Alain Ducasse may be known for his Michelin stars, but he is so much for than a chef.
Food is ephemeral. You can have a great dining experience, but it’s “Ichi Go Ichi E” （一期一会）as the Japanese say. Every occasion – the people-place-and-time is unique – can never be replicated again. So, cherish the experience. Recognise it and be in the present.
Unlike architects who have monumental masterpieces for future generations to experience, or film-makers, novelists whose work can be savoured by future generations. With chefs and their creations, it’s for the now.
Message in food
Food is powerful, because it’s so primary.
Regardless of background, people can appreciate food.
Food brings people together. In celebrations as well as troubled times, offering sustenance and relief.
In one of my favorite Romance films – A Tale of Samurai Cooking: A True Love Story, the palace head chef is tasked to create a meal for the leaders of the warring factions.
The chef and his wife-partner understood the enormity of the task. Cutting no corners, they traversed the whole of Japan – in search of their country’s flavors and traditions, from land and sea. The meal was to represent the unity and diversity of the long island country – and to send the message that “We are more powerful together; we can live harmoniously together.”
We see the contemporary take in The Quest of Alain Ducasse (2017). Former French President Francois Hollande and Ducasse meet to discuss what France will serve to its international guests at the newly renovated Versailles. Ducasse proposes a meal that sends a message about sustainability and connection to nature.
“(He) receives the beautiful produce of nature and makes the best of it.”
Ducasse has an affinity to the produce of nature, the soil, the origins of ingredients thanks to growing up on the family farm. He has a knack for working with the ingredients and an appreciation of the farms and farmers who equally treasure earth’s creations as he does. We follow him to disparate and sometimes unusual corners of the world for the most authentic tastes of beluga, cacao, fruits just to name a few.
We are not here to be common
With twenty-some restaurants under his care, each with its own colours and flavours – Alain Ducasse is a busy man. Like a CEO of a top Fortune 500 company brokering deals, he oversees the ‘empire’s’ smooth running, Ducasse works a lot. He visits his restaurants and works with his chefs on new menus, flavors, and experiences.
One scene particularly stood out. The camera zoomed-in on a prettily assembled chocolate dessert in their London restaurant kitchen. After everyone has taken their spoonful, Ducasse comments.
“Most people prefer it, but we are not here to please most people. We are here to create peaks and convince customers that this is good food – ie be the taste maker.”
“We are not here to be common.”-Alain Ducasse
It gave a new sense of Ducasse’ work – his is to introduce and educate his customers on taste, on good food. Like he does with his team of chefs – he teaches them how to be creative yet disciplined in the kitchen, and to appreciate produce and flavors.
“He gets chefs out of the kitchen, makes them travel and learn, to obtain a ‘global’ vision of their work. He transposed the term to gastronomy, a contraction of ‘global’ and ‘local’.”
To young chefs, whom he guides and moulds. He’s trainer, boss, artistic director, conductor directing a vast symphony of the senses.
Respect and cultural exchange
Many celebrated chefs love Japan for the country’s culinary traditions and craft. The Japanese have a knack for refining techniques so thoroughly to be able to bring out all the best notes in an ingredient.
Ducasse invites a Japanese chef known for cooking a bulbous seasonal Daikon radish to his kitchen to learn more about it. We witness an exchange. He asks about where the root vegetable is from, observes how the chef prepares it, asks questions and tastes.
In turn, Ducasse returns the favor and oversees his chef to come up with a dish using the same Japanese Daikon to create a dish in the style of Western cuisines.
We see a total respect for the plant, and a humbleness to learn from the best – the person who knows best how to cook and present the bulbous Daikon.
This exchange stuck with me because it offered a stark contrast to how a Western hip star chef handled an exquisite Japanese ingredient in his own biopic where there was little understanding and respect.
With Ducasse, there was no disrespect of the ingredients and an openness to learn.
Success: His Secret Sauce
He was asked: “How do you think you’ve managed to attain this level today?”
Not being afraid, undertaking things.
You look at what’s happening
And decide to do something different
Occupy a different space
Also an obsession for learning,
Editing, teaching, keeping nothing for yourself
Helping collaborators rise and become chefs themselves
True to that not only does Ducasse support his team to grow, learn, and explore, he has founded and funds a hospitality school in the Philippines.
A man of many quotable quotes:
“High end gastronomy means selling memories – You need many ingredients. In order it make this memory unique and indelible.”
“That’s a sculpture of nature. A work of art.” (Looking at a block of salmon at the Japanese fish market)
“All experiences are good: good or bad. The main thing is to learn from them.”
“If we’re not in good company, it’s better to be alone with a good vegetable.”
The stars from Michelin doesn’t do him justice. But then again, Ducasse is more than celebrity. His work criss-crosses many spheres – from culture, to land, to creation, education, experiences and aesthetics …
Food for thought
- How are you unleashing your full potential?
- What are the characteristics of someone who touches and positively impacts many?
Available for online streaming here: https://www.thequestofalainducasse.com/