A talk with legendary French chef Alain Ducasse, owner of more Michelin stars than anyone else, who shares his thoughts on the state of contemporary French cooking and produce – inside and outside France.
BY CHRIS DWYER
There can be few dining rooms around the world with a more impressive view than Alain Ducasse’s Spoon at the Intercontinental Hotel in Hong Kong. Sitting right on the waterfront in Kowloon, it offers uninterrupted vistas of one of the world’s great skylines, all the more impressive on a glorious late summer afternoon. Ducasse himself is fresh off a flight from Kyoto, in town for 48 hours as part of a seemingly endless global tour, although you wouldn’t know it. He’s in fine form, relaxed and happy to talk for more than an hour before heading off to Paris, New York, Marseille and London – all in less than a week.
Ducasse likens his role these days to that of a football manager, overseeing the stars who play for him. He’s the ‘artistic director’ as he calls it, ‘the one who carries the vision’. His portfolio includes 25 restaurants from Paris to New York, Tokyo to Doha, almost all of which celebrate French cuisine. But what are his thoughts on the state of contemporary French cooking?
“You can’t really talk about ‘French cuisine’ because each chef there has their own personal expression. It’s French cuisines, plural, it’s such a varied, diverse and incredibly complex universe. The basis of French cuisine comes from tradition, the bistro, but with more than 100 really top French chefs, there are 100 different versions of cuisine that go with them.”
His eyes light up as he talks about the extraordinary range and quality of French produce, notably in his role as President of the gastronomy panel of Les Meilleurs Ouvriers de France, a role he took over this year from a certain Paul Bocuse. One final Ducasse judged was ‘agneau de lait’ – or ‘milk-fed lamb’: “There were 36 finalists. 36! I tasted 36 different lamb – from Normandy, from the Pyrenées, Provence – all perfectly cooked, perfectly seasoned with perfect jus. Even if you add all the lamb around the world, from Scotland, New Zealand, Colorado, Japan – you won’t be able to taste this concentration of diversity.”
This begs the question whether it’s possible to experience French cuisine at the very highest level outside of France? “It’s difficult, at least outside of Europe, because of the produce. It all means that the highest levels of gastronomy have to be a French story.”
The chefs who have worked under and learnt from Ducasse are legendary – including Elena Arzak (below), Hélène Darroze and Clare Smyth. But why are female chefs still vastly under represented globally, at the highest level? “Because female chefs also want to be mothers and raise kids and it’s very difficult to make these breaks in professional life. With three, four or five years out, the competition have often moved ahead. I’ve always loved working wth female chefs, they display much more sensitivity.”
Another chef that Ducasse has championed and frequently mentioned is Dan Barber at Blue Hill Farm in the north of New York City. But what sets him apart from so many other hugely-talented chefs around the world? “I love what he does. I invited him five years ago to cook in Paris. I never understood why the US hadn’t discovered him! He’s already known but he’s going to become a real star. What he was doing five years ago was already so different, in the middle if the country 1h 45 from New York. His culinary proposition is unique, he tells a story.”
Towards the end of our discussion, he asks me to recommend a Chinese restaurant for him to visit that evening. I suggest Ho Lee Fook, a contemporary Cantonese with a cheeky name, exciting menu and great cocktails. He went along, loved it, and discovered that the chef Jowett Yu was doing a pop-up in New York. He went to that, too, the following week and subsequently invited Yu to cook in one of his Paris restaurants. Clearly the fire to discover new chefs, recipes and ideas still burns strong, even in the world’s most decorated chef.
This piece first ran at Finedininglovers.com – home to the World’s 50 Best Restaurants