Like many other food enthusiasts, I have dined at Chef Alain Ducasse’s restaurants in many different parts of the world and met him on many occasions but never had a prolonged conversation with him till a few weeks ago. A version of this conversation was recently published in The Daily Meal and the extended version is posted below.
Alain Ducasse: The “Glocal “French Superstar Chef
by Geeta Bansal
When Alain Ducasse is not jetting across the world to one of the 23 restaurants in his 19 Michelin star studded empire, he may be cooking, though not necessarily in one of his own kitchens. It might be Massimo Bottura’s Reffertorio soup kitchen in Milan, or the Lido 84 restaurant on Lake Garda for the Gelinaz chef shuffle or simply putting in an appearance at a chef event in Los Angeles. We met recently for a conversation about his passion for gastronomy and his quest for excellence in all his ventures, which are meticulously researched and planned to the last detail. No surprise that this perfectionist’s schedule includes four hours of tastings every day!
The elegant, dignified and somewhat larger than life persona metamorphosed into an entirely different being as he spoke animatedly about a tasting in Paris the previous day and about his love of travel and architecture. There was a lilt in his voice and a sparkle in his eyes as he described his meal at a new LA hotspot adjacent to a museum or the second Gout de France event (initiated by him) happening around the world. His Breton wife Gwenaelle is an architect and the couple, along with their young son Arzhel, when not in Paris spends time on their farmhouse in the Southwest of France. Originally from the same area, he trained with greats like Alain Chapel, Roger Verge, Gaston Lenotre and Michel Guerard and now is sharing the knowledge acquired through his decades of work in the business via his training programs for the professional as well as novice cooks, numerous books including “Cooking for Kids” a cookbook for children.
The savvy entrepreneur heads an extensive culinary empire that stretches from France to London, New York to Las Vegas, Hong Kong to Tokyo and from Monte Carlo, Monaco all the way to Doha, Qatar. The three flagship restaurants at the Plaza Athenee in Paris, Le Louis XV (renamed the Alain Ducasse restaurant) at the Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo and Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester in London hold three prestigious Michelin stars each. In addition to these, he has a Hotel & Chateau Collection, inns in the countryside, chocolate manufacturing, a consulting division, cooking school, and even a publishing company that produces many books authored by him.
But wait the Chevalier of the Order of the Legion d’Honneur bestowed man is not done yet!
The most recent project Champeaux, a contemporary brasserie at Forum Les Halles debuted in April of 2016. The royal Palace of Monaco with which he has a longstanding relationship since the time of Prince Rainier commandeered his services for the wedding celebrations of Prince Albert in 2011. The royal connection that began with Monaco continues next year with Ore, a modern cafe to open at the Palace of Versailles. His first foray into China with a restaurant project in Beijing also comes later this year. The culinary world pays close attention to whatever he does and when he chose to introduce a “naturalite” menu at his Plaza Athenee restaurant a furor ensued over the mistaken impression that his restaurant was going vegetarian. (His wife incidentally is a vegetarian.) The newly reopened, extensively refurbished restaurant in Paris lost a star for a year but quickly regained it returning to its elite status in the world of haute cuisine.
For a man constantly on the move traveling not only to his international operations but also taking the time to check out international food events and connecting with his younger peers he has taken the stage at events like MAD in Copenhagen and Mistura in Peru. On the occasion of the 25th anniversary of Le Louis XV in 2012 he invited 240 of the world top chefs from 25 countries for a unique gathering to facilitate sharing and exchange of professional knowledge and experiences. When I asked about the next such event where the chefs prepared over 100 dishes he smiled saying not anytime soon as it was a huge endeavor. The invitees ranged from Rene Redzepi to Joel Robuchon with whom he co-chairs the College Culinaire de France formed specifically to promote French Gastronomy. Last July when he was roped into the famous Gelinaz chef shuffle he exchanged his kitchen at Plaza Athenee with David Thompson from Bangkok who cooked his fiery Thai cuisine for one night while Ducasse himself cooked in Italy.
Ducasse is not just an extremely successful practitioner of French cuisine but also a teacher who is still an ever-curious student himself, absorbing all he can from the world around him. He continues to expound on the significance of grand chefs like him sharing their knowledge with the next generation of chefs as he continues to unfold new projects.
Since you are involved in so many different aspects of gastronomy, how would you describe yourself ? Who is Alain Ducasse?
I am a professional in this industry and I like to say a local chef with a global expression. In every country where I have a restaurant I have a different story to tell the guests and diners.
So is this what you refer to as a “glocal” sensibility?
Yes and It’s still French cuisine but adapted to the market I am in. My restaurant in Doha, Qatar is a good example where the menu has influences of Indian, Lebanese, Middle East, and Morocco. The cuisine is very French but the flavors are very Middle Eastern since I mixed all the regional flavors to create the experience.
What is modern French cuisine?
