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Q & A with Alain Ducasse

Alain Ducasse.jpgThere are very few drawbacks to being a restaurant critic.   My one complaint is a life confined to the dining room.  I can only speculate on what really happens behind kitchen doors where restaurants are concerned.   But a couple weeks ago, I had the chance to sit down with Alain Ducasse.  For me, that was a big deal.  Ducasse is the most Michelin-starred chef in the world.  He reigns over a kingdom of twenty-four restaurants, a batch of bakeries, inns and cooking schools.  My favorite is Le Louis XV in Monaco.  Of all the dishes I’ve eaten, I will never forget the summer vegetables en cocotte I ate there one summer.  Or that magnificent bread trolley for that matter.  

But I wasn’t crazy about Benoit, his newest restaurant that opened in Manhattan five months ago.  I couldn’t help but wonder if the Frenchman would give me a piece of his mind when we met.  Or perhaps roast me and toss me in a cassoulet.   Ducasse had just flown in from Paris for a book party for “Ducasse Made Simple by Sophie” written by Sophie Dudemaine.  When I arrived, he was busy testing new recipes for Benoit’s late autumn menu – marinated salmon carpaccio with a mimosa condiment and caviar cream, scallops with fresh lemon, brown butter sauce and a sunchoke puree, and a boudin noir burger that had just been added to the menu last week.  He doted on each dish as it arrived at the table, making certain every single ingredient on every plate got a chance to shine.      

You wouldn’t expect Ducasse to be shy and soft-spoken, but he is.   He’s also a control freak.  So much so that he picked out the tiles and the photos hanging in the ladies room himself.  (He even gave me a personal tour of the bathrooms.)   His take on Alain Ducasse at the Essex House: “It’s scandalous.  Simply scandalous,” that American journalists refer to the restaurant as a failure.  “The restaurant was open six years.  Tables were filled with loyal guests every night.  It closed because the lease expired, not because it was empty.”

The Essex House aside, Ducasse has a wonderful sense of humor.  If you ever get the chance to meet him, tell him you heard he loves cinnamon.  He’ll make a face, then giggle.  He despises it.  But these days, the chef only cooks with his wife.   So when he offered to teach me how to cook a dish, I threw on an apron and we made pork belly with simmered autumn vegetables.  The final touch on this dish is apple shavings over the top.  “Instead of truffles,” he says with a wink.  “Recession-proof shavings,” I answered.   He laughed.

When it comes to your own restaurants, do you have a favorite? 
have to say my first and my last.  Le Louis XV and Benoit.  It’s the
same with lovers — you never forget your first and your last love.

You have twenty-four restaurants in your kingdom.  Why not call it a day?
I still love it. I still have fun.  I am a maker of memories.  I try to harvest excellence.  I’ll stop when it’s not fun anymore.  Maybe go “cold turkey” as the Americans say.

After all these years, how do you still manage to come up with new ideas, new dishes?
like music.  I store an index of flavors and textures.  I categorize
them according to rusticity, acidity, simplicity.  I still manage to
have more inventory than restaurants. 

You opened a Benoit in New York.  Why not try and open a restaurant like  Le Louis XV here too?
You can’t replicate the Mediterranean.  You can’t bring those fisherman
here.  You can’t get those line-caught fish or the same sweet tomatoes.  Each Benoit is different.  It’s “Glocal,” he explains. 
Benoit in Manhattan is different than Benoit in Tokyo.  Benoit Manhattan
is glocal: we use whatever’s fresh here, which is different than what’s
fresh in Japan right now.

What was your take on Alain Ducasse at the Essex House?
were one of the first gastronomic fine dining restaurants in New York. 
We paved the way for restaurants like Per Se and chefs like Thomas Keller.  Maybe when I die,
people will realize what I did here.   

What’s your response when people refer to Alain Ducasse at the Essex House as a failure?
scandalous.  Simply scandalous.  Essex House was opened four years and
it was a success.  We built a clientele of loyal guests.  Food lovers,
they followed us to the Essex House, then to Adour.  We lost our lease.  That’s the
only reason AD at The Essex House closed.

What happened at Benoit?
we opened too quickly.  We needed time to adjust.  It was a slow
evolution.  There are new dishes on the menu now, like the boudin noir
burgers with raw and cooked apples. 
But I think Americans don’t quite understand French bistro. 

Who’s to blame for that?

