Chef Alain Ducasse: Architect of Food
Few restaurants can match the understated sophistication of Alain Ducasse’s Adour at the St. Regis in New York, which opened in January, 2008. With its dark hues and recessed lighting, you are put at ease even before service really steps up and well before the food arrives. So when the opportunity to enjoy such spectacular dishes as a glazed multicolor vegetable composition, butter poached lobster, smoked wild striped bass, or the luxurious white truffle tasting menu, the sense of being smitten enhances what amounts to a seduction.
Back when the restaurant was Lespinasse and Chef Gray Kunz was in charge, followed by the ever mellow Chef Christian Delouvier, eating here was so grand as to be nearly uptight with a real end-of-the-empire feel to the place. There was little warmth and certainly no humor.
All that has changed with Ducasse.
Informed by the same thinking that led to his creation of Benoit, just down the street, which recreates his Paris bistro, Adour is elegant, but laid back and steadfastly loyal to ingredients with no added pretension.
It seems as if Chef Ducasse learned from his unfortunate experience with the first restaurant he opened in the United States. Eponymously named, located at New York’s Essex House, it offered the chef’s sense of humor and playfulness with really delicious food served principally in a bare bones style emphasizing the product rather than the sauces. Critics enjoyed the food, but not the sometimes whacky and always sweet culinary and dining jokes.
Jokes like having a panel of pens to choose from for signing the credit card check or a selection of many knives to cut your meat didn’t cause much laughter. Ducasse is a shy, pensive, visual man with a whimsical outlook on life, but critics didn’t get the irony of his approach to eating out.
At both Adour and Benoit it’s back to the basics that make Ducasse one of the world’s greatest chefs: Only Joël Robuchon has more Michelin starred establishments.
“I rely upon 60% ingredients, 35% technique, and 5% talent,” said Chef Ducasse. “You also need years and a lot of love to make a grand dish.”
Chef Ducasse also differs from his colleagues in his acquisition of ingredients. While his cooking is informed by global cuisines, especially Japan and southern France, he emphasizes local artisanal products of small yield rather than depending on shipments from around the world.
“First and foremost, I always seek to respect the natural and original flavors of the ingredient,” he said. “You can have a wild imagination, but you need a basis of ingredients. You’ll notice incredible scallops from Maine. Or vegetables and herbs from Lee Jones’s farm in Ohio: Chef’s Garden.”
Indeed, Ducasse remains the only chef to have a book out devoted to the producers he relies upon in the United States. “Harvesting Excellence,” is an extraordinarily detailed account of the farmers and fishermen whose work makes possible Ducasse’s vision of a restaurant.
What’s fascinating about the chef’s embrace of American products is not only that he started it when most of his compatriots looked down on what is grown here, but also that he brought in the essence of his southern French outlook on life. He did not forget where he came from.
“It was in 1977 with Chef Roger Verge (in Moulin de Mougins, on the French Riveria) that I discussed the essence of Mediterranean cuisine. Verge practiced a cuisine that wove in the colors and tastes of Provence to create a unique, singular flavor.”
As a result, Adour and Benoit, which share the same purveyors, remain focused on dishes that are either traditional or informed by classical techniques. At Benoit this results in bistro favorites like onion soup, beef tartare, and one of Manhattan’s greatest versions of roast chicken, which is served here with garlic cloves and french fries.
Ducasse’s restaurants are the epitome of modern dining, but he is old enough to remember when haute cuisine meant reliance upon heavy food with lots of butter, egg yolks, and cream.
“Provencal cooking is the reason why olive oil is used in French cuisine,” he said. “Thirty years ago in Paris you couldn’t find olive oil in high-end restaurants. There was no real use of tomatoes either.”
Ducasse’s talent resides, in part, in his ability to build upon his basic philosophy without letting go of his original inspiration. His personality reflects this kind of resilience and capacity for focus.
“First of all, Alain would have been great at anything,” explained his friend and fellow chef, Joël Robuchon. “He has always been very fortunate, very quick on his feet. After surviving a plane accident that killed all five others on board, I think of Alain as having a protector.”
He is speaking of the air disaster that took place in 1984.
“That accident changed him,” said Chef Robuchon. “He had someone die in arms. He’s been so close to death that now he’s fearless. He eats life as quickly as he can.”
Blinded in his left eye as a result of the tragedy, Ducasse used his humor and intellect to bounce back and put things, like luxury dining, in perspective.
“My profession is one of modesty and humility,” he said. “It also involves a whole lot of passion. So even if you’re projecting that modesty and passion into luxury, the primary quality that sets great chefs apart is their humility. We’ve built up our restaurants from nothing.”
These restaurants also give him, as much as his customers, sanctuary from stress. Before you are seated, you have already started a journey away from day to day life. One’s fears are replaced by his vision of what you should see. This is due to the fact that his restaurants are more physically an expression of his ideas than most establishments.
Which makes sense, given what Ducasse said he would have chosen to be had not food claimed him.
“I would have been an architect or professional traveler,” he said with a wry smile.