Alain Ducasse learned to love food on his parents’ farm. He received his first three-star Michelin rating—for Le Louis XV, in Monaco—when he was just 33 and now runs an empire of more than 20 restaurants (with a collective 19 Michelin stars) in cities from Tokyo to Las Vegas.
You describe yourself as “artistic director” of your company. What does that job entail?
I’m the creative one, who conceives the restaurants, books, cooking schools, events—all the products and services offered. I look at where we are and where we’re going. I work in tandem with my general director, Laurent Plantier, who handles the finance-management-business problems, which are of no interest to me. We’ve worked side by side for 15 years, ever since he joined my enterprise upon graduating from MIT, but he does not meddle in my affairs, nor do I meddle in his.
What is your schedule like?
Very chaotic. I sometimes travel up to 20 times a month. I go where needed. This year I launched several projects, including our new chocolate factory. We wanted to control the entire process—from selecting the cocoa beans, hazelnuts, pistachios, and other ingredients in various countries to repairing old machines and setting up a workshop in Paris to deciding which bars and bonbons we would offer to defining which blend we wanted for our fine-dining restaurants and keeping the taste consistent to reaching an agreement with Valrhona chocolate. I also became interested in perfecting our own coffee using the same approach. We imported the green seeds, roasted them, and developed our blend with a bitterness and complexity that is to our liking. The coffee will initially be offered in our fine-dining restaurants in Paris.
Your restaurants range from bistros to very fine dining. Why not specialize?
To make a comparison with the fashion industry, we design high fashion, ready-to-wear, and shabby chic. To make one with the automobile industry, we are like Mercedes-Benz, whose cars range from the Smart to the Maybach. We, too, must strive for perfection in every category we embrace. Each restaurant has its own unique story to tell, but when the chef is replaced, the way the story is told may change. For example, at our Paris bistro Aux Lyonnais, the former chef, a somewhat temperamental native of the Auvergne, reveled in rustic dishes: He offered tripes au bouillon, even in summer. Personally, I liked his cooking very much. The new chef’s expression is more refined, more balanced, less peasant-style. Is it better? No, it’s just different; but the clientele appreciates his food—the number of seatings has increased by 10%.
After outlining the “blueprints” for your restaurants, you appoint and supervise all your chefs. Your leadership style has been described as strict, even nitpicking.
When it comes to making appointments or personnel changes, I hold the key. Occasionally, I know what is going to happen to my people before they themselves do. One evening I watched as a lovely Japanese woman “picked up” Massimo Pasquarelli, the chef at our restaurant in Osaka, even though he had no idea what was happening. Several months later he announced that she was expecting a child, and as a result, he has based his entire career in Asia. I recently asked our current chef at the Osaka restaurant, who is Japanese, to come work as a station chef at our Paris hotel restaurant, Le Meurice. He has great potential, and we plan to round out his skills, inspire him with a new experience, and have him work on a few things he hasn’t quite grasped, such as pastries. He will then be appointed to a new position elsewhere, unless he eludes us by meeting a Frenchwoman who leads him to the far corners of Brittany! As for supervision, I do not always supervise in person. I have a network of foodies and gourmets around the world who ply me with invaluable information about our restaurants. Some go so far as to provide a detailed description of how the chicken was one evening. When I myself play the role of client, it is true that I am demanding and not always nice. If a colleague opts to do poor work when he could have performed very well, that upsets me.
When that happens, do you part ways?
No, because he might have made a mistake. But I do get annoyed with people who are intentionally feebleminded because it’s less strenuous. To come up with a menu, you must rack your brain to extract the ideas while keeping in mind the season, the price of the dishes, how they pair with wine, and the overall balance. Once, a longtime colleague faxed me a change in menu, and I called him in. I asked him how long it had taken him to write the menu. He said three weeks. I told him that he was not being truthful and that the menu deserved a grade no higher than zero. I asked him to come back the next day. He understood that I was no dupe and spent the entire night reworking his menu, and he produced a good one. I merely told him never to do that again.
So you are a strict but sympathetic supervisor?
You shouldn’t focus on supervision. What is key is the shared experience. I talk to my chefs, tell them what I see, and try to improve their level of observation. Last Saturday I had a conversation with Christophe Saintagne, the chef at Le Meurice, about what I’d seen during a recent trip to Japan: the Kyoto market, the cooking temperature of a particular product, the composition of a certain seasoning, and even the ingredients and philosophy of the vegetarian food served at the Zen temples, which I learned about from a Buddhist cook who was a passionate expert on the subject.
How do you develop your staff?
The restaurant industry is a wonderful social ladder—85% of the managers in the Ducasse enterprise were hired with zero experience. Christophe, for example, is only 36. He’d been my second-in-command for the past several years, and together we visited our restaurants throughout the world, which broadened his gustatory palate and his open-mindedness and nurtured his intellect. Laëtitia Rouabah, who has just taken control of Allard, our Paris bistro, is 29 years old—but she is sharp and unafraid, she knows what she is doing, and she wants to make great strides. You must allow people to evolve, help them grow, make them feel gratified. Achieving this, in my opinion, depends one-third on their professional advancement and ability to thrive in their work, one-third on their compensation, and one-third on the harmony that reigns over the team, which becomes a second family in our profession. You must heed all three. The possibilities for promotion generate loyalty: Nearly all the members of my tight-knit team—the 20 warriors on whose shoulders rest the identity and excellence of the enterprise—have worked with me for 20 years.
When you were 27, you were the sole survivor of an airplane crash. Seriously injured, you spent one year in a hospital. Did that represent what Americans call “a defining moment”?
