“It’s not about revolution, but evolution,” pronounces Alain Ducasse, Gallic to the core. The chef turned restaurateur/businessman, who probably inspires more respect worldwide than any other figure in the culinary world – not least among his former employees – is in an expansive, yet relaxed mood when we meet on a beautiful, late summer day in the Galerie des Gobelins at Hotel Plaza Athenée.
Ducasse is fresh from holidaying with his family at their country retreat in South West France. Immaculately tailored, and looking good for his 55 years in his trademark tortoiseshell glasses, he is well-rested after a break from the gruelling schedule of visits to his international culinary outposts, from Tokyo to LA. Ducasse’s English is far better than he likes to let on, yet he seems to enjoy me putting incredible effort into expressing myself fluently in French. I sense this is a telling insight into how he drives his employees to push themselves.
We’re here to talk about where it all properly started: Hôtel de Paris in Monaco. Eating at Le Louis XV at Hôtel de Paris (a dining experience that chefs from Gordon Ramsay to Mario Batali have attested to be among their most outstanding meals ever) is unbridled hedonism. The detail is mind-blowing, from the camion (trolley) of more than fifteen different breads (I especially like the borage bread and the fougasse au lardons) served with a bell jar of Normandy butter that arrives on its own separate camion and is “carved” into a generous quenelle at the table, to the exquisite crudités of Riveria vegetables cut just so to ensure they taste extraordinarily vibrant dipped in anchoide, to Ducasse’s signature barbajuans, little Monégasque deep-fried ravioli of wondrous refined crispness filled with ricotta, herbs and blettes. It’s all disarmingly simple, yet shows how exquisite such pristine produce can be if allowed to stand for itself.
This doesn’t mean Ducasse isn’t ready to embrace the new. Indeed, he waxes lyrical about the current wave of easy-going bistronomy and points out that they actually reinforce his core belief in seeking out quality produce centring on “retour du marché” (based on market availability) name-checking the butcher who produced the charcuterie we’re eating, for example.
“Though I have to admit by the age of 12, I was already critical of my grandmother. I would come into the kitchen and taste something and say ‘I think you’ve overcooked that’.”
Indeed, “Produce-led cuisine” is the headline of the invitation to the ultimate weekend party for the 25th anniversary of Le Louis XV, when a who’s who of 200 chefs from 25 countries (adding up to 300 Michelin stars!) who’ve worked with Ducasse or are among the inner circle of chefs he respects and admires will descend on Monaco to feast on his favourite Mediterranean produce. One of the highlights will be the creation of a definitive Riveria market with 100 of Ducasse’s favourite producers. 15 of the chef guests will be challenged to run cooking stations using the produce in their own inimitable haute street food style. Meanwhile, until the end of November, each of Ducasse’s restaurants in New York, St Petersburg, Hong Kong, Las Vegas, Paris and London will serve their own dish that “expresses the Riviera in their different way” besides the defining dessert baba au rhum (which arrives on its own gold plated dish, generously anointed with your choice from an exemplary range of aged rums).
The experience culminates in the most dazzling selection of mignardaises – macarons, salted caramels, marshmallows and madeleines. What’s also immediately apparent, despite the neo-Baroque opulence – the vast chandeliers, marble columns, pouting cherubs, frescos, and much gold – is how very contemporary this grande dame of a restaurant really is: I note that many modern chefs, such as Ducasse protegé Tom Kitchin in Edinburgh, have adopted its way of styling menu items as “The Vegetable Garden”, “The Sea”, “The Wood”, “The Rivers” and “The Farm”. The balletic and faultless timing of the service is mesmerising, yet surprisingly friendly too. A taste of Versailles brought into the 21st century.
