Alain Ducasse’s love for food was ignited on his parents’ farm in the Landes region in southwestern France. His first three-star Michelin rating—for The Louis XV - Alain Ducasse at the Hôtel de Paris Monte-Carlo in Monaco—came when he was just 33. He now runs a chain of more than 30 restaurants from Tokyo to Paris, with almost as many Michelin stars across them. And counting, we hope!
Conscious of his responsibility towards preservation of nature, he works only with seasonal and natural produce, and pays tribute to the local origins of produce on his restaurants' menus. Ducasse, who derives his source of inspiration from Mother Nature as an inexhaustible resource, was way ahead of the curve when it came to sustainable cooking and that is evident in all his projects. It was in 2014— long before plant-based diets entered the mainstream restaurant consciousness—that he removed meat from the menu at his flagship eponymous restaurant in Paris’s Plaza Athénée. Cut to 2023, the legendary chef launched the first Sustainable Gastronomy Summit on September 21 at the One Monte-Carlo, in collaboration with the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation to further his sustainable initiatives in the world of gastronomy.
As the first chef to have three restaurants awarded with three Michelin stars at the same time in 2005, and winning several more later, Alain Ducasse’s growing culinary empire, DUCASSE Paris, constitutes restaurants, hotels, manufacturing, training programs, consulting, and book publishing for all those passionate about cooking. Led by relentless inspiration and energy, the 67-year-old chef is now all set to open his 35th restaurant in Rome in 2024.
Helming 34 restaurants around the world, including the three Michelin-starred Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester in London and the classic French bistro Benoit Paris that celebrated its 111th birthday this year, is no mean feat. I recently had the opportunity to dine at the iconic Benoit Paris and came away soaking in the flavours and finesse of the legendary Alain Ducasse. I was blown away by the authenticity of flavours and the sublime play of textures on my plate—the smooth duck foie gras with toasted Parisian brioche and the classic vanilla mille feuille that served as the perfect ending–was just a brief sampling of Alain Ducasse’s culinary excellence. However, not one to rest on his record-breaking Michelin stars, the chef-creator is not just a world-renowned chef, a successful entrepreneur and a prolific author with over 100 books to his credit; he is also a passionate chocolate lover. He opened his first Manufacture de Chocolat in 2013 on Rue de la Roquette in Paris to put into practice the bean to bar philosophy at all his restaurants that has set the bar really high in the world of luxury chocolates. The legendary chef was in India in 2022 to inaugurate the first École Ducasse campus at the Indian School of Hospitality (ISH), Gurugram.
In an exclusive interview with Zee Zest, the legendary Monégasque chef and businessman shares what he means by nature before cooking, his love of chocolate making, his upcoming projects and the legacy he wants to leave behind. Here are the excerpts from the interview.
1. How does it feel to be amongst the most influential chefs today in the world?
No, no, that’s not the case! Having said that, I feel great and I love watching the culinary world in all its diversity and talent all over the world. Every week, I am looking for a restaurant or a producer who's going to surprise me. That's the most important thing. It's not about what I'm doing, it's about what I am going to discover with a lot of curiosity and amazement.
2. What does your designation 'artistic director' of your company mean? What is the role you play as the artistic director?
I'm the one with the vision, the one who tries to make a culinary proposal for today. Perhaps a little ahead of the curve, with a lot of influence from nature, more vegetables, less animal proteins, less salt, less fat, less sugar, rationalising the planet's resources, consuming less fish. I'm trying to create a movement. In my schools, École Ducasse in Paris, New Delhi, and everywhere we are located, we are teaching about the importance of preserving the planet when cooking. We are training citizen chefs. Citizen means being cautious of the planet, cautious of the health of the people we feed, cautious of the right quantity, of good sourcing, of ethical behaviour, and of sustainable behaviour at the same time.
On September 21st 2023 during the first Monaco Sustainable Gastronomy Summit, I got my colleagues on board to raise their awareness on the cause. Even if we all have started to think about how to change our way of eating, the movement needs to be accelerated. It's about influencing a different way of consuming. It's necessary to eat more locally. It's necessary, because if we don't, billions of people won't be able to eat at the end. So, we need to change our eating habits and I think that haute gastronomy has a leading role in raising awareness because of the media attention it gets. Haute gastronomy has to set an example. Haute gastronomy has to be a precaution for the health of the planet. We have to be aware of what we're eating and each of us has a responsibility, a contribution to ensure that everyone can live on this planet tomorrow.
3. How do you divide your time in managing so many restaurants around the world?
I don't have a typical day. I am where I'm needed—mostly with my chefs, guiding, tasting. I'm the one who gives the vision and then I have collaborators who put into practice the vision I have, whether it's for patisserie, cuisine, or for corporate services. When conceiving a restaurant, we take care of everything, not only the menu. A restaurant is not just a physical place. There are many ingredients to make it a successful recipe, a delicious moment. One must find the right mix between the tangible and the intangible. Tangible is what you put on the plate, intangible is the atmosphere you create thanks to all these ingredients and which will further create a moment of happiness that lasts two or three hours. I don't have a universal recipe. Each time, with each restaurant we create a different destination, telling a different story. First is the location. Where are we? Who are our customers? What is the history of the place? We need to respect that and use it to create our story. We are preparing the opening of our next restaurant which will be in Rome in the new Romeo Hotel, near Piazza del Popolo. We're going to try to present a Franco-Italian-Mediterranean gastronomy. But we're not going to impose anything. We're going to try to understand what would satisfy the customers in Rome using the produce available around us.
