Grand fromage: Alain Ducasse flies the flag for classic French haute cuisine

For a man who is, by general consent, the most distinguished French chef in the world, who holds 15 Michelin stars, has published 16 cookbooks and inspired no fewer than 27 restaurants, Alain Ducasse is a strangely low-key figure. World-famous as a brand, he is virtually anonymous as a person. Gourmets who could talk for hours about his Pithiviers de canard et foie gras would find it hard to identify him in a police line-up. He may have trained a generation of chefs who run key London restaurants (Hélène Darroze at the Connaught, Claude Bosi at Hibiscus, Alexis Gauthier at Roussillon) but you'll never see him on reality TV shows, like his countryman Raymond Blanc.

Unlike Gordon, Heston, Nigella and Jamie, he's not identifiable by just his Christian name, nor by a signature quirk (insults, liquid nitrogen, voluptuous curves, chutzpah) but by his love of old-fashioned luxury. His restaurants drip with elegance, posh napery, silver-spoon service. His cooking is ancient-regime cuisine: French dishes which hark back to the 1950s, the 1930s, the turn of the last century. His fondness for traditional rich sauces – Nantua, Perigueux, Grand-veneur – for luxuriant dishes such as tournedos Rossini (fillet steak with foie gras on top) or roast veal with truffles; his archaic menu offerings of "Rum Baba comme à Monte Carlo" and a pineapple pudding called "The Girl From Ipanema" – all suggest a conservative keeper of the haute cuisine flame.

Meeting him, you expect to encounter a lordly and seigneurial figure: his life is spent, after all, jetting round the world to visit his empire or check out the competition – Paris, Monte, New York, Washington, Tokyo – like a king on a royal progress. In fact he's surprisingly unassuming. A tall chap of 53 with spectacles and a swept-back coiffe of thick, greying hair, he resembles a stylish professor. He is courteous, but weary of people who don't quite get what he's done for them.

Knowing of my professional interest in puddings, he has arranged for me to eat three of them, and keeps his distance while I devour the Rum Baba, the Coco-Caramel and the Rose and Raspberry Pleasure. The last-named – a triple-decker confection of rose-perfumed cream, flat squares of white chocolate and raspberries stuffed with their own juice – is the most gorgeous pudding I've ever tasted.

It's a year since he opened Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester – a super-luxurious dining-room designed in muted beiges and taupes, its centrepiece a Table Lumière, at which six guests are surrounded by a kind of oval shower curtain made from 4,500 shimmering fibre optics. Also notable is the sweat-inducing prices (three à la carte courses for £75, although there's a cheapo two-course lunch menu for £39.50.)

The restaurant was named "Best Newcomer" by the 2009 Zagat guide and, only last week, was awarded two stars by the new Michelin Guide. What must a restaurant have, to merit three stars rather than two? "I don't know. Nobody knows the minds of the Michelin people." But you've won three stars in Paris, Monte Carlo and New York. Surely there must be some inferrable logic to it? "Not at all. I've won them, lost them, won them again..."

Had he been pleased by the response of Londoners? Some critics, while they admired the food, complained about the prices ("This place would deafen you," wrote A A Gill, "with the tearing sound of being ripped off.") "Our prices are not too high," said Ducasse. "The prices are in accordance with the quality we're giving." How did he justify charging £30 for a lunchtime steak requiring minimal cooking? He shrugged. "It's to pay for the product, the staff, the service, the people preparing in the kitchen. All the elements you see here are composed in the price." His London flagship, he pointed out, was not for everyone. "When you need to go from one place to another, you don't necessarily take the Bentley. You choose the car, you can go in the Cinquecento or take the bus."

A real millionaire's metaphor. I asked him what gourmets tend to do in a recession and he became more animated. "First, people who never cook at home won't suddenly start cooking at home. Second, people will spend less on wine. Some, when they've no corporate card to pay with, will change their category of restaurants. The remaining clients are real foodies, who still have money and really appreciate what they're having. And we need to give them more attention than we did before."

Did he have lively discussions with his head chefs about becoming more up-to-date? "Not at all," he said. "All the dishes on the menu are from traditional recipes, but adapted to modern tastes. They've evolved. That doesn't mean we forget the past. You have to continue traditions with a modern touch." He says that French cuisine was stuck with the image of "something too heavy and too formal – the idea of the sommelier with his tastevin on a big chain," but has now shaken it off. I pointed out that he still used the old sauces...

"They're not the same sauces," said Ducasse. "They're more a light jus, a much lighter approach." But, I said, there's a duck dish on the menu which comes with dolceforte sauce. That's at least 100 years old...

"Much older," said Ducasse, in his professorial way. "Catherine de Medici brought it with her from Florence when she came to France to get married." Touché.

Was there any danger of his going down the Heston Blumenthal/Ferran Adria route of molecular gastronomy and crazed experimentation? He gave me the kind of look Auguste Escoffier might have turned on Gary Rhodes. "What they're doing is very interesting for the world of gastronomy, the diversity of what they're exploring, none of it is useless, it makes cuisine more interesting. But I've written five encyclopaedias and am now on a sixth, so I don't really need to take from other people's explorations." So spin on that, Heston "Interesting" Blumenthal.

