The Taste With Vir: Alain Ducasse, king of chefs who revolutionised French cuisine
For most chefs, Alain Ducasse remains a legendary figure who rarely talks about himself or his philosophy and lets the food (and the Michelin stars) do the talking. But when he does open up, you realise quite how remarkable an individual he is. He may well be the king of chefs.
Over a decade ago, I was introduced to Alain Ducasse, then as now, the world’s most respected chef. We were at the opening of the Hermes Men’s store in New York and Ducasse, who not only wears a lot of Hermes but also uses Hermes crockery in his restaurant was cooking the inaugural dinner.
After we were done with the pleasantries (I said what an honour it was to meet the world’s greatest chef; he looked modest, etc.), I asked why he had never done anything in India. He replied that he had considered opening a restaurant at the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai. One of his chefs had talked to Hemant Oberoi (then the Taj’s top chef) but it had not worked out.
Even so, I persisted, given that he cooked all over the world, shouldn’t he at least visit India, home to one of the world’s great cuisines?
Yes, he said, it was certainly something he planned to do.
Last week, Ducasse finally made it to India. He didn’t come to cook or to open a restaurant, though. His current obsession is culinary education. He has opened (or is in the process of opening) Ecole Ducasses, his cooking schools, all over the world. The Indian version has just opened in Gurgaon, a collaboration with Dilip Puri’s state-of-the-art Indian School of Hospitality.
Ducasse was here for a few days: He ate at Bukhara and at Indian Accent (“So this is modern Indian food”, he said), was the star of a dinner cooked in his honour at the Leela Palace in Delhi by Julien Mercier, his executive chef and the Leela’s director of food and beverage Sameer Sehgal, and managed to fit in a long live chat with me.
The event, one of the series of Culinary Conversations I have been hosting, with the world’s greatest chefs was at the Ecole Ducasse, and was organised by Dilip Puri in association with Culinary Culture. It was attended by restaurateurs, chefs and hoteliers, all of whom were clearly in awe of Ducasse.
Most people respect Ducasse because of his obvious achievements. He was the youngest chef to run a restaurant that received three Michelin stars. He is the only chef to have ever run four restaurants with three Michelin stars simultaneously. His restaurant group has more Michelin stars than any group helmed by any chef. Many of the world’s great chefs (Mauro Colagreco, Clare Smyth, Helene Darroze, Massimo Bottura, all with three Michelin stars at their restaurants) have worked with him and even the rare Ducasse restaurant that does not have a Michelin star will still have outstanding food: Such is the consistency he is known for.
While all this is impressive enough, it is not the reason I admire Ducasse so much. From my perspective, his greatest achievement is that not only did he quietly transform French food without drawing attention to himself, he has always been ahead of the curve when it comes to food trends.
Fans of French cuisine will know that an epochal change took place in the 1960s and 1970s, when a new generation of chefs threw out heavy flour-based sauces, stopped boiling vegetables till all the crunch had gone out of them and began to value lightness in food. It was men like Michel Guerard, Alain Chapel and Roger Verge who led the change but many others (like Paul Bocuse and other disciples of the legendary Fernand Point) had roles to play in the creation of what came to be called nouvelle cuisine.
Ducasse trained under many of these people — Guerard, Chapel and Verge — and he quickly mastered their techniques. (Guerard once told me that Ducasse was the most brilliant young chef he had ever seen in his kitchen.)
But he took cuisine one step further. Nouvelle cuisine had been about technique. Ducasse shifted the focus to ingredients. Because he had grown up on a farm, he valued the provenance of every vegetable and of every free-range chicken. He started the trend of finding the best ingredients and cooking only with them.
It is hard to over-emphasise what a fundamental change this was. If you looked at the classics of nouvelle cuisine, they were all about technique. For instance, the Troisgros brothers made their reputation with a fish dish: Salmon with sorrel. The significance of the dish was the way they cooked the fish: Flash-searing it, not poaching it. As praised as this was, nobody asked the key question: Where is the salmon from?
After Ducasse, it is the first question every serious chef will ask. In recent years, with the preponderance of nasty, mass-produced ingredients (say, cheap, flabby, farmed salmon), that question has become even more important. But it was Ducasse who first made chefs ask it on a regular basis.
The job of a chef, he says, is not to show off his skills at saucing but to take the finest ingredients from nature and figure out how best to bring out their flavours without unnecessary human intervention.
I reckon this as fundamental a revolution as nouvelle cuisine was in its day. But unlike, say, Paul Bocuse and others who were keen to project themselves, Ducasse is a modest man who never takes credit for such innovations. As Massimo Bottura said to me, “Ducasse was doing farm-to-table even before the term was invented.”
