PARIS — Can great chefs turn out superb meals in two places at once? In a veritable revolution in French gastronomy, the anonymous men who are supposed to be this country's most finicky eaters agreed this week that yes, they can.
In the new Michelin Guide to French restaurants, Alain Ducasse, a cocky cook with a salt-and-pepper beard and sharp tongue, has been awarded six coveted stars--twice the supreme rating.
Ducasse's jackpot, unprecedented in the 98-year history of the little red bible of gastronomy, is possible because he simultaneously runs two restaurants. That the establishments are 400 miles apart--in the well-heeled 16th arrondissement of Paris and the Mediterranean principality of Monaco--makes the event a culinary earthquake.
Great French cooks, it turns out, don't need to keep their hands in the flour or stirring the sauce Bearnaise but can delegate, and even be at the other end of the country--or why not the world?--when dinner is served. A venerable Gallic myth, that of the master chef slaving away nightly at his "piano," as his kitchen workstation is known, has bitten the dust.
And, like Los Angeles' Wolfgang Puck, the Austrian who operates restaurants in California, Las Vegas, Chicago, Mexico City and Tokyo, and New York's Jean-Georges Vongerichten, an Alsatian with eateries in Manhattan, Hong Kong and London, the most famous cooks of France may now feel liberated to clone their restaurants elsewhere at home and abroad and become "virtual chefs" jetting from one to another.
Chef Commutes by Air Between Restaurants
Weekly, the 41-year-old Ducasse already commutes by air between the Hotel du Parc in Paris and the Louis XV in Monte Carlo, as well as keeping an eye on a country inn he owns in Provence. Who's minding the ovens and saucepans while he is in the air or in another of his three kitchens?
It's Ducasse's 100-member staff, from sous-chefs and chocolate makers to dishwashers, who follow the recipes and dictates of the boss with a precision and dependability he likens to the work of Formula One pit crews. "A kitchen never works better than when the chef isn't there," Ducasse quips.
In acknowledging that the former farm boy from the pine forests of southwestern France can operate two top-notch restaurants simultaneously, a decision they shied away from last year, the Michelin inspectors, who never identify themselves, "now admit the chef doesn't have to cook himself," said Alexandre Lazareff, a food critic and director of the National Council on Culinary Arts.
Le Monde, France's most respected newspaper, judged the development so momentous that it published a sketch of the bespectacled Ducasse on its front page Tuesday. The status of "consulting chef" or food "designer," the Paris-based daily said, has now been consecrated, which could help luminaries of la cuisine francaise better hawk their wares in an increasingly competitive, interconnected world market.
In plain fact, Le Monde said, France's culinary influence is now "in retreat."
Until now, many of this country's top-rated cooks have complained about being confined to their kitchens or restaurants by demand of the public. "If a customer finds out that Loiseau is not here, he will automatically say the meal is no good. No, he will say it would have been even better if Loiseau were here," Bernard Loiseau, another three-star chef, complained last year to a reporter visiting his country inn at Saulieu in Burgundy.
For decades, the Michelin guide, published by France's largest tire manufacturer, encouraged this trend by reserving pride of place for chef-proprietors such as Loiseau whose name and presence have become synonymous with their establishments.
In contrast, Ducasse--who, unlike many celebrated cooks, never goes into the dining room to greet his customers--insists that whether he is on the premises or not should be of no concern to the clientele if what is on the plates is constant. "When you buy a dress by Yves Saint Laurent," he says, "you don't complain that Yves Saint Laurent is not in the shop to fit you."
Last June, Ducasse said in an interview, he even walked up to Bernard Naegellen, director of the Michelin guides, in the dining room of the Louis XV and told him point-blank: "Mr. Naegellen, you know, I'm very busy now with office work, and I'm not even going to look at what you're eating. Because I know my teams know how to cook a piece of veal, to make a sauce."
His chief merit, Ducasse says with evident pride, is to be able to assemble motivated, talented teams around him.
Last year, Michelin gave Ducasse an instant three stars for his maiden year in running the Parc's restaurant, formerly the domain of the gifted Joel Robuchon, but it stripped one of the trio that the Louis XV possessed, without explanation. To win back the third star, Ducasse said this year, "is only justice."