It’s a contemporary cuisine that is less rich, that fits into the present lifestyle; it has the DNA of traditional French cuisine but it caters to the contemporary life style of present day guests since it dials back on certain products. These contemporary guests, though not always loyal, are however perpetually curious.
Modern cuisine in itself doesn’t really exist, it is just the capacity to be current and in harmony with today’s society to seduce today’s diners to the table. It is the cuisine of 2016 as opposed to that of say 2007. It’s not the cuisine that itself is contemporary it is the just the necessary adaptation to our contemporary lifestyle.
The description on the menu at your new Restaurant Champeux in Paris describes the cuisine as contemporary version of traditional. What should diners expect?
It has the DNA of a typical French brasserie but it is more sexy, lighter, more refreshed and updated to fit the expectations of diners with more modern tastes. It’s an attempt to seduce the guests!
How do you bring a dish from the past into the present?
You can bring any dish from the past and update it. Once you make the decision and then bring something from the past, you keep the character of the dish but give it a twist to evoke a fresh sensation. Each dish can have its own twist or a different factor to make it fresh and contemporary.
In this era of easily accessible information, have you seen a change in the diners?
There is now a younger clientele taking an interest in gastronomy, and it’s a clientele that is very alive, curious, and communicative. They show off their experiences on social medal like Instagram. They are not necessarily loyal to a specific place or person and their attention is constantly focused on “What’s new out there”. It’s all for the “moment.”
Is it a generational aspect?
I am myself very curious and though I feel we must preserve the traditions we must have new chefs emerging to bring in new and modern things. I visited Otium, a restaurant adjacent to a museum in LA and it was an extremely enjoyable experience though very different and modern. In contrast, just a few weeks ago I had a very pleasurable lunch at Bocuse in Lyon and though both the experiences are very different they are vey unique. One was more formal and beautiful while the other had a very different but interesting vibe.
Why do you think the younger generation of French chefs in Paris or elsewhere are dialing down dining, opting for a casual vibe?
I think because it’s cheaper, more sexy and as for me I do many different levels of gastronomy. I do high end down to the other end of the spectrum. French gastronomy goes from €25 to € 500 , of course they are not similar proposals, but that is the idea behind French gastronomy.
As a chef who enjoys working with a mortar and pestle at times, do you appreciate technology in the kitchen?
Technology offers an extraordinary assistance in the kitchen and it helps chefs be more consistent and regular. The technology takes the lead on the art. The new techniques should be used to assist the cook, essentially they should be at the service of the chefs and not the other way around. It certainly helps the performance and all these new techniques have helped to elevate the quality of cuisine. However the chef should always stay in charge of the destination.
What is not acceptable to you in any of your kitchens?
To not choose the best product available and then not use the best technique to bring that ingredient forward. Selection of the perfect product is very important so I stress that we must select perfectly, prepare perfectly, season perfectly, and cook perfectly. The right sauce or the right condiments, chosen wisely, make the dish.
What qualities do you look for in prospective employees and on their resumes, and is formal training a requisite?
I want to see their eyes sparkle if they want the opportunity. The desire and passion must be there. I am more interested in what the individual is capable of doing versus what’s listed on a CV. I am open to everything and don’t necessarily look at their training. It’s the passion for their work and desire for the opportunity that I look for. Motivation, ambition, and their drive to excel and succeed are the important qualities.
How was your experience during the Gelinaz Shuffle last year?
I was at this restaurant in Lake Garda Italy (Ristorante Lido 84) and had a very interesting experience and the chef Riccardo Camanini is a great guy. I really liked him, his personality as well as his food. For me personally it was a great experience to work there since I believe if you have the technique and the right products you can cook good food anywhere. I thought it was a great idea to organize this event and we served a beautiful dinner to the guests that night.
David Thompson from Nahm, Bangkok cooked his Thai cuisine at your Plaza Athenee restaurant. Did he bring in any fiery Thai chilies for the event?
Absolutely, he is extremely talented and he served a great dinner to our guests . I absolutely love this whole idea of the chef shuffle. Just yesterday in Paris I tasted the cuisine of a young Taiwanese chef who has trained in Canada. He recently opened a restaurant in Hong Kong where I discovered a mix of Chinese, Taiwanese, Japanese, and other Asian cuisines that I absolutely loved. So I invited him to present a tasting of his food in my Paris kitchen and of the nine or ten dishes he served, each was a different flavor. He identified the influences of each culture in the dishes and it was a great proposal.
You have had a curiosity and interest about Chinese and Indian cuisine as you mentioned a few years ago. Have you since explored more of these cuisines?
Every time I am in China I taste and experience the cuisine of China which is very complex and very difficult to comprehend because each region has its own and very different style. My chef who will be going to China at our restaurant there will be going six months ahead to research so when we do open it will be again the French DNA but encompassing those local flavors.
