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The Man Who Fell from the Sky

Jack Smith

"You know what i would like to do?" begins Alain Ducasse, the peripatetic French chef. "I would like to build a restaurant on Mars."

His visitor, an American, nods appreciatively at this notion. If anyone is capable of establishing a restaurant on Mars—one worth the trip, not some greasy spoon or mass-market theme place—it would be Ducasse. He is, after all, the most celebrated talent in the world of gastronomy, the creator of a culinary empire that extends from Mauritius to Las Vegas to Paris to Tokyo, a visionary whose cuisine routinely traveled at twice the speed of sound on the Concorde and has been rocketed to astronauts on the International Space Station.

So a restaurant on Mars would seem the next logical step. Only, as his visitor points out, the chef already has a restaurant on Mars.

"What do you mean?" asks Ducasse, now on the defensive.

"Right there," says his visitor, pointing to the black-and-white photographic mural that covers one wall of the room they are sitting in. It depicts the Eiffel Tower, the site of another Ducasse restaurant, Le Jules Verne, which, from its perch 420 feet above the ground, overlooks that strip of Parisian real estate known as Champ-de-Mars, or Field of Mars.

"Ah," says the chef, smiling broadly, "that’s a good one." Then, cocking his head toward his petite, dark-eyed director of public relations, Emmanuelle Perrier, he repeats it. "That was a good one."

Ducasse is in a fine mood this morning. He has come to New York for the launch of his latest creation, Benoit, an authentic French bistro filled with gleaming brass rails, oversize mirrors, and red-velvet chairs. The liquor license has not yet cleared the bureaucratic high hurdles, but otherwise all seems to be going smoothly, and several old friends have stopped by to wish him well. "The buzz is good, eh?" he asks Perrier, and she assures him that, yes, the buzz is good.

This is true, so far as it goes; early dispatches from the press are pronouncing Benoit a worthy successor to Jean-Jacques Rachou’s well-regarded Côte Basque restaurant, which previously inhabited the space. As a New York Times headline declares, the new restaurant represents "A New Humility, at Least for Ducasse." Bloomberg.com raves about Benoit’s cassoulet but adds a note of schadenfreude: "This is humble fare from a humbled Ducasse."

It seems no mention of the chef is complete without a reminder of his earlier venture into the Big Apple: Alain Ducasse at the Essex House. ADNY, as it became known, was the most expensive, most elaborate, and most controversial restaurant the city had ever seen. And while the high priests of gourmandise showered the establishment with all the stars at their disposal—five from Mobil, four from the Times, and, most coveted of all, three from the Michelin Guide—it became the restaurant New Yorkers loved to hate.

"Ishtar, the Restaurant," announced Fortune, reporting on a $1,559.62 dinner for four. The decor—walls hung with knickknackery and paint-splattered tubas—"broke new ground in bad taste," grumbled the Times. The populist New York Post came, noshed, and assured its readers they were not missing anything except "truffled spaghettini that would embarrass the Olive Garden."

Gratuitous rituals abounded at ADNY. There was a footstool set by the table for milady’s purse; a silver caddy containing a half-dozen bottled waters—three still, three sparkling—for connoisseurs of H2O; and a selection of multiple knives that accompanied every meat course. Tea was served by white-gloved waiters who pushed a trolley laden with an herb garden from table to table. After the guests selected from a dozen herbs—"Excellent choice, sir!"—the waiters would then snip the leaves and brew the tea fresh, with different kinds of honey. The final outrage was the choice of numerous designer pens for signing the check.

In 2007, after seven years, Ducasse shuttered ADNY and announced plans for a new restaurant in the St. Regis Hotel, New York, formerly home to Lespinasse. Adour, named for a river that flows through the chef’s homeland in southwestern France, opened in January 2008 to a media chorus of, "Now this is more like it."

Gone was the footstool for purses, replaced by a shelf that disappeared discreetly within the body of the chair. Trolleys and arrays of waters, knives, and pens were banished as well. The visual cacophony of ADNY was replaced by a warm burgundy glow; the restaurant was wine-themed, a press release explained—in case anyone had missed the interactive wine bar off the entrance or the lockers where privileged oenophiles can stash their vintages.

