Saucepans at dawn: Alain Ducasse meets Heston Blumenthal
One is the most Michelin-starred chef on the planet, now opening at the Dorchester. The other is Britain's best-known 'molecular gastronomist'. When they got together for the first in a series of conversations for our food special, the result was a deliciously spicy exchange
Sunday 11 November 2007
Alain Ducasse's restaurant empire spans the globe from Las Vegas to Hong Kong. The world's most Michelin-starred chef, he was the first ever to hold a three-Michelin-star rating for two restaurants simultaneously, La Plaza Athé*ée in Paris and Le Louis XV in Monaco.
Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck in Bray, Berkshire, is one of only three restaurants in the UK to hold three Michelin stars. He has since carved out a reputation as one of the world's most cutting-edge chefs, pushing the culinary envelope through dishes that make use of everything from liquid nitrogen to iPods.
Independent on Sunday: Have you two met before?
HB: Only once ...
AD: In Paris, at my restaurant at La Plaza Athé*ée. We were serving a special lunch for Michelin and every three-star chef in the world was invited.
HB: I remember thinking at the time that you were very brave.
AD: It was a wonderful day and I enjoyed it because it's something you only get the chance to do once. It was to celebrate the arrival of the new director of Michelin, Jean-Luc Naret, and Derek Brown leaving. To celebrate the departure of the man who took three stars from the Louis XV in Monaco twice... I said to Michelin that in protest I would serve a cold gigot of lamb for their lunch – and I did.
HB: I remember after the third star was taken away in Monaco and you were asked, "Who does the cooking when you're not there?" and you saying, "The same people who do the cooking when I am there." I thought that was a great line.
IOS: Why is Michelin still so important to chefs?
AD: Chefs don't become chefs just to earn stars – that's not the goal. Firstly, a chef cooks for himself and that's about passion; eventually you learn you're really cooking for your guests.
HB: Chefs become very passionate – we like to use that word a lot – sometimes, during a busy service when there's a big problem, we get to thinking that we're the fourth emergency service. But we're not heart surgeons, it's just that we're doing something that we love to do and perhaps that's why we sometimes become so intense because we're trying to satisfy our own desire, our own pleasure.
AD: When I was younger, I behaved a bit strangely sometimes – lost my temper, did silly things – but little by little I've gotten better. As a chef, I think you need to do a lot of work on yourself and your temperament.
HB: To go back to Michelin, I thought one day I'd maybe have a place with a Michelin star. I never thought I'd have two and I certainly never thought or had an ambition for three. Whether or not you believe in the Michelin guide, whether you think it's right or wrong, the fact is that after you get three stars the phone starts ringing and suddenly the CVs start to come through from talented staff who want to work for you. There's no other guide that has as much impact on your business in that way.
AD: These days, it also seems to give journalists something to write about – I think they now wait for the results to come out more eagerly than we do.
HB: I was thinking on the way here that you're the perfect example of the way in which food and restaurants have changed in the past two decades – gastronomy is now international and cross-cultural. Although Paul Bocuse and other French chefs took their ideas abroad from the late 1960s onwards, you're the first French chef who not only exported French gastronomy but also took on board other cultures. It's that cross-pollination that signifies the way modern gastronomy is going.
AD: I agree, but at the same time, despite gastronomy now being much more global, tastes remain very different depending on where you are. I don't do the same food ' in Tokyo that I do in Vegas and vice versa. If I did that, two weeks later I would have no customers.
HB: I don't know how you do it, how you manage to have so many restaurants so far apart.
AD: Maybe it's your next step. When I opened in New York seven years ago, Thomas Keller [chef-proprietor of The French Laundry in Yountville, California] said to me, "How can you have three-star restaurants in Paris and Monaco and now you're opening in New York?" And now look at him [Keller has since opened restaurants in New York and Las Vegas]. So are you the next Thomas Keller?
HB: Never say never...
AD: I don't want to have Gordon Ramsay as my only competition in the UK. What do you think about that? Who is the next British chef? If it's not going to be you, who's it going to be?
HB: I think I've revealed myself as much as I can without putting sunglasses on.
AD: Why would you let another British chef take this opportunity to grow if it's not you?
HB: I have ideas and plans for opening other restaurants but at the moment they are just ideas and plans. I have some other priorities first. The Fat Duck's kitchen is so small. We have 35 chefs now and at the moment we have to use three separate kitchens to house them. So I want to try and sort that out first and until I do my focus will be on that. But in terms of expanding in other ways, I have some ideas.