Back in 1986, Ducasse, having trained with French legends Michel Guérard, Roger Vergé and Alain Chapel, became chef at La Terrasse Hotel Juana in Juan les Pins, where he swiftly acquired two Michelin stars. Prince Rainer III of Monaco and the Monte Carlo SBM offered Ducasse the job of chef of Hôtel de Paris – including Le Louis XV – with the proviso that he guaranteed three Michelin star within four years, otherwise he’d be sacked! Ducasse achieved the accolade within 33 months – it was the first hotel restaurant to ever be awarded three Michelin stars (even now in London, the only restaurant aside from Ducasse at The Dorchester to merit three stars is Gordon Ramsay Royal Hospital Road – and it’s significant that head chef Clare Smyth worked at Le Louis XV for three years herself).
Sudi Pigott: Surely the challenge set by Monaco must have seemed incredibly daunting? (Ducasse replies with that most Gallic of combinations: a raised eyebrow and an expressive shrug of “pas du tout“…)
Alain Ducasse: I worked very hard and with passion. Right from the start, Le Louis XV has been all about capturing the very essence, the DNA of the Mediterranean. What matters to me is selecting perfection and being utterly precise with technique and letting it sing in perfect harmony.
I was surprised to learn from a day I spent on the haute cuisine course at your Ecole des Cuisines in Paris that most of the day was devoted to learning how to prepare vegetables with supreme know-how and finesse – and to making the most sublime stock from fresh pea pods. So do fresh peas exemplify the Ducasse approach?
Absolutely. I do not sublimate produce, it is always centre stage. One of my most perfect childhood memories is of smelling the fresh, pure sweetness of the peas as I picked the pods with my grandmother at our small family farm in the Landes region of Southern France. Within 10 minutes my grandmother had shelled the peas and cooked them gently with just picked lettuce for petit pois à la francaise with bacon from our pigs.
Are you then essentially doing cuisine de grand-mère albeit taken haute – as almost every French chef proclaims?
“It doesn’t seem like work, it’s all pleasure. Besides, at 25, Le Louis XV is still young. It’s only just beginning to mature.”
Yes, indeed, you could say that. Though I have to admit by the age of 12, I was already critical of my grandmother. I would come into the kitchen and taste something and say “I think you’ve overcooked that”. She would get cross and send me away!
Your focus on produce-led, seasonal and local cuisine preceded the much heralded “naturalism” of New Nordic cuisine by at least twenty five years. It’s essentially cuisine terroir, albeit as sophisticated as can be. How do you feel about Rene Redzepi being accoladed as the new Messiah of a cooking that reflects the landscape and the reigning champion of all things “local”?
It is all about asking, “What is your history?” That’s a universal way to approach cuisine. I really don’t like to look too much at magazines or what others are doing – it simply has to come from what you think and experience, be instinctive yet always in search of perfection, that’s what rings true.
Do you ever think of slowing down? Surely you no longer have to put in so many hours?
It doesn’t seem like work, it’s all pleasure. Besides, at 25, Le Louis XV is still young. It’s only just beginning to mature.
You have a penchant for acquiring and rescuing classic French bistros, including fish brasserie Rech in the 7th, which serves outstanding silky sole meunière, and my own favourite, the 4th arrondissement landmark Benoit, incredibly celebrating its centenary this year…
Yes, there are certain bistros that are so dear to my heart in Paris that I just couldn’t bear to see their labours and passions descend into decline, so I decided to preserve what makes them so very special yet gently breathe new life into them and refresh their décor. Open another chapter.
And you’re always happy to recommend your “tastbud-liberating” local favourites too – Inaki Aizpitarte’s small plates and natural wines white cube bar Le Dauphin, former Le Vere Volé chef Delphine Zampetti’s Chez L’Aline and even a tiny place in the 11th that serves sandwiches, salads and a plat du jour for under €10. So I have to ask, will you start collecting these too?
I don’t have plans to presently, but never say never! Actually, what I love collecting when I am in Paris are books – and not always about gastronomy – for the new library I had built at my home in South of France earlier this year. It has something of Japanese serenity about its architecture and looks out to the landscape. It’s here I discover new horizons and feel utterly at ease.
Sudi Pigott is a discerningly greedy food and travel writer with a particular penchant for the South of France, chocolate and Tom Stoppard. She writes voraciously for global publications including The Independent, TIME and Singapore Airlines magazine.