As for the new menu, the item that received the most attention at Adour was a cauliflower velouté served with that most echt of New York icons: a bagel. Critics pored over this dish the way Chinese mystics read joss sticks; New York Magazine wondered if Ducasse was poking fun at his audience or pandering to them. No, opined the Times, the dish was meant to be a peace offering.

But anyone expecting to find an act of atonement on Adour’s menu does not know Ducasse. Or, at least, they have never read "Inspired by Your Good Taste," Groupe Alain Ducasse’s corporate brochure, which, in chronicling the chef’s career, provides a different version of l’affaire Essex. "Despite several acerbic articles, New Yorkers were quick to recognize talent and quality," the brochure states. "The French chef received top marks from the American gastronomical establishment. . . . Once again Ducasse used his wealth of know-how to make the operation a success."

In person, Ducasse sticks to his brochure’s version of history. "The perception that the Essex House was a mistake is wrong," he says. "After all, it was in business seven years; do you know how many restaurants stay open seven years?"

Further, he says, ADNY never failed. "I closed it because the lease ran out, and we decided not to renew. And everybody talks about the pens. When you sign a check for two, three, four thousand dollars, you should have something big to sign it with, non? The only reason we stopped using them was that they were all stolen.

"The Essex House paved the way for restaurants like Per Se," Ducasse continues. "To know this, all you have to do is look at the menus. Everybody has raised their prices. So Alain Ducasse at the Essex House was not a failure, it was a success."

And if New Yorkers could not tell the difference, well, whose fault was that?

Actually, Ducasse has been known to arouse much the same umbrage in his own land. "In France there is no nuance about him," says Gilles Pudlowski, restaurant critic for the influential French newsweekly Le Point and author of the guide book Pudlo Paris. "Everything is all black or all white. I find him somewhat sympathetic, but he transcends the meaning of chef. He is a cult figure, the center of his own mythology. He is the man who fell from the sky, non?"

in person, ducasse does not appear to be someone who would stir such passions. Gray-haired and 50ish, about 6 feet tall, he has a manner that is part formality, part shyness; absent is the braggadocio, the larger-than-life bombast common to TV chefs. Rather, he has the patient but vaguely distracted air of a high school French teacher listening to a slow student. It is quite possible that even as he is speaking to his visitor, he is creating, in the back of his mind, some celebration of the senses that will have the smart set buzzing the world over.

From his childhood, Ducasse wanted to be a chef. "I grew up on a farm near Castel-Sarrazin in the Landes region," he says. "My earliest memories are the smells of the kitchen and the sounds of the barnyard reaching into my bedroom."

The chef’s memories also include the time he chided his grandmother for burning the beans in a cassoulet when he was 12. Four years later, in 1972, Ducasse began his apprenticeship in the kitchen at the Pavillon Landais near Dax. However, it was at a Michel Guérard restaurant in Eugénie-les-Bains that the young Ducasse first sniffed the heady aroma of culinary celebrity.

The 1970s were a time of ferment in French cuisine, and Guérard was becoming famous for his nouvelle cuisine. The chef promised to indulge gourmets while sparing their waistlines, an approach that helped his restaurant earn three Michelin stars in 1977. Working under Guérard, the 21-?year-old Ducasse began the spiritual odyssey that would lead him far from the rigidity of traditional cuisine.

After his stint with Guérard, Ducasse worked for Roger Vergé at Le Moulin de Mougins, near Cannes, and for Alain Chapel at Le Mère Charles, near Lyon. Chapel was the most influential of the young chef’s mentors; instead of mixing tastes, he brought out the natural flavors of individual ingredients by preparing them simply and carefully.

Ducasse learned his lessons well: At the age of 25 he became the head chef at La Terrasse, in Juan-les-Pins. After three years at the helm, he earned the restaurant two Michelin stars for the first time in its history. But his life—and the course of French cuisine—would soon change.

In August 1984, Ducasse and four friends boarded a Piper Aztec for a flight from Courchevel in the French Alps to Saint-Tropez. When the weather worsened, the pilot attempted to climb. Ducasse recalls seeing the altimeter spin, and then spotting a mountainside directly in front of them.