AD: Ramsay, Robuchon, Gagnaire, Jean-Georges, you could be in the race...
HB: There are other races.
AD: Competition is everywhere...
HB: And competition is good if it's amicable competition...
AD: And even if it's not it can be of interest to the media.
IOS: Your approach in the kitchen is very different. What do you make of each other's style of cooking?
AD:Today, with so many influences from around the world it's important that everyone cultivates their own influence, their own cuisine. You have to grow your talents but stay yourself and I must do the same. Today's restaurant customers are not faithful to one particular chef, they change all the time – Adriá, Gagnaire, Blumenthal, they like changing the style of food they eat. They like comparing, they like seeing what's out there.
HB: If you take my cooking it's still essentially classically French, that's its foundation. I could not even begin to be able to do what I want to do in terms of creativity without the 15 years I spent studying classical French cookery. The thing that worries me – and I know this is going to make me sound like I'm a 70-year-old – are the young chefs that get very excited by the experimental stuff and want to jump in, do that straight away and miss out the basics.
AD: It's like that in every art, creators and followers.
HB: But one style of cooking is not necessarily better than another style of cooking.
AD: The more I travel, the more new things I discover. I was in Japan recently and I saw a chef doing a dish that before I saw it I couldn't have believed it existed. Then I was in Rio and I visited Claude Troisgros who cooked this dish, a spiced beignet – it's a local street-food – and it was so delicious that I had to get him to show me how it was made. The real evolution is to learn something new every day – it's very important for chefs to share what they have discovered.
HB: Openness is really important because cooking is about evolution not revolution. We come across ideas, we borrow, we steal, we take, whatever, and then we adapt that to our own cooking and then we have to be open to give information back – that's how gastronomy develops.
AD: But influence in cooking needs integration... it's almost like immigration. When people arrive somewhere from another country they need time to acclimatise. It's the same thing with cooking. It's not, for example, just about throwing some spices at a beignet – it needs time to develop into something delicious.
HB: I was in Spain earlier this year and took part in a discussion panel. The debate was: "Is modern cooking ' an evolution or a revolution of nouvelle cuisine." Michel Guérard told me that, in 1973, Pierre Troisgros phoned him and said, "I have just put some food on a plate and served it to a customer." That was the first recorded instance of a chef actually putting food on a plate and it being taken out into a restaurant. Before that, everything was taken out on trays and served tableside. This is less than 40 years ago. So when people talk about nouvelle cuisine as being all about black plates and silly nonsense, it wasn't, it was about some really fundamental changes in the way that food was presented.
AD: Of course.
HB: Ten years before that in Britain there was still only one type of pasta you could buy in the supermarket – dried spaghetti – and if you wanted olive oil you still had to buy it from a pharmacy. Food in this country has changed so very, very quickly.
AD: Not too quickly, I hope. As we lost the rugby to you, please let us have gastronomy. We lead at the moment only because we started before you and there are a lot more of us.
HB: I learnt my cooking and my gastronomy from France. When I was younger and working as a credit controller, I used to save up and spend two months travelling around France and eating – not just in restaurants, but I would visit cheesemakers, go to see farms, mills.
AD: In the same way, Spanish chefs such as Martin Berasategui [whose eponymous three-Michelin-starred restaurant is on the Cantabrian coast] were first inspired by coming to France. Being inspired in such a way is like becoming the interpreter of your mental terroir, the interpreter of what you have learnt on your travels.
HB: The thing that started me cooking was one particular experience. When I was 15 years old, I went to France with my family and we went to Oustaude de Baumanière in Provence. My parents had never been to a Michelin-starred restaurant before, let alone a three. I'd never seen an oyster before then, I'd never tasted caviar, lobster, foie gras, filet of beef. I still remember the sound of the feet of the waiting staff crunching on the gravel, the smell of lavender, the sommelier with his handlebar moustache, a leather apron and a wine list that looked like it had come from Cecil B DeMille's The Ten Commandments, the cheese trolley that was like a chariot. I remember the waiters carving legs of lamb at the table, pouring sauces into soufflés. I'd never seen anything like it before. When I think about that experience now, I think I've always wanted to capture and recreate it. For me, it was as much about what was on other people's tables and around me as what was on mine. At The Fat Duck, we don't have the basalt cliff, the olive grove, the wonderful valley – it's a little restaurant on the side of the road – but we're doing things with sounds and smells and by doing that I'm trying to recreate that sort of multi-sensory experience.
