Over a decade ago, I was introduced to Alain Ducasse, who was then as now, the most respected chef in the world. We were at the opening of the Hermes men’s store in New York and Dukas, who not only wore a lot of Hermes products, but also used Hermes crockery in his restaurant and were cooking the inaugural dinner.
After we finished the compliments (I said it was an honor to meet the greatest chef in the world; he seemed humble, etc.), I asked him 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 spoke to Hemant Oberoi (then head chef at Taj) but it didn’t work out.
However, I insisted, since he cooks all over the world, shouldn’t he at least visit India, home to one of the best cuisines in the world?
Yes, he said, it’s definitely something he plans to do.
Last week, Ducasse finally arrived in India. However, he did not come to cook or to open a restaurant. His current obsession is culinary education. He has opened (or is in the process of opening) Ecole Ducasses, his own cooking schools, all over the world. The Indian version has just opened in Gurgaon, in association with Dilip Puri Modern Indian Hospitality School.
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Dukas was here for a few days: Ate in Bukhara and Indian Accent (“This is modern Indian food,” he said), was the star of a dinner cooked in his honor by Julien Mercier at Leela Palace in Delhi, Executive Chef and Director of Food and Beverage at Leela Samir Sehgal, and they managed Than participate in a long conversation with me.
The event, one of a series of culinary talks she has hosted, with the world’s greatest chefs was at Ecole Ducasse, and was organized by Dilip Puri in collaboration with Culinary Culture. The party was attended by a number of restaurateurs, chefs and hoteliers, and it was clear that all of them were terrified of Ducasse.
Dukas is respected by most people for his obvious accomplishments. He was the youngest chef to run a restaurant that received three Michelin stars. He is the only chef to simultaneously operate four restaurants with three Michelin stars. His restaurant group has earned more Michelin stars than any group led by a chef. Many of the world’s top chefs have worked with him (Mauro Colagreco, Claire Smith, Helen Darroz, Massimo Bottura, all with three Michelin stars in their restaurants) and even the rare Ducas restaurant without a Michelin star will still serve up great food: that’s the consistency it’s known for.
While all of this is impressive enough, it’s not the reason why I like Ducasse so much. In my view, his greatest achievement is that not only has he quietly transformed 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 a historic change occurred in the 1960s and 1970s, when a new generation of chefs brought out the heavy, flour-based sauces, stopped boiling vegetables until all the crunch was gone and began to appreciate the lightness of the food. It was men such as Michel Gerard, Alan Chappelle and Roger Verge who led the change but many others (such as Paul Bocuse and other pupils of the legendary Fernand Pointe) played roles in creating what came to be called the New Kitchen.
Ducasse was trained by many of these people – Guerard, Chapel and Verge – and soon mastered their techniques. (Guerard once told me that Ducasse was the smartest young chef he had ever seen in his kitchen.)
But he took the kitchen a step further. The new kitchen was all about technology. Ducasse shifted the focus to the ingredients. Since he was raised on a farm, he appreciated the source of every vegetable and every free-range chicken. The trend of searching for the best ingredients and cooking with them just started.
It is hard to overemphasize what this fundamental change is. If you look at the classics of modern kitchen, they were all about technology. For example, the Troisgros brothers earned their reputation with their fish dish: salmon with sorrel. The importance of the dish lies in the way they cook the fish: quickly burn it, and not boil it. As this has been lauded, no one has asked the main question: Where does salmon come from?
After Ducasse, this is the number one question every serious chef asks. In recent years, with so many mass-produced bad ingredients (eg, cheap, flabby, farmed salmon), this question has become more relevant. But Ducasse is the first to have chefs ask him on a regular basis.
He says the chef’s job is not to show off his sauce skills but to take the best ingredients from nature and figure out how best to bring out the flavors without undue human intervention.
I think this is an essential revolution as the new kitchen had its day. But unlike Paul Bocuse, for example, and others who have been eager to stand out, Ducasse is a humble man who is never given credit for such innovations. As Massimo Bottura told me, “Ducas was doing farm-to-table work even before the term was invented.”
The second great innovation was its use of vegetables as the stars on the plate rather than as side dishes. Ducasse loves vegetables. But he wants them to taste themselves, not any pancakes the chef could come up with.