He isn't impressed by the rise of the super-chef with their TV series and public grandstandings. He's keener on unsung individualists. "There's a man I know in a village between Pisa and Rome. His cooking, you can't say it's traditional or Italian or molecular, it's just his own. He takes the best products from Italy and interprets them personally. He has no communications person, no PR, he's a star all by himself in a little village. Ferran Adria became famous because he did so much research. The media interest made him a star." He smiled, sharkily. "The only other way to catch the media's attention is to have a mistress. From the French point of view, that's a positive thing."

Could that be a sly dig at Gordon Ramsay's alleged (and denied) affair? He smiled inscrutably. Did he harbour no celebrity ambitions? "Nullement," he said with finality.

His original inspiration was his grandmother, who did the cooking on the farm where he grew up in south-west France, between Bordeaux and the Basque country. Ducks and geese scurried about, mushrooms and vegetables grew plentifully, and eating game was commonplace. What were the first tastes he remembers? "My first memories were smells. My bedroom was over the kitchen and the smells would come up through the floor – smells of ceps mushrooms, chicken poaching in a pot, green peas simmering..." He allows himself a brief moment of Homer Simpson-style, murmurous relish. What was his comfort food? "It doesn't feature in my restaurants, but my favourite is elbow pasta with ham and cream and the jus from a roasted chicken."

Since we are being so unbuttoned, I slide in a question about his family. He's famously reluctant to talk about personal matters, but I learn that he and his second wife relax at weekends in their house in St-Jean-de-Luz in south-west France; that his wife can be found at the sink peeling vegetables while he cooks; and that he has a 25-year-old daughter, a riding teacher, from his first marriage. And that he's expecting a new baby. Then I ask him where he'll be taking Mme Ducasse for Valentine's Night. "Somewhere intimate," he says, and clams up.

M. Ducasse has dedicated himself for years to the constant, patient refining of classic French dishes for modern consumers. His website calls him a chef-turned-innkeeper, and there's something of an imperturbable hotelier about him, rather than an angry kitchen tyrant. He has stamped a personal style on some of the finest restaurants in the world, trained a dozen chefs to Michelin-star level and become a byword in gorgeous cuisine without resorting to television shows or succumbing to celebrity egomania. He's done it simply by being a perfectionist. Is perfectionism a bad thing? Eat the Rose and Raspberry Pleasure, and tell me again how bad it is.

Ducasse's baba with the rum of your choice

Ingredients for about 15 babas

Baba

200g flour
Teaspoon of salt
70g butter
8.5g yeast
8.5g honey
250g eggs

Syrup

500ml water
250g sugar
orange, zested
lemon, zested
scraped vanilla bean and seeds

Garnish

14g apricot glaze
Old rum, to taste
Vanilla whipped cream
500ml double cream
100g granulated sugar
Seeds from ¼ vanilla bean

Making the baba dough

Mix the flour with salt, butter and yeast. Knead in an electric mixer with a dough hook. Add the eggs one by one. Gradually the dough should become smooth, and should stop sticking to the sides of the bowl.

Allow the dough to sit on an oiled surface for five minutes. The dough should be elastic, but firm.

Divide up the dough into (30g) portions and place in cylinder-shaped moulds. Let it rise at room temperature until the dough reaches the top of the mould.

Bake at 180ºC (356ºF) until browned (usually about 25 minutes). Turn the baking sheet halfway through baking.

Allow to cool and set aside in a dry place.

Preparing the syrup and vanilla cream

Mix together all the syrup ingredients. Bring to the boil, and allow them to steep slowly. Plunge the babas into hot, but not boiling, syrup. Use a skimmer to turn them in the syrup, until they are thoroughly soaked. Drain on a rack. Split the vanilla bean in half lengthwise, scrape it out and collect the seeds. Mix the contents thoroughly into the cream. Beat it together with the granulated sugar until the cream is semi-firm.

Finish and presentation

Place the baba on a plate and cover with the apricot glaze. Cut the baba in half when serving and drizzle with old rum of your choice. Serve with vanilla cream.

Arts and Entertainment
Joe Cocker performing on the Stravinski hall stage during the Montreux Jazz Festival, in Montreux, Switzerland in 2002
musicHe 'turned my song into an anthem', says former Beatle
News
Clarke Carlisle
sport
Sport
footballStoke City vs Chelsea match report
Arts and Entertainment
David Hasselhof in Peter Pan
theatreThe US stars who've taken to UK panto, from Hasselhoff to Hall
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
Approaching sale shopping in a smart way means that you’ll get the most out of your money
life + styleSales shopping tips and tricks from the experts
News
newsIt was due to be auctioned off for charity
News
Coca-Cola has become one of the largest companies in the world to push staff towards switching off their voicemails, in a move intended to streamline operations and boost productivity
peopleCoca-Cola staff urged to switch it off to boost productivity
Environment
Sir David Attenborough
environment... as well as a plant and a spider
Voices
'That's the legal bit done. Now on to the ceremony!'
voicesThe fight for marriage equality isn't over yet, says Siobhan Fenton
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Investigo: Finance Analyst

    £240 - £275 per day: Investigo: Support the global business through in-depth a...

    Ashdown Group: Data Manager - £Market Rate

    Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Data Manager - MySQL, Shell Scripts, Java, VB Scrip...

    Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - Bedfordshire/Cambs border - £32k

    £27000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - near S...

    Recruitment Genius: Class 1 HGV Driver

    £23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This successful group of compan...

    Day In a Page

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'