AD: When I went to Alain Chapel for the first time in 1976 I had a similar shock when I tasted his food. I ate 10 dishes that I couldn't even begin to make and they were perfect. What Chapel was cooking back then would still be considered very contemporary.
HB: This is something we have very much in common, my experience at Baumanière was not about the food I was eating – I was too young to appreciate it – it was about the whole experience. Two years later I went to Chapel – this would have been in 1982 – and that for me was a shock. I was teaching myself how to make a demi-glace and, for the first time, I saw a sauce with jus perlé [pearls of fat]. This was in the days when a vegetable terrine that you could cut through and see all the layers was considered cutting-edge. What Chapel was doing back then was so ahead of his time.
AD: Today he would be called avant-garde.
HB: One of my favourite dishes on The Fat Duck's menu is called "Homage to Alain Chapel".
AD: What is it?
HB: A quail jelly, cream of langoustine, parfait of foie gras with an oak moss and truffle toast.
AD: Very delicate. In cooking, there are things that are clear and things that are intangible, things that you can't quite put your finger on and the harmony that you got from Chapel is the latter. We take lots of ingredients, give them a shake and see what happens, not only with cooking but with staff, design and tablewear, to see how it all fits together.
IOS: How do you want your customers to feel when they leave your restaurants?
AD: I want them to leave with a good memory. They are always saying my clients do not remember my cuisine, they only remember the bill that they get at the end because we're supposedly so expensive. My objective is that my customers leave the table feeling positive about their entire experience.
HB: I'd like as many people as possible coming into my restaurant [he rubs his hands together] excited.
AD: Yes, yes, yes... that they come in with a positive attitude and are open to the experience that they're about to have. Customers should feel free and pure and make sure that they're open, that they leave their preconceptions behind and allow themselves to be caught in the moment.
HB: That they'll look for the good things and not the bad things and then when they leave I want them to feel like they've had – if I was only allowed one word – fun.
IOS: Why do you think that so many Michelin-starred restaurants are not fun?
AD: If they're not fun, they are empty... there has to be a sense of fun in the dining-room, otherwise a restaurant won't last. Some restaurants look at what has happened, others look at what will happen – the best restaurants have to look further ahead.
HB: I often say to chefs – and some look at me as if I'm mad when I do – that the service in a restaurant is more important than the food, because as a chef you can make impeccable food that leaves the kitchen as it should be. You then only need someone front of house to say one wrong thing and then – no matter how good the food is – suddenly the customer's mood has changed and that's it.
AD: Hospitality is the key word; that's the main goal.
IOS: What do you think about the way the media talks about food and restaurants?
AD: They talk well about restaurants and food but not enough. We need more journalists who work harder for their stories and who don't take things for granted.
HB: There is sometimes a lack of understanding at just how much it costs to run a three-Michelin-star restaurant. People assume that if you're charging £4 for a bottle of water that they can buy in the supermarket for a pound, a big percentage of that price goes straight into your pocket.
AD: Unfortunately, that's not the case. In France it's always been that good restaurants are considered too expensive, but it's not true. We charge what we need to survive.
IOS: Do you think you could make money if you just had one three-star restaurant, no consultancy, no television, no books, nothing else?
AD: Yes, of course, but it would need to be really well established and you'd need to be able to charge high prices for what you were serving.
HB: I think it would give you a nice living but you wouldn't be able to build your business. You'd have to be almost full all the time, every single service. At only 60 to 75 per cent full, I'd lose money. The money is in less expensive restaurants with a higher volume.
AD: In this way you could say haute cuisine works in the same way as haute couture.
IOS: Heston has been to your restaurant in Paris but why haven't you been to The Fat Duck?
AD: Because I heard he was opening other restaurants and was not in the kitchen, so I did not want to go [laughs]. Now I'm in London I'll be in to see him before the end of the year. But don't I have to book now for 2010?
HB: [Laughs] I'm sure we can come to some arrangement once you're open here...
Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester (Park Lane, London W1, tel: 020 7629 8080, www.alainducasse-dorchester.com) opens on Wednesday. The second series of Heston Blumenthal's 'In Search of Perfection' is currently showing on BBC2, 8.30pm Tuesdays. The Fat Duck, High Street, Bray, Berkshire, tel: 01628 580 333, www.thefatduck.co.uk
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