Alain Ducasse: the greatest chef in the world?

His 25 restaurants boast 14 Michelin stars between them, and he has inspired a whole generation of culinary empire builders, but Alain Ducasse still wants more. Here, the French maestro tells Terry Durack why his gastronomic influence may one day stretch as far as the planet Mars.

You've heard of the three-star restaurant and the five-star hotel. Now meet the 14-star chef. Just three months shy of turning 50, Alain Ducasse has amassed so many Michelin stars he can form his own constellation. When he was just 33, he became the youngest chef ever to win three. Sixteen years later, the 2006 Michelin Guide New York City awarded three stars to his restaurant at the Essex House, making him the first chef ever to simultaneously run three three-starred establishments (the others being Le Louis XV in Monte Carlo and Alain Ducasse at Plaza Athénée in Paris; add five more one-star restaurants - four in France and one in Monaco - to take that star count to 14).

At the same time, he has set up a network of hotels, restaurants and bistros that runs from Las Vegas to Tokyo. The man is a time-and-motion expert's dream. In my first interview with him a few years back, he wrote an entire, word-perfect speech while answering my questions. When I mentioned this to Jean-Francois Piege, then chef of Ducasse's restaurant at the Plaza-Athénée, he looked at me quizzically and said: "You mean he was only doing two things at once?"

When he continually delayed our most recent interview, in the glorious surrounds of Le Louis XV in Monte Carlo in April this year, I discovered even his excuses are higher up the evolutionary scale. "I am sorry," he said by way of an apology, "I was called to an urgent audience with Prince Albert."

Ducasse's obsession with fitting as many things into his life as possible can be traced back to 1984, when he was involved in a horrific light-aircraft crash while travelling with a group to Courchevel in the French Alps. Tragically, the Piper Aztec that the group was travelling in crashed into a mountain, killing four of Ducasse's colleagues. Ducasse, however, was thrown out of the cockpit and miraculously survived. "It helped me to realise what is important and what is not," he says now. "It taught me to step back from the kitchen, and open my eyes to the vastness of the world."

Elegantly dressed and immaculately groomed, Ducasse looks more like a diplomat, a global entrepreneur or a CEO than a chef. He is, of course, all four rolled into one. On the surface he appears calm and assured, yet his nails appear to be bitten to the quick. "I am not stressed," he once famously told Fortune magazine. "I prefer to make others stressed."

Ducasse was brought up on his parents' farm in Castelsarrasin in south-west France. "When you grow up close to poultry and fields and gardens and open-air markets, you can't help but develop an instinct for quality food," he comments matter-of-factly. By the age of 12, he decided he wanted to be a cook (inspired, perhaps, by his grandmother, an accomplished cook whose Sunday lunches would fill his room above the kitchen with the smell of mushrooms and blanquette de veau).

At 16, he began his apprenticeship at a local restaurant, but it wasn't until he went to work with the great Alain Chapel at Mionnay near Lyons, that he began to sense his destiny. To this day he still refers to Chapel as his spiritual master. "The key word is excellence," says Ducasse now. "Chapel taught me to honour and respect the produce, and to offer it to the client in its most pure and perfect state."

Relocating to the Côte d'Azur, Ducasse became chef of the restaurant at the Hotel Juana in Juan-les-Pins where, in 1985, he was awarded two Michelin stars. Two years later, he was approached by the Hotel de Paris with an offer to take over the gloriously ornate Louis XV restaurant. In an act of seemingly foolish bravura, Ducasse agreed to a clause in the contract by which he agreed to win three Michelin stars in four years - an almost impossible task. He did it in three. And he did it by detoxing French haute cuisine and ridding it of much of its excesses. There is far less cream and butter in his cooking, and far more reliance on simple flavourings such as extra-virgin olive oil, lemon, herbs and sea salt.

"If my cuisine were to be defined by just one taste, it would be that of subtle, aromatic, extra-virgin olive oil," he says. "Why hide the flavour of freshly picked vegetables with a rich sauce?"

Some critics at the time decried his love of rustic Mediterranean flavours, but the forces of change were with him. Then, when the clearly ambitious young chef moved into the three-starred Parisian restaurant previously occupied by the great Joël Robuchon, up flew the hands again as critics saw it as the audacious act of an egotistical opportunist. Yet it took Restaurant Alain Ducasse just eight months to win its own three stars.

