Jim Poris / January 1999
Food Arts presents the January/February 1999 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Alain Ducasse, the shooting supernova of French cuisine who commands a galactic empire of six Michelin stars divided between two restaurants. Daring to go where no chef/restaurateur has gone before, the audacious culinary prodigy became the first to run two three-star establishments last March when the Guide Michelin affixed Louis XV in the Hôtel de Paris in Monte Carlo to the haute firmament already inhabited by the yearling Alain Ducasse in the the Hôtel Le Parc in Paris by restoring the third star it had removed in 1997.
Such unprecedented acclaim clamped the howling naysayers who bridled at Ducasse's presumption that the highest standards could be met and maintained at two restaurants hundreds of miles apart without his assured presence at either establishment. All his detractors miss the point about Ducasse, suggests the sage Roger Vergé, the master of Moulin de Mougins and one of Ducasse's earliest mentors. "His ambition, it's very large," Vergé muses, "but he's also very clever. He has changed completely the sense of the kitchen. He can give an idea without always being there."
Ducasse provides a curt response to those who would lance his peripatetic soul. "My way of thinking is very modern: a chef is there to direct teams rather than to always stay behind the piano," he says in L'Atelier de Alain Ducasse (Hachette, Paris, 1998), one of his five cookbooks, including the English-language Ducasse: Flavors of France (Artisan, NY, 1998). Recipes, he notes, "can be interpreted at a higher level by perfectly trained brigadesI."
Now 42, with a third star first pinned to his Louis XV tunic when he was 33—the youngest ever to receive such a distinction—Ducasse is throwing more bones to the critical dogs with the December debut of Spoon Food & Wine in Paris, a have-it-your-way concept of mix-and-match international dishes, an Académie Française–defying English-language menu (with French subtitles), and Ben & Jerry's ice creams for dessert. L'Abbaye de la Celle, a converted 13th-century abbey opening later this year near Toulon, will double his portion of "rustic" country inns, which already houses the Relais & Château La Bastide de Moustiers in Moustiers-Ste.-Marie in Provence. The idea for an inn on the Atlantic Ocean, perhaps near his native province of the Landes in the Southwest, is also rumbling about his fertile mind.
Newly shorn of the signature Arafat stubble he wore 25 years, Ducasse has little patience for those who say he embodies naked ambition. "I want to set the tempo and the pace rather than follow it," he declares. "I'm already thinking of what I may do after Spoon. I want to do more."
It seems Ducasse has always been wired to stay miles ahead since he set off down the culinary path from his family's farm in Castelsarrazin. He tells how, as a teen-age busboy in the Hôtel de Paris in Biarritz, he used to ditch the cutlery from the tables he was clearing into the restaurant's huge planters so he would appear to be working faster than anyone else. Such drive convinced Michel Guérard to take him on at Les Prés d'Eugénie and Vergé to employ him at Moulin Mougins. Ducasse found his "spiritual master" in the late Alain Chapel, for whom he worked in 1978-79. There, he absorbed Chapel's obsession for "the extreme quality of products," a principle that guided Ducasse through a year as chef of Vergé's Amandier in Mougins, as top toque at La Terrasse in the hotel Juana in Juanles-Pin on the Riviera (where he garnered two stars from Michelin), and then at the Hôtel de Paris in Monaco in 1987.
Along the ever-ascending path, Ducasse was the sole survivor of a small plane crash that killed five others aboard in 1984. The shattering event shocked him into a flurry of self-defining activity that has yet to subside.
Ducasse's vegetable-centric cuisine—he considers his elevation of vegetables to integral rather than bit players in French food to be his great gastronomic contribution—makes technique the slave to product and the past the engine driving his concepts forward.
"In order to evolve, we have to use what we know from the past," says Ducasse, citing his use of pork belly as a main course on his Paris menu. "Evolution is tradition. The future is liberty, and it's tradition and evolution that create liberty."