Most certainly, yes. You spend your time lying in bed, but you are not tired, so you are able to think nearly 24 hours a day, with nothing to disrupt you. I had to keep working, even if I might never walk again. I managed my restaurant from my hospital bed, by writing the menus, for example. It really improved my ability to delegate, and I understood that I was able to lead without being physically present. My career would not have been the same had the crash not occurred.
You say your chefs now cook better than you. True?
They practice and refine their technique every day, and I do not. I am like the football coach who, if placed on the pitch, could no longer score goals. On the spur of the moment, I could certainly fill in for any one of my chefs at one of our three-star restaurants, but my skills would not be as refined as his. Even some of our young chefs in our less prestigious restaurants are quite impressive: Several days ago I ate a marvelous civet de lièvre [marinated rabbit stew] at Allard. I could not have done a better job.
But surely you still break out your pots and pans from time to time?
Just for fun, and for my family and friends. I pick from the vegetable gardens at my inns, or I go to the market near my country home, which inspires me and renews my vision. Again, just for private affairs. Mark my words, though, there are chefs who have never left their kitchens, but their cooking is not as good as mine!
Fine dining is such a small world. Which other great chefs do you admire?
There is enormous talent everywhere, and the world has never before eaten as well as we do today, particularly with the increase in the variety of dishes. I recently made a trek to visit and check out several colleagues who are generating quite a lot of buzz, such as René Redzepi, at Noma, in Copenhagen; the Roca brothers, at El Celler, in Catalonia; and Gastón Acurio, in Lima. Today everyone knows everything about everybody—their recipes are published and even filmed—but only face-to-face can you enter the minds of these chefs and grasp how they solve the equation: What I have today (produce, season) plus what I know (technique and skill) equals what I make. Ultimately, this is what cooking boils down to.
And among French chefs?
I lean toward people whose paths have veered off in a direction different from mine, those who operate at the highest level without losing their artisanal scale. The Pacaud family enjoys sharing the pleasures of l’Ambroisie with their guests, who are often esteemed customers, by unexpectedly opening up a great bottle of wine or going hunting with their clientele. Likewise, I went to l’Arpège several weeks ago and came away with the feeling that Alain Passard takes great delight in what he does. He served a divine, harmonious dish of three fresh scallops and one truffle. He himself grated the truffle onto his guests’ plates, which made for a very convivial moment, especially since he gave me several extra shavings! I often think of Alain Chapel, my late master, the chef who made excellent produce a key element of his cooking.
Does the excellence of the raw material define today’s cooking?
We forget that during the “nouvelle cuisine” wave of 35 years ago, we never talked about produce. Creativity was the sole requirement. A chef as respected as Pierre Troisgros could not have cared less about knowing whether his salmon came from Scotland or Norway, or whether it was wild. Alain Chapel was a forerunner of the new movement because during the 1980s he was obsessed with the quality and freshness of the produce. Today we have 50 butters that are better than the best butters available 35 years ago. Each restaurateur has become an expert in dozens of products and can recognize the difference among varieties and the excellence of each.
You closed one of your top restaurants, at the Essex House in New York. Why?
For the same reason that Joël Robuchon closed l’Atelier at the Four Seasons in New York: No longer could we (nor would we) put up with the excessive influence of the hospitality unions. I still operate Benoit Bistro in New York City, but it was inconceivable for me to continue fine dining there. The pressure exerted on us was so great that we were unable to perform at the highest-quality level or direct our course. We were no longer the decision makers; someone wanted to lead in our place. I work with unions in France and even in Las Vegas, but in order to be happy operating at the highest level in New York, I would have had to launch an independent restaurant. Would the game be worth the candle, given that we are already running two fine-dining restaurants in Paris, one in Monaco, and one in London? It’s too bad, because I love New York. That’s even the title of one of my books, J’aime New York, which describes the food-related attractions of the city, from the hot dogs in Brooklyn to the most chic restaurants.
You and your general director are founding members of the Culinary College of France, an association of the country’s greatest chefs. Is the goal to defend French cuisine?
French cuisine is not under attack, so no defense is needed. All we did was establish a group of 15 great chefs representing the full gamut of sensibilities in French cuisine as a way to listen, reflect, communicate, and form a federation. It’s more like a think tank.
You’re also preparing some meals for astronauts aboard the International Space Station. Is that true gastronomy?
Ten years ago Richard Filippi, a cooking professor at the hospitality school in Souillac (Dordogne), spent his vacation working in my restaurant in Monaco and told me that an engineer from the European Space Agency wanted to meet me. He asked if we would make and test meals for the astronauts. When they returned to Earth, after spending weeks or months in orbit, the pioneers of space complained more about the nightmarish food than about the fatigue. So we went to the ESA research center in Amsterdam to see the physical constraints of being confined in a space vessel and the parameters that had to be respected: zero bacteria, no crumbs, and no moisture (in case the plate spilled). It took us three years to come up with dishes that were aesthetically pleasing and tasty, which the astronauts could enjoy on weekends or special occasions. European, American, and Russian astronauts alike enjoyed what we offered. But the cost to run our laboratory was too high, so we closed it. We still cook for astronauts, because we transferred our knowledge to a partnership we established with Hénaff, the canning company, which has approval to export meat products to the United States.
Chanel, Christian Dior, and Yves Saint Laurent have outlived their creators. Do you think the Ducasse enterprise can one day continue without you?
Of course. I bring up this subject often, especially with my general director and our partners. Once I am gone, there is no reason for the Ducasse enterprise not to continue pursuing its philosophical path of “one creative type, one managerial type.” We have an unbelievable range of expertise in the restaurant business, including auditing, training, counsel, seminars, and event organization. The only two things that the enterprise will never do are industrial meals sold for wide distribution and accessories such as ties decorated with carrots or shoes shaped like pumpkins!
Source: Harvard Business Revue