A few years ago you were contemplating a restaurant with Alex Atala in Brazil. Is that project still on the books?
On that trip I visited Acurio and Atala, among other chefs in the region. I visited Alex in Brazil but it was not the right time to visualize a project in Brazil. Maybe we will still develop that idea one day in the future.
These days besides the Michelin Guide there are lists such as the 50 Best and La Liste that have become a part of the conversation in gastronomy. Any thoughts on this subject?
I am not so involved in this conversation but in Europe it’s still the Michelin that carries weight. It’s fantastic for the Roca brothers from El Celler de Can Roca to be named number one on the 50 Best List. And now Massimo Bottura is the second one on the list and as you know he worked with me and is very talented and who knows maybe in the next two or three years he will be at the top of the 50 Best List. Even if you place in the top ten of the 50 Best list its fantastic. The greatest difficulty in our industry is to ensure longevity to last beyond five ten years to over 25 years.
According to you are there any young chefs who are destined to make positive changes in the industry. Is it important for young chefs to keep their egos in check to ensure the longevity of their careers?
I actually find the chefs of the younger generation to be very modest. They have also have created a unique relationship amongst themselves in the industry. They are low key, fraternal and down to earth. There is not just one but in fact there are hundreds who will continue this story and make contributions.
Is the job of a chef encompassing many other roles these days?
It is the decision of the chef to take on these different roles. At the Plaza Athenee we play the role of a humanitarian and politician since the whole idea behind our menu is to encourage people to eat without depleting resources , to be sustainable, eat more grains and to mindfully protect the products and environment. It is the role of chefs to carry forth these humanitarian values.
Dan Barber’s Stone Hill Barn is situated on a farm and now Noma is moving to an urban farm. Since these chefs exert a huge influence in the industry, are more such restaurants likely to pop up in the future?
These are not easy propositions but they are going to come up. Dan Barber has been doing this so well for ten years at Stone Hill in New York and is really the best real example of such work. I have also been doing this at a lot of my restaurants and auberges and of course they are seasonal.
You have a lot of women heading kitchens and other jobs in your organization, but is it fair to distinguish between chefs based on their gender instead of their talent?
For me it a decision and not about gender. I have a female chef heading the kitchen at my Allard restaurant in Paris or at Benoit. I chose them because they are the best and I think that my chef at Allard is the best chef for that restaurant, and I don’t see any male chef being as capable for that job. She is ideal person to achieve what I want at that restaurant.
It is a hard job and it’s easier for men and so it’s important to notice and recognize when women make a mark. We just talk about it more since it’s not as common. Even I tend to talk more about my female chefs than my male chefs though I regard them as equals in the field. Sometimes I will point them out to the men saying they are better than you!
What is your reaction to incompetence in the kitchen by one of the team members?
I just go ahead and show them how to do a better job since for me it’s all about the teaching.
Going back in time any recollections of your first day in the Hotel de Paris kitchens in Monte Carlo?
I had already dreamed and written down what I planned to do before I actually arrived there. I do remember was a Thursday on 27th May, 1987, and everything was already in place to begin my work.
Yes, and I decided to take the challenge and then I managed to get them in just 33 months.
Have you always had such confidence in yourself, and where does this confidence come from?
I believe that you just have to work and not doubt your abilities. You just have to be sure of your destination. The only problem is when you haven’t decided what you want to do in life. In order to accomplish your dreams you must have a clear vision at the outset.
Did surviving a catastrophic air crash change the way you look at life?
I realized that there were no insurmountable challenges and anything was possible . Even prior to the accident I had confidence but it certainly changed my vision making me realize the possibilities out there. Your destination is a decision you make yourself for your work or life and should be courageous in following.
Do events like Gout de France boost the profile of French cuisine around the world?
It’s a way to show off our cuisine, and that it’s alive and strong. One day I just woke up with this idea and the subsequent success of this event has exceeded my expectations. The aim was a 1000 restaurants and this year in 2016 we have a 1700 around the world, out of which just 250 are in France.
Actually travel is also my passion and hobby. I believe it’s important for chefs to travel and as for me I discover something new every time. I also love architecture like that of Doha where my own restaurant is located in the new museum.
I would say I. M. Pei, Jean Nouvel, and many other big names in architecture and design with different styles who have contributed to our cultural diversity.
You have achieved so much in your life and are continuing to do more, but are you content with the status quo?
I am satisfied but always curious and impatient to do more. What is important is knowledge and transmitting that knowledge to the younger generation. To share the knowledge is my dream and that is why I write books, teach around the world and have a cooking school. I teach both in France and Canada, do collaborations around the world and publish books.
You realized a dream you had held on to for thirty years to manufacture high quality chocolates. Are there any similar notions you have been harboring over the years?
I have a lot of dreams, but I know I won’t be able to accomplish all of them. I have many, many dreams!