4. Bistros or fine dining? What does your heart beat more for?
I am a zapper and like all types of restaurants. When I visit, I always look for the difference. Be it a modest bistro, a traditional brasserie, or a modern fine dining—I look for difference and quality. I like quality that tells a story. I like places that aren't anonymous. I like places that breathe history. I like any place that has quality talent. And I love the restaurant that I don't know yet, the one I'm going to for lunch in the next two hours.
5. What are the qualities you look for when you recruit chefs and make them run your restaurants? Do you run with strict control or do you allow freedom?
First, I look for the desire, the passion, and love for this profession. We encourage young talents to develop their personalities. I am the one giving the direction, defining the culinary line, the concept for each place and identify the dream team including the chef that will best embody it. Once the culinary territory is defined, we work together with the chef to perfect it—tasting and tasting again. It is essential to give freedom to the chef so he can express his personality in the cuisine. I am the one who accompanies him in this freedom. I make sure that the story we decide together, the road we have drawn is respected. I am really both the artistic guide and the coach. There are lots of talent everywhere in the world. I am very attracted by the passion of other people's work. I love to go and discover different young talents. Talent has no religion, no skin colour, and no nationality. Talent travels! Talent is the most widely shared thing in the world today. I love the talent and passion of the young people who work for me.
6. Can you name three of your restaurants that you are particularly proud of?
My first restaurant Le Louis XV in Monaco, which opened in 1987 at the Hotel de Paris featuring my first vegetable menu and till today at the forefront of the culinary research on vegetable cuisine with no waste. The next one is the future one: Il Ristorante Alain Ducasse at Romeo Roma – opening February 2024. Both the hotel and the restaurant are designed by Zaha Hadid Architects and are located in a 16th century palazzo. Besides cuisine, I have a passion for architecture. I have restaurants in places designed by exceptional talents: Philippe Starck, Jean Nouvel and Shinichiro Ogata who designed Esterre in Tokyo, my third choice. The restaurant is located in the Tokyo Palace Hotel facing the gardens of the Imperial Palace. Chef Kei Kojima has been with me for 25 years. He lived in Monaco for 15 years and now lives near Tokyo in the countryside. His cuisine is the bridge between the culture and civilization of the Mediterranean and Japan with a great sensitivity and lots of vegetables.
7. Name three chefs who inspire you.
Clearly for his curiosity: the late chef Paul Bocuse. I have always been curious but when I travelled with him, he encouraged me to be even more. We were on a constant lookout to go and have a snack somewhere. Paul inspired me a lot through his curiosity and his ability to convey a certain idea of French taste. Then, Alain Chapel, because 40 years ago he taught me the importance of produce. He showed how important it was to select excellent produce and treat it with attention: the right seasoning, the right temperature, the right cooking. At that time the chefs were more interested in being creative than by the quality of the produce and Chapel was among the few to reveal that. Today, I am looking at an absolutely incredible boy: Daniel Humm from Eleven Madison Park. Post the Covid-19, he turned his restaurant into a very high gastronomy vegan restaurant in New York. It took him lot of work, extreme courage to do it in New York. I find them doing the most advanced research in vegan food today. You have to have courage to make a vegan restaurant of haute cuisine. The people who inspire me are not inspiring me to cook. But they inspire me to see far, to go far.
8. Tell us about your love for chocolate and what’s coming up with your chocolate manufactures aka La Manufacture de Chocolat Alain Ducasse.
When I was working at Michel Guerard in Eugénie les Bains (South of France), I learnt how to make chocolate with Gaston Lenotre in Paris during the winter closing of the restaurant. I fell in love with this enigmatic material. Around 45 years later here, I became a chocolatier—starting by roasting the cocoa beans and making 100 per cent of the chocolate I use. Roasting is about preserving the original taste. So, we try to do the best sourcing for the beans and use traditional machines to transform them. We have great chocolate artisans. We make chocolate with a difference with assertive tastes. We are also developing coffee, gelatos, and biscuits.
9. Busy running a food business empire, do you miss spending enough time inside the kitchen?
No, because I think that in the kitchen my collaborators are better than me. However, I can offer them a lot as a coach and by passing my knowledge to them. It's like the soccer coach; he isn't the best goal scorer. I'm the coach and the best players are the ones who train from day to night in the kitchen. Then, my job is to make sure that we take a different route from the one that’s already taken. I live my passion; it's not exactly work.
10. What is the legacy that Alain Ducasse wants to leave behind?
I would like to share the knowledge I have with as many people as possible. Here we are, we don't hide anything. I would like people to say he shared a lot, that is to say, he gave everyone what he knew. He trained. He created schools.
11. Favorite vacation destination?
I travel a lot for work so when I'm on vacation, I do nothing. I am at home in the French countryside and I do nothing. I don't have a specific vacation destination.
12. Do you have a message for all your fans in India? Is there anything you'd like to tell them?
I think Indian cuisine is huge. It's going to influence the rest of the world.