When the plane crashed into the mountain, Ducasse was thrown out of the cockpit and into the trees. He hung there for six and a half hours, unable to move but able to see things from his past—his family’s farm, the markets where he had shopped, the kitchens where he had cooked. He also envisioned things he had never before seen—restaurants of every possible style, in every conceivable setting. There were formal, high-style salons in Paris; turn-of-the-century bistros in villages; futuristic sushi bars in Asia; rustic auberges in the countryside; and sleek boîtes in New York.

Ducasse had resigned himself to death—which had already befallen the other passengers—by the time the rescue team reached him. Once saved, he underwent a series of some 15 operations to repair the damage from the accident, almost losing one leg in the process. For months he was unable to lift so much as a spoon, and he had to relearn how to walk.

Ducasse passed his bedridden days in thought, imagining a whole new world of gastronomy in which the chef never needed to stir a sauce or even step inside the kitchen. This, of course, would be heresy to the traditionalists who dominated the world of French cuisine. The chef by his stove, jealously guarding secrets accrued over decades, was among the country’s most cherished institutions; men and women labored for years in the hope of some day taking command of a kitchen. This was especially so when the kitchen served a restaurant as prestigious as Le Louis XV in Monaco, which, in 1987, offered the position of head chef to the still-recovering Ducasse.

Le Louis XV, set within the palatial Hôtel de Paris, was one of the world’s most elegant dining venues. But though it dripped with 17th-century opulence, the restaurant had never been graced with so much as a single Michelin star. Ducasse famously accepted the offer to helm Le Louis XV, personally tendered by Prince Rainier, with the caveat that if the chef and his team had not earned three stars within four years, he would leave.

Ducasse recalls his first major success at Le Louis XV. "It was a dish of vegetables," he says. "Until then, vegetables were treated as a garnish."

Under Ducasse’s tender ministrations, vegetables became delicacies. His ingredients—peas, baby onions, leaves and ribs of lettuce, turnips, carrots, asparagus, and baby potatoes—were sourced from nearby farms. Never frozen, the vegetables were prepared simply, with crushed black truffles, Ligurian olive oil, a little balsamic vinegar, and coarse gray salt. With its emphasis on olive oil and tomatoes, the menu at Le Louis XV was a departure from the rich butter and cream sauces common to Parisian restaurants. Likewise, instead of turbot, which could be excellent in Paris, Ducasse preferred to feature locally caught John Dory.

As for secrets, Ducasse insisted he had none; he relied instead on the authenticity, freshness, and excellence of his ingredients, and the willingness of his followers to accept nothing short of excellence. "Turbot without genius is better than genius without turbot," he liked to say.

Ducasse had promised Prince Rainier three stars within four years; he delivered them in three. The chef, at 33, was now the youngest in history to achieve Michelin’s highest accolade. At the same time, he had also taken his first steps away from tradition, relying on his disciples to deliver the quality that the chef’s name—and his halo of stars—promised.

After nine years in Monaco, Ducasse was poised to distance himself more publicly from the kitchen. The chance came when Joël Robuchon, one of France’s most popular chefs, announced his retirement from the Hotel du Parc in Paris.

The Hotel du Parc presented a vastly different challenge from Le Louis XV. It was one thing to take over a splashy holiday restaurant in the provinces; it was another to take over a restaurant in the world capital of haute cuisine—especially one that already had earned three stars. Nonetheless, in 1996 Ducasse became the chef at both the Hotel du Parc and Le Louis XV. "It will give me something to do on weekends," he quipped, adverting to the Paris restaurant’s custom of closing on Saturdays and Sundays while Le Louis XV closed midweek.

The Parisian critics were ready to pounce; they would not be amused by the young chef’s olive oils and vegetables. But Ducasse was careful not to duplicate the menu from Monaco. At an opening press luncheon, he disarmed attendees by serving country bacon and melting potatoes, classic Parisian comfort food. It was a signal that, under Ducasse, the Hotel du Parc would take on a whole new style, one different from Robuchon’s and also unlike the Mediterranean fare at Le Louis XV.

