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Samuel Muston: Alain Ducasse knows the secrets of culinary alchemy


If I were the super-chef Alain Ducasse's grandmother, I would feel a little silly. At one point, Mrs Ducasse did her best to stifle the culinary ambitions of her young grandchild. He was apt, you see, to criticise her petits pois.

Certain by the age of 12 that he wanted to be a chef, he was not averse to speaking his mind – especially on matters of overcooking. The result: his gran would send him to the garden of the family house in Castel-Sarrazin in south-western France to gather the veggies. This bred in him a regard for vegetables, for the land, and for fresh produce cooked with unimaginable care.

Forty-odd years later and Ducasse is St Paul with a spatula, a Monégasque culinary apostle with 17 Michelin stars, and I am sitting in the newest addition to his empire, Le Meurice Alain Ducasse in Paris, and something odd is happening. I am in a fine-dining restaurant, in a room that looks like some place you'd sign a peace treaty, eating a set menu – and I'm having, whisper it, a good time. And everyone else seems to be, too.

I am in one of the most famous hotels in Paris, which was decorated by Philippe Starck, and has two restaurants (the other is called Le Dali) run by the most influential chef in the world. It should be daunting, but it isn't.

Some might dismiss Ducasse as just another posh French brand name; a purveyor of unthinking, obscene luxury (he has 25 restaurants, culinary schools and a chocolate factory). But at Le Meurice, you see his genius. He has taken all the appurtenances of French haute cuisine and rearranged them into something softer, more approachable.

The food is a flat-out lesson in how to let fine ingredients stand, and shine, on their own: both the vegetables cooked on a bed of salt and the Saint-Jacques scallops touch the sublime because they taste of themselves – only alchemically better. Ducasse takes a set-in-its-ways food culture by the hand and gently coaxes it into the future – and yet never undermines it.

Twenty years before everyone was banging on about the joys of greens, Ducasse was offering menus that had more veg than meat in them at his Le Louis XV restaurant in Monaco. He has husbanded the skills of some of the best chefs across the world. He has also, for four years, run a programme called Women in the Future, which helps immigrant women in the outskirts of Paris to escape poverty by teaching them haute cuisine. He is the type of chef Gordon Ramsay could have been.

Sure, some of the food served in his empire falls short of the standard of that served at Le Meurice – how could it not? But, still, as I finish my vast rum baba, a Ducasse special, I can't help thinking that he is one of the best ambassadors for culinary culture we have today. He has lots to teach us. And we have a lot to thank his granny for.