Time for new 'gold standard', says star French chef Ducasse

Looking out over his global empire of gourmet restaurants, star-studded tables reaching from Tokyo to the Eiffel Tower, French chef Alain Ducasse decided this spring it was time for something new.

So he took the menu of the Plaza Athenee, the flagship three-star restaurant that graces the luxury Parisian hotel, and decided to strip it back to basics - in what he believes may herald a radical new food trend.

"I want to remind people of the taste of bread and butter," Ducasse told AFP over a seven-course tasting session in the kitchens of the five-star hotel, on Paris' ultra-chic Avenue Montaigne.

"The best bread, toasted just so, and served with butter at exactly the right temperature," he enthused, wolfing down slice after fragrant slice of the thick, crusty bread sourced from one of the capital's best boulangeries.

Produce - bought in the right place, at just the right time of year to ensure peak quality - is at the heart of the new menu, unveiled this week to the hotel's elite international clientele.

"We've never been about bling-bling - but now we are definitively going to get back to essentials," Ducasse said. "There are no accessories - just like a very beautiful woman does not need accessories."

Of course, diners will be left in no doubt where they are - seated under the vast chandeliers of the hotel's hushed, opulent interior.

But, said Ducasse, "we are are no longer in a cuisine of pomp and ceremony. There will be more luxury in the decor - but more purity in the plate."

"Veal, Carrots" or "Vegetables, Fruits" - Ducasse's new dishes sound a far cry from the poetic elaboration that defines gourmet menus the world over, and nowhere more so than in France.

"Our modest ambition is to set a new gold standard for veal, duck, beef," said the chef.

Dishes of no more than three ingredients will aim, he said, to "define the essence of taste."

"Cuisine has become too complicated - this is about subject, verb, adjective: duck, turnips, sauce."

When a customer orders beef he will be brought a two-foot rib, unadorned, to the table, from which to choose his slice: "If they are real meat-lovers, they'll go for it," Ducasse wagered. "Otherwise you shouldn't be eating meat!"

Likewise, "the sole is the same - but we are going to leave it just that little bit firmer. We are daring to present the product as it is."

To give his new concept shape Ducasse brought in Christophe Saintagne - who has spent over a decade working for him, and the past two years overseeing his tables in France, Britain and Japan - to take over the Plaza kitchens.

"We wanted to make the cuisine simpler, more readable - not cuisine for the sake of demonstration," Saintagne told AFP.

As an appetiser Saintagne served up two poor man's dishes - strips of smoky pork lard and meagre fish, served side by side on cubes of almost-burned bread, in a fold of red-and-white butcher's paper.

Followed tiny shrimps, the heads sauteed first, the bodies peeled and lightly seized, then eaten straight out of a cast-iron pan with a pinch of salt, butter and a single clove of garlic.

Next came a variation on the cepe - a trio of hotpot, salad and broth with the forest mushroom virtually as sole ingredient: "I want to translate the very word 'cepe' into a flavour," said Ducasse.

Likewise, carrots, beetroot, celery, quince, are simmered individually to keep their full strength, before being piled together in a plate.

"Lobster, Potatoes," or "Strawberries, Cream, Meringue" followed the same mantra - "defining the essence of taste."

In recent years Ducasse has been best known as an entrepreneur-chef, with more than two dozen tables around the world collecting star after Michelin star - often earning the suggestion that he spreads himself too thinly.

But in the past Ducasse has been credited with launching food trends that later went viral - like the revival of Mediterranean-style cuisine in the mid-1990s.

At the Plaza, he said, "we had a beautiful machine, but it was just snoring away. I don't know if people will like it, but the road I want to take may just be the start of a new trend."

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