Eight months after the Hotel du Parc was reinvented as Alain Ducasse’s second restaurant, the 1997 Michelin Red Guide awarded it three stars. This marked the advent of the Ducasse Paradox, the paradigm that dictates that a chef worth his toque is more likely to be sighted opening a lounge in Dubai or a boîte in Singapore than sautéing a loup de mer in some ivied auberge in a quaint, out-of-the-way French village. "Before Ducasse," Le Point’s Pudlowski says, "a few chefs had stars for two different restaurants, but they would do the same kind of cuisine in both. Or one restaurant would be closed at the time that the other was open. Ducasse changed all that."

Today, Ducasse’s 21 restaurants and four country inns include the three-star Le Louis XV and Alain Ducasse au Plaza Athénée (in 2000 he moved his Hotel du Parc restaurant to the Plaza Athénée), and eight one-star restaurants. Ducasse also serves as president of Châteaux et Hôtels Collection, a network of some 500 independent chalets, castles, and country homes that offer comfortable lodging and authentic regional cuisine. His firm, Groupe Alain Ducasse, runs two training centers in Argenteuil, near Paris: one for professionals and the other for amateur gourmets. (A third center is set to open this year in the Philippines.) The group’s publishing side has produced numerous Alain Ducasse cookbooks and a formidable series of culinary encyclopedias. In fact, Ducasse has become as much a brand as a person—a comparison he himself invites. "Do you expect [Enzo] Ferrari to personally build every one of his cars?" he asks. "Does [Yves] St. Laurent sew every dress? Of course not."

The chef’s multiplicity of interests requires that he have a significant talent pool to staff his company’s far-flung enterprises. The training involved can be long and rigorous; becoming a waiter in the Ducasse system may require three years. A chef’s education usually begins with a culinary boot camp in Monaco before more specialized training, which is likely to take several years. "Some leave," says Ducasse. "But when I tell a chef his sauce is not sufficiently robust, he immediately knows what I mean, because he’s been trained in Monaco."

Franck Cerutti, chef at Le Louis XV, says the end goal of all that training is to be perfect all the time. "What we do here is not spectacular," he says. "The challenge that Chef Ducasse presents us is not to create one memorable dinner, but to do it over and over again, night after night. Actually, it is quite simple. But it is also quite difficult."

What sets Ducasse apart from other chefs, says Christophe Moret, Cerutti’s counterpart at the Plaza Athénée, is his ability to inspire. "He is not a good manager, but he is a great leader," says Moret. "Whatever success I have had is due to Chef Ducasse. He is like a father to us."

Ducasse is understandably proud of the accomplishments of his protégés, as well as of the impact he has had on his country’s long-established dining culture. "I always thought restaurants should be less formal, more contemporary, more fun," he says. "You see that happening now. . . . Before I went to Louis XV, you never saw olive oil in Paris. And tapenade—"

"Nobody in Paris knew what it was," points out Perrier, chiming in.

"You can compare the world of restaurants to the world of fashion," Ducasse continues. "For example, Louis XV and Alain Ducasse au Plaza Athénée are both haute couture. I will never have more than two on that level, because of the time and attention they require. Adour and Beige, in Tokyo, are more luxury prêt-à-porter. The others—Spoon, Benoit, the country houses—exist to prove that you do not have to have luxury to have excellence."

Ironically, says Ducasse, he probably would not have achieved such heights in the culinary world if not for that disastrous flight over the Alps. "Only one person visited me regularly while I was in the hospital," he recalls. "This showed me that if you are not useful, you are nothing. I willed myself to come back, to dare to do things differently. After the accident, what could anyone do to me?"

As he rises to leave, the chef-turned-empire-builder notices a chair on the other side of his conference table with a barely discernible crack across its top. He frowns and calls to someone in the hall, points out the faulty chair, and is duly advised that it will be fixed immediately. Then, satisfied that this flaw will shortly disappear from his universe, he smiles broadly and heads downstairs to join the party.

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Photo by Olivier Pascaud
Copyright by Luc Castel
Photo credit Bonjwing Lee