For Monaco-based restaurateur Alain Ducasse, it is less about stars and more about constellations.
“The secret? I seduced him,” says Alain Ducasse about Donald Trump.
Let me clarify; we are talking about the time when Ducasse cooked for Trump and Emmanuel Macron and the respective first ladies, during Trump’s state visit to Paris in 2017.
At the top of the Eiffel Tower, on a table strewn with pink peonies, laid with vintage crockery, Ducasse served up a six-course meal including foie gras, Dover sole with hollandaise, beef with brioche and truffles, strawberry sorbet and hot chocolate souffle with chocolate ice cream.
For a president who is known for his love of fried chicken and hamburgers, and eats his steak with ketchup, the task might have put lesser chefs off. But Ducasse believes Trump genuinely enjoyed it. “I just cook them what they love, but better,” he shrugs in his way.
Of course, Alain Ducasse is no ordinary chef. For the Monaco-based restaurateur, it is less about stars, more constellations. He is one of only two chefs to hold 21 Michelin stars throughout his career, with eponymous restaurants at The Dorchester in London and Plaza Athénée in Paris among many others.
We have just been served a jaw-dropping feast at his latest restaurant, Alain Ducasse at Morpheus, located at the dizzyingly futuristic Morpheus Hotel. It was Zaha Hadid’s swansong project at The City of Dreams Macau, and one of 32 restaurants across the world that he owns, some of which are now making their mark with meatless menus. He won back a third Michelin star at Plaza Athénée after he exorcised meat and poultry from the tasting menu to focus on plants, grains and a little fish. “It was the biggest challenge of my career,” he said, explaining that vegetables require a lot more attention to become the star of the plate.
As a chef with a deep respect for nature and the rhythms of the seasons, Ducasse is concerned with the problems facing the planet caused by animal agriculture. He acknowledges that another Michelin-starred plant-based menu for the elite will not change much, so in Spring 2020 he is planning to open a new, affordable plant-based restaurant in Paris and later in New York, what he describes as “popular chic”, costing around €25 for lunch. “Because of who I am, it is important that I show this can be done, not just for fine dining, but also for mass dining.”
But now aged 63 and in the fourth decade of his career, he says his passion is elevating not himself but others.
“My role now is to help other people grow,” says Ducasse. “The reason my company exists is the young people, so now I just want to train them and share my knowledge.” He relates a story about a talented young pastry chef, Jessica, who once tried to quit to spend more time with her children, but he persuaded her to stay by organising flexible hours for her.
He launched Ducasse Education in 1999 with campuses in France and Manila, with the vision to teach people to cook in a sustainable way. “My training programmes are about eating less and eating better: less sugar, less salt, less dairy and less protein. This year, he sold a majority stake in his cookery school business to a private equity firm, Eurazeo Sommet Education, retaining a 49 percent stake, Ducasse said, “to expand and develop quicker while getting closer to the professional core of education. We want to position ourselves as a major actor in this field”.
In his spare time, Ducasse loves nothing more than a good nose around a flea market. But his collection doesn’t gather dust. His restaurants are filled with vintage objets d’art picked on his travels, some over 100 years old.
One of our courses is served on exquisite porcelain floral motif Maison Haviland dinner sets, created in 1876 in Limoges. The shelves within the restaurant are decorated with an elegant array, including a pair of 19th century Christofle silver serving dishes, Lalique vases from 1930 and, in the wine cellar, a large art nouveau mirror by Victor Saglier. We sip 2007 Rosé Bollinger from Lalique Champagne glasses crafted in the 1920s. The waiting staff are extra careful with these, he confides with a wink, as he personally shaves black truffle onto my plate of cep mushrooms and edamame.
Ducasse eats out all the time and is obsessed with trying new places, often the most humble and hidden establishments. “Wherever I go I love to try the newest place because I love discovering what other chefs are doing, not even necessarily being inspired by others, but being surprised by what others.” What he looks for is a level of excellence that was first taught to him by his mentor Alain Chapel, the French chef who passed away in 1990. “He inspired me to find the perfect product, and when you find it to cook it in the perfect way, then pair it with the perfect wine. Everything must be right from beginning to end.”
Here, the iconic French chef shares some of his recent restaurant discoveries.
Restaurant Yosuke Yamaji, Kyoto
I was delighted by a dish made from Ayu, known as ‘sweetfish’, which they cultivated in a nearby river. The food was Japanese but clearly inspired by French techniques. For example, instead of Champagne they served a fresh sparkling saké. And, funnily enough, when I went to meet the chef, we realised he had trained at Plaza Athénée 20 years ago, where he had fully understood my motto: what do I have, what do I know? So that’s what I will make. And his food was evidence that he lived by that.
A la Vierge de la Réunion, Paris
A simple bistro with good, natural wines, the chef Elsa Marie (French) and her spouse Julian May (Australian), have a rare talent. She cooks at lunchtime and he cooks at dinner and you get three plates for €20: it’s such good value. Marie tells her story through the dishes she serves. For example, ricotta di bufala with mizuna, radicchio, mustard, watercress, pomegranate and a beetroot vinaigrette; grilled hake on a bed of braised leek, lettuce hearts and beurre blanc à l’orange sauce; finishing with poached pear and hazelnut ice cream.
Partage, Las Vegas
This is a French modern dining restaurant in Las Vegas that I was recently blown over by. There is a young French team: chef Yuri, pastry chef Vincent and the manager Nicolas. They spent 10 years working for Michelin-starred restaurants in Paris, Courchevel and Provence before moving to Las Vegas in 2015 with backpacks and their recipes and that was it; but they’ve done very well. They cook with true passion, using organic, seasonal ingredients.