When Ducasse moved his Parisian restaurant into the sumptuous Hôtel Plaza Athénée in 2000, the Michelin Guide graced it with its highest accolade after it had been open less than five months. But it wasn't all good news. At the same time, Michelin removed a star from Le Louis XV, in spite of the fact that the chef, the menu, the waiting staff and the standards had all remained utterly unchanged. Ducasse believes it was meant as a warning to him to slow down, and no reflection on Le Louis XV. "If the Michelin Guide was the only guide in the world, then I suppose it would have been worrying," he says. "It isn't."

Nevertheless, when the third star was reinstated in 2003, he admits to feeling that an injustice had been put right. Rarely have the earthy, honest flavours of Provence had such a grand setting as the dining-room of Le Louis XV, with its soaring ceiling, elaborate frescoes and crystal chandeliers. (omega)

The dichotomy works because the simple and earthy flavours of Provence are reworked and refined without being overwrought. A collection of the babiest of Provençal vegetables, wrapped with a spring onion and lightly cooked with truffle and taggiasche olives is almost laughably good. And the lack of artifice involved in a plate of perfumed local wild strawberries with a snow-white mascarpone sorbet is balanced by the enormous amount of craft in a tablet of soft, chocolatey, toffeed crunch, finished in gold leaf.

Ducasse, however, did not personally cook my meal. Those days are long gone. In fact, he admits that he now spends little time in the kitchens, and knows no reason why he should, regarding his role as more of a "chef-creator" who radiates ideas, leaving their execution to his finely honed and hand-picked team. "I do most of the cooking in my head," he says.

His real secret is the calibre of chefs he both attracts and keeps, such as Nice-born, Franck Cerutti, the hugely talented executive chef of Louis XV, who has been with Ducasse since 1980, when they first cooked together at Hotel Juana.

It is tempting to view Ducasse as a cult leader. But when I ask if it would be fair to suggest that he runs his business rather like a religion, in that his employees must believe in Ducasse and the values of Ducasse, the answer is short. "No, it would not be fair."

Nonetheless, he is seen as both genius and guru by many, including Britain's own culinary empire-builder, Gordon Ramsay. "I have been trying to follow in his footsteps," says Ramsay. "His sheer consistency is nothing less than amazing. He has three three-star restaurants and they are all phenomenal."

For Ramsay, the crunch is that "he has proven that the chef doesn't have to be hands-on to succeed" - indeed, Ducasse's most famous put-down to critics is that these days "the chef must do more than get fat behind his stove". "The difference between Ducasse and me," says Ramsay, "is that I'm investing in the talent, while he's cloning the talent. You never see him setting up his chefs in their own restaurant. It is always an Alain Ducasse restaurant."

With the air of betraying the state, one of his staff once slipped me a little red book given to every new Ducassian recruit, outlining the group's 12 guiding values. These include Passion ("Love suffices, the rest will come"), Harmony ("Acting as one at once"), Diversity ("The mixing of cultures is a treasure to the mind"), and Audacity ("Do not fear and venture on").

Ducasse is good at venturing on. "I imagine places where I want to go and visit as a customer, and then I create them," he says. "Once, I imagined a city restaurant where you could sit down and create your own dinner; where you could be your own chef by putting this with that - thus the mix-and-match menu of his Spoon restaurants was born, now up and running in five different countries.

While on one hand pushing the boundaries of dining, Ducasse is just as busy preserving tradition and history. In recent years, he has joined forces with the Thierry de la Brosse, of the L'Ami Louis bistro, to buy two enchantingly old-fashioned, atmospheric Parisian bistros (Aux Lyonnais and Benoit) and turn them into, well, two enchantingly old-fashioned bistros. Aux Lyonnais is my favourite place to eat in Paris, bringing a confident sparkle to old bistro favourites. Benoit is a lost-in-time experience of brass rails, lace curtains and hearty slow-cooked dishes.

Somehow, Ducasse has also found time to acquire three charming country hotels in Provence, one in the Basque country and one in Tuscany. He is also president of the prestigious private hotel group, Châteaux et Hôtels de France, and presides over an industry training centre, a cooking school and a publishing house (Les Editions d'Alain Ducasse). And did I mention that he has written 16 cookbooks, and launched an online food store (www.ducasse-online.com)?

