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Ducasse: 5 Down, 1 to Go

March 05, 1997|JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG

PARIS — Alain Ducasse, the impish wunderkind of French cuisine with the organizational skills of an army quartermaster, made history this week by becoming the first cook ever to win five Michelin stars. He was honored, to be sure, but far from happy.

The chef, who says "cooking is first and foremost organization," wanted six.

Before Ducasse, nobody had more than three.

"They punished my team in Monaco," Ducasse, 40, complained during an interview in his Paris office only hours after the 1997 Guide Michelin was made public Monday. "I am the only chef promoted, and the only chef demoted."

Hours later, the bearded and bespectacled cook was airborne on the supersonic Concorde for New York to help prepare a dinner for 500 at Central Park's Tavern on the Green for a fund in honor of his deceased colleague, Pierre Franey.

This year's Guide Michelin, the most widely read almanac of French gastronomy, gave Ducasse its highest decoration, three stars, for the restaurant at Paris' Le Parc Hotel on Avenue Raymond Poincare, which he took over from the retiring Joel Robuchon and has run only since last August.

"To go from no stars to three stars in such a short time, that's a record," Ducasse said happily.

Simultaneously, however, the guide's anonymous inspectors stripped a star from the Louis XV, the plush restaurant in a Monte Carlo hotel to which Ducasse commutes from Paris by airplane twice a week, which he powered to the top Michelin rating in 1990.

All other three-star holders were unaffected.

Does the Michelin two-step mean that the guide, as Ducasse had feared, is incapable of admitting that a cook doesn't have to have his nose in his saucepans every day for a restaurant's food to be excellent?

"We dined two or three times at the Louis XV last year and found what was in the plate wasn't up to the standards of a three-star," a Michelin inspector said Monday, speaking on condition he not be identified.

Did that mean Ducasse's periodic absences were felt? "That could be one explanation," said the inspector.

The Paris daily Le Monde, which printed news of Ducasse's unparalleled galaxy of stars on its front page, theorized that Michelin might have faced a revolt among France's culinary elite if it seemed to allow a cook to perform like a "guest conductor," flying from one orchestra to another.

Michelin's preferred model, the paper's Jean-Claude Ribaut pointed out in his article, remains that of the "chef-proprietor," like Paul Bocuse. (Bocuse has himself often been criticized for traveling away from his restaurant.)

Ducasse, who at 33 became the youngest cook to win three stars in the history of the Michelin guide, had thrown down an unprecedented challenge to its tasters by taking charge of two of Europe's most famed luxury restaurants at once.

"Nothing is written down, but the rule is that, to be a cook, you should be in the kitchen," the former farm boy from southwestern France reflected one recent morning as delicious aromas wafted into his Paris office from the kitchen. "Yet they never ask the question in the United States, why is Wolfgang Puck sometimes in San Francisco, sometimes in Granita [his Malibu restaurant], sometimes at Spago, sometimes in Las Vegas?"

At the Louis XV in Monaco, Ducasse developed a menu rich in Mediterranean flavors, with specialties like Provencal garden vegetables slowly cooked on a low flame with crushed black truffle. At his Paris restaurant, he borrowed tastes from the whole palette of French cuisine: turbot from Brittany, poultry from his native Landes region, beef from Burgundy.

He supervises 150 people in all at his two restaurants and at his country inn in Provence. But he has trained his staffs so well, he says, that he doesn't need to be there. His employees are like a Formula One race team, Ducasse asserts: "The machines, the pit crews, are organized so the car can run without me."

Ducasse resolved to become a cook when, at age 12, he smelled the cassoulets, poules-au-pot and other dishes his grandmother cooked for the family on Sunday mornings. His have-ladle-will-travel approach, he says, should ease the economic gloom for chefs struggling in the French provinces, freeing up, say, a cook running a restaurant in Perigord to open another in the seaside resort of Biarritz.

Both guidebooks and customers, Ducasse said, must catch up with the times.

"So French cuisine can recover its great standing in the world, its greatest representatives must be able to travel throughout the world," he said. "If Yves Saint Laurent couldn't go to fashion shows in Tokyo or New York, Yves Saint Laurent [the couture house] would be dead a long time ago."

In 1984, Ducasse was the only survivor in the crash of a commuter airplane that killed five people. "I have always been the exception," he says. He is endowed with great drive, energy and organizational skills. On his office wall, a saying reminds the visitor that the French word chef really means boss.

Although Ducasse groused about the "injustice" meted out to his Monaco restaurant--"one of the most beautiful machines in the world" he proudly called it--he was already thinking this week about the future. For a chef to simultaneously win supreme Michelin ratings in two places "was too innovative and perhaps too modern for 1997," he mused. But he vowed: "I'll get twice three stars next year."

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