I think it’s the journalists.  It’s their duty to educate New Yorkers about French cooking. 
Americans don’t know what French bistro really means.  Here, nobody serves quenelles de brochet, cassoulet, or tarte tatin.   Benoit
is really my culinary proposal to  Americans.  It’s the story of the
French bistro in  a restaurant.  All of those dishes are my culinary proposal — French history.  

What do you think Americans want, the Parisian chef salad? ( I remind him that I wrote that I hated that dish in my review.)
our best seller at Benoit.  That’s what Americans want to eat.  My
favorite dishes are the tougher sells. The quenelles de brochet, the
cassoulet.  The journalists have to help explain this bistro tradition
to their readers.

What’s your favorite dish on Benoit’s menu?
The boudin noir burger, the tarte tatin, cassoulet, steak au poivre, and the lobster bisque.

Other than your own, what are your favorite restaurants in the city?
like Sushi Yasuda and Gari on the Upper East Side.  But I visit Tokyo
so much.  That’s my favorite place to eat sushi.  It’s the spirit and
essence, the real soul of a place.  
Here, I also like Momofuku Ko a lot and
Peasant.  I was one of the first people to eat at Peasant.  I remember there was a journalist there, who saw me having dinner with Jean-Louis Palladin.  Paul Bocuse was at the next table.  Suddenly, it was written up and
everyone wanted to eat at Peasant.

Do you cook anymore?

No, I
don’t cook in my restaurants anymore.  I only cook at home with my
wife.   But she’s not a very good commis – that’s French for sous chef.
(He laughs.)  I’m her commis at home.

What’s your least favorite ingredient or seasoning?
Cinammon.  Because it’s usually overused.

While cooking the pork belly with simmered vegetables, I wondered: What do you prefer?  Broth or bouillon?
I have faith in the cube.  I prefer the cube.

What did you want to be when you grew up?
I grew up on a
farm where we grew vegetables around pigs and ducks.   My grandmother
used to cook.  I loved to watch her in the kitchen, but she never let
me help.  When I was just fifteen, I went to culinary school so I knew
from very early on in life.

You’ve come a long way from rustic cooking.  How did that evolution happen?
studied a lot.  In Europe, we apprentice and train at every station.  I
worked for Alain Chapel for many years.  He taught me a great deal.
first solo debut was Le Louis XV in Monaco.  Considering your bucolic
roots, how do you reconcile those two very distinct styles of cooking?

hotel was very opulent, very beautiful and glamorous.  I didn’t want to
compete with that or change it.  Instead, I wanted to create something
totally different, not necessarily in harmony with the richness of the
room but with the region itself.   There’s nowhere better in the world
than the Mediterranean — the fishermen and the produce that grows on
Mediterranean sun-soaked soil.  I wanted to honor those ingredients and
let them stand out on their own.  That’s why I created categories as
simple as “garden vegetables.”

that you have restaurants all over the world with your name on them,
don’t you worry about what’s going on in the kitchen when you’re not
there, when you’re not even in the country?

The key is consistency.  They’re the same cooks in the kitchen here.  I’ve had the same staff working with me for years.

What do you look for when your hiring talent?
I can read it in their eyes.  It’s a chef’s spirit.  I have a meeting
with a young chef in a few minutes.  He worked with me at the Plaza
Athenee in Paris.  He wants to come work for me at Adour.  You can ask
him yourself.

So that’s exactly what I did.   I asked: Of all the chefs and restaurants in NYC, why Adour, why Ducasse I ask the young chef?
his attention to detail.  In all his restaurants.  The excellence. 
Every plate that leaves a Ducasse kitchen is beautiful.  Not only to
eat, but also beautiful to look at.  I want to work to send out dishes
that people appreciate, like art.

Then Ducasse and I finished out discussion.  Is there any
truth to the rumor about you taking over the Bocuse D’Or competition if
Paul Bocuse were to pass away?

next month.  (He jokes, then giggles.)  Ask Ms. Greene.  Apparently, she knows more than I
do.  No, there’s no truth it.  Paul and I are just good friends.

Photo Credit and Copyright: Mikael Vojinovic

One Comment

  1. Commis is not French for sous chef. Sous chef is French for assistant manager or under manager (direct translation). Commis would be French for aperients or student. I would hope that an interview with such an esteemed guest as Alian Ducasse would call for a little fact checking. During a recent visit to NYC I was pleasantly surprised by the average dinners understanding and comprehension of French. This base language of food is so bastardised by the food network that the general public has taken those errors as truth. I would expect more from the industry and food writers.
    P.S. I am not, nor do I speak French

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