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Back to the basics

Trendsetting French chef Alain Ducasse’s ‘simple’ new menu could herald a new food philosophy.

india Updated: Oct 08, 2010 03:48 IST

While looking out over his global empire of gourmet restaurants, based all over the world, from Tokyo to Paris, French master chef Alain Ducasse decided this spring it was time for something new. So he took the menu of the Plaza Athenee, his flagship three-star restaurant at the Parisian hotel, and decided to strip it back to basics — in what he believes may herald a radical new food trend. “I want to remind people of the taste of bread and butter," Ducasse says. “The best bread, toasted just so, and served with butter at exactly the right temperature.”

Produce — bought at the right place, at just the right time of year to ensure peak quality — is at the heart of the new menu, unveiled this week to the hotel’s elite international clientele. “We’ve never been about bling-bling — but now we are definitively going to get back to essentials,” Ducasse said. “There are no accessories — just like a very beautiful woman does not need accessories.”

Of course, diners will be left in no doubt of where they are — seated under the vast chandeliers of the hotel’s hushed, opulent interior. But, said Ducasse, “We are are no longer into pomp and ceremony in our cuisine. There will be more luxury in the decor — but more purity in the plate." ‘Veal, Carrots’ or ‘Vegetables, Fruits’ — Ducasse’s new dishes sound a far cry from the poetic elaboration that defines gourmet menus the world over, and nowhere more so than in France.

“Our modest ambition is to set a new gold standard for veal, duck, beef,” said the chef. Dishes of no more than three ingredients will aim, he said, to “define the essence of taste.” “Cuisine has become too complicated — this is about subject, verb, adjective: duck, turnips, sauce.” When a customer orders beef he will be brought a two-foot rib, unadorned, to the table, from which to choose his slice: “If they are real meat-lovers, they’ll go for it,” Ducasse wagered. “Otherwise they shouldn’t be eating meat!”

To give his new concept shape, Ducasse brought in Christophe Saintagne, who has spent over a decade working for him, to take over the Plaza kitchens. "We wanted to make the cuisine simpler, more readable -- not cuisine for the sake of demonstration," Saintagne says.

As an appetiser Saintagne served up two poor man’s dishes -- strips of smoky pork lard and meagre fish, served side by side on cubes of almost-burned bread, in a fold of red-and-white butcher’s paper. Next followed tiny shrimps, the heads sauteed first, the bodies peeled and lightly seized, then eaten straight out of a cast-iron pan with a pinch of salt, butter and a single clove of garlic. "Lobster, Potatoes," or "Strawberries, Cream, Meringue" followed the same mantra -- "defining the essence of taste."

In recent years Ducasse has been best known as an entrepreneur-chef, with more than two dozen tables around the world, collecting star after Michelin star. In the past Ducasse has been credited with launching food trends that later went viral -- like the revival of Mediterranean-style cuisine in the mid-1990s. He says, “I don’t know if people will like it, but the road I want to take may just be the start of a new trend.”

First Published: Oct 07, 2010 17:37 IST