“There has been too much emphasis in French cuisine on big names and big restaurants,” says Alain Ducasse, arguably French cuisine’s biggest name and proprietor of its biggest restaurants.
“French cooking has to change its focus and look more to smaller food operations where the food is still very, very good.”
This outlook is why Ducasse is now the figurehead for Gout de France, a French government initiative aimed at changing the perception of French cuisine – one Ducasse, with 21 Michelin stars under his whites – has done much to create.
An annual event, launched last year and recently enjoying its second, much larger scale outing, it brings together 1800 chefs globally to cook French dishes – approved by Ducasse – with less fat, sugar and salt, and with greater environmental awareness.
Some 5% of proceeds go to local health/environmental charities. The event was inspired by Auguste Escoffier, who in 1912 arranged for the same French menu to be served on the same day in several cities around the world.
French Cuisine’s Problem
“Right now the problem,” says Ducasse, “is that French cuisine is always regarded as being haute cuisine – too complicated, sophisticated, expensive and a bit arrogant.”
“It’s got caught up in that assessment of food over recent years as being this very serious topic, with every country trying to proclaim that its food is the best.”
“Even Australia. It’s important again for France to say we’re here, but also to get the message across that actually our cuisine is diverse and accessible.”
“It’s not all about the big names. Little bistros offer amazing food. But Paris has yet to find that dynamism of new ideas that you find in London.” .
While the chef is certainly sanguine about the pace of change of perception of French food – he doesn’t expect it to happen overnight, so rooted is French cuisine in ideas of pomp and often overbearing richness.
He speaks of French cooking – indeed, anything considering itself haute – being up against what he calls “instant cuisine,” the proliferation of street foods which, he says, offer a different if comparable experience to some of the best restaurants in the world.
Accordingly, travel, and a willingness to get off the beaten track, has led Ducasse to some of the best meals he’s ever had.
Ducasse’s Vegetarian Idea
Alain Ducasse is at least putting his money where his finely tuned taste buds are. Among his more recent projects have been the revamping of menus at two of his Parisian restaurants so that – sacre bleu! – neither offers meat, and in one case not even fish.
The maitre d’ even came begging for Ducasse to at least have one veal dish. But non! It took, he says, a lot of work to explain the shift in thinking to his regulars, quite aside from the work required to squeeze stronger tastes out of vegetables after junking thousands of recipes.
“The question for me was whether it was possible – can you have fine dining without meat? And especially as a French chef, and a French chef like me,” Ducasse laughs.
“Meat with sauce is such a huge part of the French repertoire. Doing without is not an easy idea to push in this country but I want to show that we can take ideas from other cuisines that don’t have the same emphasis on meat – Morocco, India, across the Middle East – to make fantastic dishes.”
“It’s an important step. We need to have more sustainable, more humanistic vision of cuisine. There are a billion underfed people and a billion people clearly overfed. Also, we have to change things and find protein in sources other than animal,” Ducasse said.
Unsurprisingly, Ducasse is no stranger to taking on challenges. Contrary perhaps to Gout de France’s attempted celebration of the broadest spectrum of French dining – and it’s proof that it can do healthy, progressive cooking – Ducasse’s latest venture is as French and as haute as it gets.
Versailles Tasting Menu
Later this year he will open the first full-on restaurant situated within the Palace of Versailles. He will be offering something akin to a tasting menu, although actually based on historic menus unearthed among court documents dating to the early 1700s.
The restaurant will even use some of the original china from the court of Louis and Marie Antoinette.”To be able to open a restaurant there is of course a real honour,” he says.
“We want to create the feel of being invited to the king’s table, so we’ve spent a lot of time with archivists to devise a contemporary version of that historic approach.”
“Very few people have had access to the documents – the menus, the protocols. From what we can gather they liked multiple dishes, though it was really more about spectacle than anything else. Actually, they didn’t eat a lot of variety” said Ducasse.
A History of Exotic Challanges
The venture is reminiscent of other very French Ducasse moves. He opened a restaurant on the Eiffel Tower.
He designed the menu for Concorde, back in its operational days, having to take into account the effect on flavour of flying at such a high altitude.
Then – sans a French astronaut – he went higher still and devised dishes for the crew of the International Space Station.
“That was a real challenge,” he says, “since you want to be able to give astronauts extreme pleasure through their food because it aids them psychologically.”
It’s about giving them a taste of home, a Sunday lunch. The good thing is that, up in space, you can’t see the competition.” The competition is – even in Ducasse’s esteemed position – something he thinks about a lot, Michelin stars or not.
In today’s restaurant world, he argues – and perhaps more than ever in today’s French restaurant world – it’s imperative that you stand out.
Alain Ducasse: The Future
“The bar has been raised, which is good, because everyone has to be that much better,” he says.
“And the fact is that the public isn’t loyal anymore – because at the end of the day anyone who can eat out isn’t really hungry. They’re looking at what’s around and picking and choosing.”
“Whether you have hundreds of covers in your restaurant or just a few, you have to offer an entire vision for food – from the choice of linen on the table upwards.
There’s no chance at all to compromise on the detail. Competition is fierce. It really is.”