Global Ambition ~ Alain Ducasse.
Cuisine and Wine Asia
Sunday, 22nd April 2007
With nine Michelin stars to his name - a veritable halo shines around Alain Ducasse - but as we found out, Ducasse's heaven is on earth.

"I hope you haven't washed your hands yet!" A chef teased after I told him I had interviewed Alain Ducasse that morning. (My reply was a resounding, "Yes,it's been a whole day!")

Jokes aside, the reverence many chefs have for the much decorated Alain Ducasse isunmistakable. He is, afterall, the only chef in the world who has earned 14 Michelin stars— nine for restaurants under his own name and five for establishments under his company, Groupe Alain Ducasse. It is a known fact that Ducasse no longer "slaves away behind the stoves" at his many restaurants, as many journalists have so eloquently phrased it.

According to the Ducasse philosophy, a chef does not have to be at the command at all times. Ducasse prefers to train and conduct troops who carry out his instructions with military precision. He keeps a watchful eye on the recruitment of personnel for his restaurants and selects, trains and then encourages his pupils to stand on their two feet whilst he observes their progress.

Summing up his beliefs to one succinct point, Ducasse said with a laugh, "It is easier to manage than be managed." When it comes to being managed by Ducasse, however, only the constantly curious need apply. As Ducasse's business partner of eight years, Laurent Plantier explained, "He is always pushing people because he wants them to learn something different. He always keeps an eye on every kitchen and is always interested how they learn and progress. He believes that if you don't learn, one day you'll just get bored and lose interest." Ducasse will be the first to admit he "pushes people to get their best performance possible".

But perhaps this harshness is tempered by a rather nurturing personality. An indication of this is his dedication to training professionals for the industry he has so gracefully mastered. Ducasse is open with his students and would-be protégés; everyone has the opportunity to learn as much as they want to from him. "I have no trade secret!" Ducasse insisted, adding that his life and work are literally, open books thanks to the 16 cookbooks he has written so far. Ducasse may have hung up his toque (for the public, at least) but he is proof that you can take a chef out of the kitchen but you can't take the kitchen out of the chef.

Nowadays, he spends a large amount of time engaged in reconnaissance work, researching and analysing new markets for potential Groupe Alain Ducasse set-ups. "We pay a lot of attention to local food cultures and we try to adapt our vision," he explained, "There may be no specific project in mind but we try to figure out what the market is and what drives it." When the company goes into research, no one knows how things are going to unfold or what may happen in the future. This sense of openness and flexibility is a quality Ducasse takes pride in.

As a young chef, his main mission was to learn as many cooking techniques as possible, from charcuterie to pastry and baking, and to explore as many cuisines as he could. Plantier explained, "Whatever he does, he aspires to be the best that he can possibly be. In a way, he is never satisfied and it keeps him growing beyond his borders." And when Ducasse does find a gap to fill, that's when his flair for micro-management truly kicks in. Just like how executive chefs have to be conscious of every process in their kitchens, Ducasse involves himself at all levels from choosing the interior designer and the management to organising the kitchens and picking out the equipment.

And of course, he is the central man behind the menu creation and wine lists. "It is really important to create a restaurant that will be relevant to the market so when the customer comes in they understand it is harmonious," Plantier reiterated, "It's also not just about food, it's very, very important for the restaurant to have a personality." "(A restaurant is) like a baby," Ducasse articulated, "When it is young you don't let it go, you take care of it."

Although, he was quick to add with a laugh, "I'm not the only father!" When prompted for an explanation, Plantier chipped in saying, "The people who work in all the different restaurants all over the world are people he's worked with for a long time. So there's a great level of confidence in these people for carrying over his vision."

Pondering the Singaporean Cuisine

When asked if he did have a vision for Singapore, Ducasse said simply, "Singapore has already a lot to offer; there's already a lot in the market." Plantier did concede though, that Groupe Alain Ducasse was researching the market here. "It's a very dynamic market here in terms of food and chefs," Ducasse observed, "In the last ten years there's been a lot of evolution with the proposal of new flavours but all attached to what Asia has to offer. Your magazine did not exist before ten years ago (actually we did, albeit in a newsletter format). So it shows that there's really an increased interest for food and good eating, wine and good service."

When I lamented about Singapore's lack of local terroir and therefore a typically native cuisine, Ducasse was quick to point out, "There's a melt of different cultures here and the cuisine is very representative of that with very creative flavours. I've also noticed that seafood especially, is cooked to enhance its natural flavours in its original state and not overwhelmed by too many sauces. What's interesting is that Singapore is very rich in multi-level types of cuisine which is not necessarily available in other parts of the world. It is important to preserve this style of popular dining."

One wonders which of Ducasse's concept restaurants, if any, might arrive on Singapore's shores. Already, the Spoon concept tested our waters during the last World Gourmet Summit when five chefs from the Hong Kong, Mauritius and London outlets came together to offer spoon-fuls of delights at a dinner and a cooking masterclass. Of his latest creations there's Tamaris, a dessert house currently only in Beirut, and the gourmet chain of bakery and grocery stores ‘be boulangepicier' in Europe.

Or how about his bistro venture Benoit which sports an outlet in trendy Tokyo? Perhaps he might bring in Mix, from Las Vegas, when the upcoming Integrated Resorts are built or he could choose ‘bar & boeuf' which only serves sea bass and beef in Monaco.

At the end of our interview, Ducasse joked that he wanted to become a chef simply because, "Being an apprentice is pretty hard and I just wanted to get out of there!" And no, his ambition was never to earn a Michelin star. "If people come and dine in my restaurants and they are happy," he effused, "Then that's where I get my satisfaction. I am focused on giving people an experience and on satisfying them. The Michelin stars are just an additional reward."

The New Asia Cuisine and Wine Scene is exactly as its name suggests-a snapshot of the region's culinary scene, neatly packaged into a bi-monthly magazine for the enjoyment of culinary and F&B professionals worldwide. A necessary means of communication for chefs and industry regulars, it consists of articles written by international trade professionals, as well as trends, trade issues, and basically everything concerning the culinary world. More than just an entertaining read, The New Asia Cuisine and Wine Scene acts as a facilitator of new partnerships between suppliers and professionals. Keep your eyes peeled for:

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  • Ingredient guides
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Check out www.asiacuisine.com or subscribe to The New Asia Cuisine and Wine Scene today…it's about taste!

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