Grand fromage: Alain Ducasse flies the flag for classic French haute cuisine
Thursday 05 February 2009
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
Teaspoon of salt
scraped vanilla bean and seeds
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.
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