the most unique. While maybe not much to look at, don’t judge this book by the cover. An onion, kale, courgette sausage (all vegetarian inside with animal casing) accompanied by a red pepper purée and celeri rave and turnip foam. The flavors were perfect combination of savory and vegetable fresh.
Lastly was the stuffed kale in tomato broth. A kale-lover’s dream as it’s kale, onion and potato wrapped in kale marinating in a tomate-vert and matcha broth.
Suggested wine pairings were a 2010 Sauvignon Blanc (Domaine La Grange Tiphaine Touraine) and then a 2010 Cote du Beaune (Domaine Bachelet Monnot Batard Montrachet Grand Cru).
And of course nothing is complete in France without a plate of perfect French pastries for dessert.