A second great innovation was his use of vegetables as the stars on the plate and not as side dishes. Ducasse loves vegetables. But he wants them to taste of themselves, not of any fripperies that the chef can come up with.
I still remember a dish at Louis XV, his original three Michelin star restaurant in Monte Carlo. It consisted of three spears of the new season’s asparagus served with a little bit of preserved lemon. The asparagus tasted more asparagusy than any I had eaten before or after. This was because he had chosen the best asparagus he could find, cooked them just enough and found a perfect complement in the lemon.
Ducasse was also the first chef of consequence to introduce a vegetables-only menu, at least 15 years ahead of current trends. Unlike say, Alain Passard, another very accomplished chef, however, he did not make a big noise about it.
This time, in Delhi/NCR, he talked about Daniel Humm of New York’s Eleven Madison Park. Humm is a classically trained Swiss-American chef, who risked his business (and his three Michelin stars) by taking meat and fish off his menu and going entirely plant-based. Ducasse ate there and says he was stunned by how good the food was. It was one of the best meals he had eaten in a long time, he added.
Humm had taken a risk, Ducasse said. But it had paid off: Thousands of people still keep asking for reservations at Eleven Madison Park. If chefs are more adventurous, Ducasse believes, they will find that the public is more than happy to try new things.
Ducasse also praised the hospitality at Eleven Madison Park, something it has always been famous for. For Ducasse, hospitality is everything. In the old days, fancy restaurants were built to intimidate. Ducasse set out to change that; people had to feel happy, he decreed, not frightened or overawed if they were to enjoy food.
At all his restaurants, staff are told that the first five minutes after a guest enters the restaurant are crucial. He or she must be made to feel welcome. The staff must seem warm, friendly and genuinely happy to see the guests. If in those first five minutes, you have not won the guests over, then it doesn’t matter how good the food is; you have ruined the experience for them.
Unlike most traditional French chefs who enforced the division between the kitchen, where the chef ruled, and the dining room where a manager or a maître d’ hotel was the boss, Ducasse has worked to bring the kitchen and the dining room closer. “There must be as little of a distinction as possible,” he insists. “Guests must feel connected to the kitchen and to the chefs. The service people and the kitchen brigade have to work together,” he says, “like a team.”
Ah yes, I said. But who is the captain of the team: The manager or the chef?
He paused. “The chef, of course”, he said, finally.
For all that, Ducasse is firmly opposed to the idea of the chef as superstar. He often uses fashion parallels to describe what he does. For instance, describing his most famous dessert, the Baba au Rhum he explained that he had taken a perfectly common dessert and created a haute couture version of it.
It was a good parallel, I said. So, given the circumstances in which we had first met, wasn’t it appropriate to describe Ducasse’s restaurants as being the Hermes of food? Oh no, he said, that was too exalted a parallel.
Really? I persisted. Weren’t chefs artists in the way that top designers were?
Oh no, he said. “Chefs are not artists. “We are just craftsmen.”
What was the difference? “Well,” he said. “We don’t create art. We make people happy, which artists don’t have to do. And we make the same dishes night after night which artists would never do. We value consistency in a way that artists don’t.”
What did he think of chefs who regarded themselves as so brilliant that guests should be privileged and honoured to eat at their restaurants?
Not much, it turned out. If people went to a restaurant, they expected chefs to be good to them, so part of the job was to make them comfortable and happy. Guests were going out to dinner. They were not going on a pilgrimage.
Besides, all this stuff about genius chefs was nonsense. Chefs were never geniuses, nor were they supposed to be.
It follows from this that Ducasse strongly disapproves of chefs who shout and scream in the kitchen or those who use four letter words. That’s totally unacceptable, he says, no matter how great the pressure. A restaurant is a workplace. And in a workplace, you treat your colleagues with respect and consideration. If you don’t, you should be thrown out.
He gives the example of a manager at his New York restaurant who made homophobic remarks to a gay staff member. “The moment I heard about it,” he recalls, “the man was out on the street. Zero tolerance for this.”
I could go on. We talked for nearly two hours on stage and there were other chats, before the live event, after it, over lunch etc. but it would take too long to record everything I learned from Alain Ducasse. Let’s just say that talking to him made me realise how he has been able to revolutionise French cuisine — and I think, the whole world of restaurants — while drawing so little attention to his own personality.
For most chefs, Ducasse remains a legendary figure who rarely talks about himself or his philosophy and lets the food (and the Michelin stars) do the talking.
But when he does open up — as he did during our session — you realise quite how remarkable an individual he is. He may well be the king of chefs. But he is a thoughtful and benevolent king.