And yet for all the controlled perfectionism in his life, there are moments of whimsy, almost of caprice. He recently became so besotted by the work of Belgian ceramics designer Piet Stockmans that he commissioned him to create a complete dessert service for Louis XV. "His creations are witness to a specific and new vision of porcelain," says Ducasse. Stockmans' cornflower-blue plates and accessories are a vivid, alien, denim-jean presence in the gilded splendour of Louis XV, but the master has spoken, and so shall it be.

As to where he goes from here, the answer is that, like Joël Robuchon and indeed, Gordon Ramsay, Ducasse is investing heavily in Japan.

"It is impossible to remain indifferent to Japanese culture," he claims. "It is a different civilisation where all you have learnt must be forgotten. It is a great intellectual challenge and a gorgeous sensual experience."

While a Tokyo adaptation of Benoit is already doing good business, his big hope is the fine-dining restaurant Beige. Ducasse is convinced it can climb to the same giddy heights as his existing three-starred eateries, and there is no reason to believe otherwise.

Venturing on without fear as always, Ducasse has been working with the European Space Agency on vacuum-packed meals designed for extreme conditions such as space travel (what he calls "food for extreme pleasure"), while also creating recipes based on nine ingredients the agency believes could be grown in greenhouses on the planet Mars. How very clever, and how very Ducasse. He must know that sooner or later he will run out of Michelin star opportunities here on Earth. s

For more information, go to www.alain-ducasse.com: Planet Ducasse Star performers in the chef's global restaurant empire

The signature restaurants

Restaurant Le Louis XV Alain Ducasse

The fresh seasonal flavours of the Mediterranean

meet one of the world's most luxurious dining experiences.

Hotel de Paris, Place du Casino, 980000 Monaco. Tel: 377 92 16 29 76

Beige Alain Ducasse

Joining forces with Chanel, Ducasse gives Japan its most fashionable French dining experience yet.

Ginza Chanel Building 10F 3-5-3 Ginza Chuo-ku, Tokyo. Tel: 81 351 59 5500

Restaurant Alain Ducasse au Plaza Athénée (three stars)

Like its glorious crystal chandelier, the very Parisian cooking in this glamorous hotel restaurant is both modern and classical. Hotel Plaza Athenee, 25 Avenue Montaigne, 75008 Paris. Tel: 33 1 53 67 65 00

Alain Ducasse at the Essex House (three stars)

Ducasse takes on New York, combining the finest American produce with timeless French technique.

155 West 58th Street, New York, NY 10019. Tel: 1 212 265 7300

The contemporary restaurants

Spoon Food & Wine

Ducasse goes futuristic, with an adventurous, global-roaming that menu allows diners to mix and match from East and West to build their own meal.

12, rue de Marignan, 75008 Paris. Tel: 33 1 40 76 34 44. Also in Mauritius, London, Hong Kong, Saint Tropez and Gstaad.

Mix Las Vegas

Ducasse reinvents American cuisine for the Vegas high rollers under a champagne-bubble chandelier.

The Hotel at Mandalay Bay, 3950 Las Vegas Bd, Las Vegas, Nevada, USA. Tel: 1 702 632 9500

Bar & Boeuf (one star)

A Monte Carlo institution with a big-money menu that focuses on sea bass (bar) and aged beef.

Le Sporting, Monte Carlo, MC 98000 Monaco. Tel: 377 98 06 71 71

The traditional restaurants

Aux Lyonnais

Thanks to Ducasse and Thierry De La Brosse, this 116-year-old bistro gets a new lease of life, with traditional but refined Lyonnaise cooking.

32 rue Saint Marc 75002 Paris. Tel: 33 1 42 96 65 04

Benoit (one star, pictured below)

Rich, traditional French bistro cuisine is not yet a thing of the past, as Paris's oldest family-run bistro gets the Ducasse/De La Brosse treatment. There's also a more elegant, luxe namesake in Tokyo.

20 rue Saint Martin, 75004 Paris. Tel: 33 1 42 72 25 76.

Iparla

A charming, out-of-the-way, Basquaise inn serving up traditional country cooking.

Chemin de l'Eglise, Bordaberria, 64780 Bidarray. Tel: 33 5 59 37 77 21

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