I still remember a plate at Louis XV, its original three-Michelin-star restaurant in Monte Carlo. It consists of three spears of fresh season asparagus served with a bit of preserved lemon. The taste of the asparagus was more flavorful than any I ate before or after it. This was because he picked the best asparagus he could find, cooked it just enough and found the perfect complement in lemon.
Ducasse was also the first chef to offer a veggie-only menu, at least 15 years ahead of current trends. Contrary to what he says, Alan Passard is another very accomplished chef, except that he didn’t make much of a fuss about it.
This time, in Delhi/NCR, he talks about Daniel Hamm of Eleven Madison Park in New York. Hamm is a classically trained Swiss-American chef who has risked his job (and his three Michelin stars) by taking meat and fish off his menu and going entirely vegetarian. Ducasse ate there and said he was surprised at how good the food was. He added that it was one of the best meals he had had in a long time.
Dukas said Ham Khater. But it paid off: Thousands of people are still demanding reservations at Eleven Madison Park. Ducasse believes that if chefs were more adventurous, they would find the audience more than happy to try new things.
Ducasse also praised Eleven Madison Park’s hospitality, something he’s always been known for. For Ducasse, hospitality is everything. In the old days, fancy restaurants were built to intimidate. Dukas set out to change that; He commanded people to be happy, not afraid or upset if they would enjoy the food.
In all of his restaurants, employees are told that the first five minutes after a guest enters the restaurant is critical. He should feel welcome. The staff should seem warm, friendly and really happy to see the guests. If you don’t obsess over guests in those first five minutes, it doesn’t matter how good the food is; It ruined the experience for them.
Unlike most traditional French chefs who enforced a division between the kitchen, where the chef was the ruler, and the dining room where the manager or hotel manager was the chief, Ducasse worked to approximate the kitchen and dining room. “There should be as little discrimination as possible,” he insists. “Guests should feel connected to the kitchen and the chefs. Service personnel and kitchen crew have to work together,” he says, “as a team.”
Ah yes, I said. But who is the team leader: the manager or the chef?
It’s off. “The chef, of course,” he said at last.
For all that, Ducasse is vehemently against the idea of a chef being a star. He often uses fashion parallels to describe what he does. For example, in describing his most famous dessert, papa or rum, he explained that he had eaten a completely common dessert and created a haute couture version of it.
I said it was a good analogy. So, given the circumstances in which we first met, wouldn’t it be appropriate to describe Ducasse restaurants as Hermes foodie restaurants? Oh no, he said, that was a very similar resemblance.
really? I insisted. Weren’t chefs artists the way top designers were?
Oh no, he said. “Chefs are not artists. “We are just artisans.”
what the difference? He said, “Okay.” “We don’t make art. We make people happy, which artists don’t have to do. We make the same dishes night after night that artists would never do. We value consistency in a way that artists don’t.”
What did he think of chefs who considered themselves so good that guests should be privileged and honored to dine in their restaurants?
Not much, it turns out. If people go to a restaurant, they expect the chefs to be good to them, so part of the job is to make them comfortable and happy. Guests were going out to dinner. They were not on their way to Hajj.
Furthermore, all these things about genius chefs were nonsense. Chefs were never geniuses, nor were they supposed to be.
It follows that Ducasse strongly disapproves of cooks who are screaming and yelling in the kitchen or those who use four words with letters. And he says this is totally unacceptable, no matter how much pressure. The restaurant is a workplace. And in the workplace, treat your colleagues with respect and attention. If you don’t, you should be fired.
He gives the example of a manager at his restaurant in New York who made anti-gay remarks to a gay employee. He recalls: “The moment I heard about it, the guy was on the street. No tolerance for this.”
I can go on. We talked for about two hours on stage and there were other conversations, before the live event, after, at lunch etc., but it would take a long time to record everything I learned from Alain Ducasse. Let’s just say talking to him made me realize how he was able to revolutionize French cuisine – and I think, the entire restaurant world – while also drawing a little attention to his personality.
For most chefs, Ducasse remains a legendary figure who rarely speaks for himself or his philosophy and lets food (and Michelin stars) do the talking.
But when he opens up – as he did during our session – you realize just how amazing he is. He may be the king of chefs. But he is a thinker and benevolent king.