Alain DUCASSE, a Frenchman in New-York

(Les Di@logues Stratégiques® N°25 - 02/02)

Alain Ducasse is not only a head chef, he's also a company manager, an initiator, an artist and a talents' discoverer...
This great name of French cuisine has been placed 94th among the world greatest personalities by the Forbes American magazine. Indeed, he's famous throughout the world for his restaurants listed in "Guide Michelin", the famous French restaurants guide. The owner of The 3-star Plaza Athénée restaurant in Paris and of The 2-star Louis XV restaurant in Monaco has definitely charmed the Americans. The Essex House of New York (Central Park South) has just been elected the best restaurant of the year by the James Beard Foundation.

Véronique Anger : Why have you chosen New York to set up your new restaurant?
Alain Ducasse :
Like Paris, New York is the city of challenges. I love New York as a tourist. I like its dynamism and discovering new cultures, new restaurants.
Besides, I've always liked American products. I tasted the best-candied apricots in San Francisco!
According to me, the cosmopolitan New York City is the best place to make people know and share new flavours. The strategic aspect of this choice is to promote the brand throughout the world.

VA : By opening a new restaurant, don't you fear that your brand become too popular?
AD :
In reality, the Alain Ducasse restaurants(1) can be found only in Monaco, Paris and New York.
I really want to keep them different. For each restaurant, I called on different designers so as not to create a chain of restaurants. Moreover, my teams do not cook the same things in Monaco, Paris or New York. Even though the New-York restaurant cooking is influenced by Mediterranean food, we are trying to offer another and specific variety of plates. At The Essex House, different, original dishes mix the best products of American food tradition and French know-how.

VA : Is gastronomy the same thing in New York as in Paris? Do you think there is American specific art of cooking?
AD :
Well, there is no secret recipe today. Most head chiefs publish cookery books, young cookers travel and consumers as well. Borders are no longer an obstacle to the exchange of knowledge and know-how.
American people love French cuisine. Paris is the symbol of "haute cuisine" throughout the world, but New York is the most innovatory, modern, creative and "sexy" city. It is the most surprising place in the world. Each trip has been the occasion of new discoveries. Contrary to French people, The Americans don't have cultural barriers as regards food. They manage to catch, assimilate and mix foreign culinary cultures.

VA : Apart from your restaurants, what are you running after? What do you dream of?
AD :
One of the advantages of my job is that it gathers together people who like the good things in life. It helps to meet craftsmen, artists and passionate people.
I like sharing my knowledge and know-how with the others through my books and my training centre, "le Centre de Formation Alain Ducasse" (CFD), created only for people working in catering and hotel business.
Encouraged by the Paris-based centre's success (open in 1999), I'm dealing with schools in Japan, the USA and Spain.
Finally, as I've been the "Châteaux & Hôtels de France " President for two years, I've represented 532 independent houses with character, symbols of tradition and French culture. I will start my ambassador tour with Sydney, then I will go to Canada and turn back to the USA.

VA : Jean-François Revel wrote in L'Atelier de Alain Ducasse that "cookery is not only nature-based inventions but it is also a mix of techniques, tools, organization and management". How do you succeed in creating and managing your staff from a distance?
AD :
I use modern techniques to manage my teams. My job consists in setting the pace and anticipating the three or six months to come. I'm more a culinary "designer" than a "mere cooker". I'm one of the first cookers to dare assert it is possible to make tasty dishes without doing the cooking.
Indeed, I think that a head chief is a kind of composer writing scores that can be read by a well-managed orchestra, which obviously involves a great organization and much rigour. The key to success being quality, I must rely on dynamic and strong staffs who have been trained in a Ducasse school centre. After years of good relations with my head chiefs, cookers and confectioners, the understanding is still perfect.
Success depends on your capacity for mobilizing men and women and helping them to progress. I try therefore to pass on my know-how and our strong house-style. Training is also a solution to the lack of staff.
The company has promoted geographic and professional mobility in the various Alain Ducasse restaurants. There are over 35 nationalities in our kitchens; this intermixing of cultures is source of continuous creative exchanges.
I try to help my fellows to evolve with the company, which involves listening the desires of one another. When I cannot meet a demand, I ask a collaborator to help me. The company is still in touch with its former employees since they could be useful one day. After having a complementary experience (another job, another country etc.), some of them are likely to reintegrate the company. It is significant that managerial staffs are mainly from the company.

VA : Your dishes have taken up again with natural and rural food. Some consumers have lost taste for traditional products. What do you think about changes in diets and your profession?
AD :
I've often said that cookery depends on products' authenticity, quality and freshness. I hold that products'quality is of primer importance than cookers'quality. Gastronomes know that fishes', vegetables' and fruit's origins are as important as their preparation.
I've noticed that productivity has improved and products'quality as well. Today, products are generally better and cheaper than ten years ago. Retail stores display products'origins and seals of quality are developing. It's quite reassuring.
It's essential not to prevail productivity over some unprofitable animals or vegetables. It's rather hard to find non-cattle rearing products. That's why people must be watchful and fight for quality products. Just look at mad cows!
Cookery is always changing. Inventive, changing, it reflects modern society. The 21st century consumers ask for more spices, more cereals, new dishes and more exoticism. There's a new diet for each period of life. Modern consumers are 'zapping' people. New cultures, new colours, new flavours attract them, they want to try new combinations and new diets, but they are still suspicious of their plates'contents. There's a new trend towards healthy, balanced, more simple and lighter diets.
The best cookers' and consumers' attitude is to try different ways of cooking while protecting tradition.

VA : How do you invent new dishes? Is it the result of a spontaneous idea or of a great moment's reflection?
AD :
During my trips, I go on marketplaces. Wherever I am (Tokyo, Nairobi Manhattan, ...), as a last century's explorator, I walk through popular areas to find new ideas. Popular cooking and marketplaces reflect local cultures. I observe the way of living of these populations, what they drink, what they eat, how they treat, how they work and how they communicate, ... Marketplaces are good indicators of a nation's diet.

VA : If you weren't a head chief, what kind of job would you have chosen?
AD :
If I didn't carry on this job that I love, I would have travelled a lot or I would have been an architect. Apart from cooking. I'm keen on travelling.
I have the good luck to realizing my dreams: I cook and travel a lot; I take part in designing my restaurants ...

*Alain Ducasse issues in November : "Le grand livre de cuisine d'Alain Ducasse" (ADF. 2001) prefaced by Jean-François Revel of the French Academy. Alain Ducasse has written several books translated into over twenty languages: "La Provence de Ducasse" (Assouline.2000); "Harvesting Excellence" (Assouline.2000); "L'Atelier de Alain Ducasse" (Hachette.1998).

For further information :

(1) Alain Ducasse addresses :
Alain Ducasse At The Essex House restaurant, 155 West 58th Street, New York.
Plaza Athénée restaurant, avenue Montaigne, Paris.
Le Louis XV restaurant, Monaco.
Auberge La Bastide de Moutiers (Moustiers Ste-Marie)
Auberge L'Hostellerie de l'Abbaye de La Celle (La Celle en Provence).
Alain Ducasse has also "inspired" the following restaurants: Spoon food & wine, POINCARE and Il Cortile, Paris; the Spoon restaurant of the Saint-Géran hostels in Mauritius; the Spoon restaurant of the Sanderson hostel in London; The Spoon food & wine restaurant of Ikspiari Town in Tokyo, whose head chiefs have been trained in the Alain Ducasse training centres.