Image credit: Pierre Monetta
It was about halfway through my lunch at Alain Ducasse’s restaurant at the Plaza Athénée that I realised there would be no meat served during this meal. A number of exquisite dishes had already come and gone. Seasonal, organic vegetables from Chateau Versailles, sustainably sourced fish and organic grains and pulses. A glass of red Burgundy had been poured and my palate was craving that fix of red meat. Like a post-meal cigarette or espresso macchiato, it turns out this is neither necessary or it critical to the enjoyment of a meal.
Meeting Alain Ducasse a couple of weeks after my visit to the French capital at the Bulgari in Knightsbridge, we start by talking about his chocolate atelier in Paris. The chocolate for his restaurants is made here and the atelier has been fitted out in furniture from an old bank that was sourced by Ducasse in a flea market, as well as rare machinery from across Europe that is used daily to make the chocolate.
I ask Ducasse what influenced him to decide to not serve meat at the Plaza Athénée. “I started the Jardin menu at the Le Louis XV at the Hôtel de Paris Monte-Carlo about thirty years ago. It has always been one of the pillars of my cooking, but due to people’s expectations of haute cuisine, we’ve always served a more traditional menu with foie gras and similar ingredients that people expect. However, the Jardin menu now accounts for about twenty percent of the sales in Monaco.”
Pausing to take a sip of Badoit and briefly checking his iPhone 6S, he continues, “It’s also important to me for personal reasons. At Le Meurice in Paris, we serve contemporary French cuisine.” (I dined there as well on my recent visit, where I had my fix of lamb.) “At the Plaza Athénée, it was a great opportunity to focus on local, seasonal and sustainable produce. We have a responsibility to preserve the resources we have on the planet for future generations.”
I touch upon the health benefits of eating like this, as we live in a day and age now where we’re constantly reminded of the supposed perils of eating too much red meat. “Low fat, low salt, and low sugar is the way I like to cook now”, says Ducasse. “There is of course, an added health benefit. It’s a way of doing high end and fine dining but with humble produce. The way it should be.”
We discuss Bruno Loubet’s Grain Store and how more chefs are focusing on vegetables as the main part of a dish. Ducasse explains that the focus on vegetables will start to happen in more of his restaurants, how there’ll be less protein on the menu, and that the meat will be of the highest quality and better sourced.
Like the grand French fashion houses – Chanel, Lanvin and Hermès – Ducasse can be seen as a global luxury “brand”, his name synonymous with the finer things in life. But Ducasse is quick to remind me that his collection of restaurants is actually more swayed towards bistros than fine dining, with the likes of Allard and Rech in Paris and Rivea in London.
I ask if building a global empire was ever his plan. “I have done what I’ve done for myself. It’s not because I want recognition but more because of my passion. My aim was always to cultivate difference in my restaurants. The attention to detail is the most important thing to me - whether at one of my fine dining restaurants or a brasserie. Haute-gastronomy is the tip of the iceberg for our group. Most of the business is the iceberg below the water. The cookery school, the pastry school, the chocolate factory, the publishing house.”
My allocated time slot is running short before Ducasse has to attend a meeting at the Dorchester – the home to his three Michelin star restaurant in London. I want to ask him his opinion on the industry in the UK, especially the chef shortage issue and hospitality being seen as a career. When I recently visited four of his restaurants in Paris, the level of hospitality and service was exceptional in all of them. I asked Ducasse how he achieves this.
“For me, service should always be elegant, chic, and friendly. We work hard at forging long-term relationships with our staff. It’s very important. They share the long-term message and inspiration. Whenever there is a young chef or staff member coming in, we’ll work closely with them to make the person grow and progress their career. There are lots of opportunities to travel and grow across the group.”
I express my views that I think a career in hospitality is starting to be taken seriously as opposed to a part-time job choice here in the UK. Ducasse believes the rise in television programmes about cooking and restaurants has helped this. “There’s a lot of interest from the public in cooking and chefs now, which is good for the industry. It’s starting to be better perceived and I think this will start to help the chef shortage. One of the great things about this industry is that you can start from a young age and rise the ranks quickly.”
I finish by asking Mr Ducasse his thoughts on Michelin. “It’s interesting to see the evolution of Michelin. They must change to the tune of the restaurant scene. They have to now judge restaurants differently. It’s a reflection of the time we are in.”