WILLIAM SITWELL MEETS ALAIN DUCASSE
There comes a time in the life of a super-successful chef when he or she moves finally from cooking legend to mega-brand. The hours they spend sweating at the stove have long, long gone. They are now a brand to which other brands seek association. So the questions for the chef no longer concern things like ‘can we get those mushrooms on the menu?’ or ‘who’s on table eight today?’
The issues are which brands want the association, how many days work will it entail, how much will they pay?
Which is why I find myself in the basement of a London hotel asking questions of a stubbly silver-haired fox in a dark blue suit and light blue shirt.
For I am witnessing the working of modern brand association. Brand Knightsbridge (it’s not just a part of London and you know that) is the location for The Bulgari Hotel, in which a restaurant called Rivea London has a banquette on which sits myself and Alain Ducasse.
Brand Bulgari and brand Ducasse do the deal, food writers are sent for to come and ask questions and not irritate the foodie legend too much before his assistant extracts him and off they go to do the same thing in Doha or Las Vegas or Hong Kong or Monaco or wherever.
For there are some 25 restaurants run under the umbrella of Alain Ducasse and there’s a cookery school and books and lots of consulting no doubt.
And there’s Rivea, where we are. This is a pretty dreadful restaurant, as in the room. It feels like the windowless restaurant on a posh cruise ship. A staircase draped in twinkling, dangling lights winds its way down to a room of shiny wood and more twinkly lights. Of the hundreds of incredible restaurants in London this is not one I will revisit. And not because my lunch, post-interview, wasn’t good. It was lovely. Delicious little, light and effervescent dishes of fish. Some lovely pasta lobbed in, wonderful wine. But life is too short to hang out in rooms like this.
It might work in some Middle Eastern city where the outside is too ugly and too hot to contemplate, but not in London. There was a power cut towards the end of lunch when most of the lights cut, and the room was left in a pretty half-light. But then back on came the power and the bright lights and the shining wood were back on, thrusting their intrusive glare onto the diners.
Ducasse is here to check out his deal with Rivea. I wonder what he thinks of London as a place to eat out. He answers this and other questions with impeccable courtesy and interest. But of course what with his place at The Dorchester to look in on and the meeting in Doha he doesn’t have time to see what the food is like in London.
‘I don’t know much of London dining,’ he says honestly. ‘But I’m sure the markets are getting better. People are more conscious of food today. There’s been a revolution in the last ten years and people are much more interested in food and conscious of it.’ Although he does drop the name of Jason Atherton (‘dynamic…very healthy food…for the public and guests…’)
He tentatively admits he is being blasé about our food scene when he adds: ‘this is a situation across the world.’ Although he is more comfortable assessing the situation on his home turf of France where he has ten restaurants.
‘There are enough supermarkets,’ he says. ‘Stop. Too much. There are too many. Actually in France they are starting to close them down. In Avignon, for example, there are twice as many supermarkets built as are needed. But thank God the local markets where I was brought up are surviving.’
Speaking of which, Ducasse, who was born in 1956, was brought up in South-West France. He began an apprenticeship in his mid-teens at a local restaurant and steadily worked his way up the ranks until aged 23 he became head chef at the Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo. From there he demonstrated his assured business and management skills and started to open restaurants across France and then the world amassing Michelin stars as he progressed.
He had Michelin-rated restaurants in three cities across the United States and could count 21 stars gained around the planet. He then put a marker in the sand that signalled his financial success by tearing up his French passport and becoming a low-tax-paying citizen of Monaco in 2008.
Of course he still has great affection for his beloved France and it remains at the heart of his culinary inspiration. But he thinks the French should improve their restaurant service ‘we’re not very good at welcoming people’ and wishes that ‘the government would leave us alone. They interfere in enterprise. We need more freedom for entrepreneurs.’
He has been lobbying French government to ease the burden of red tape and has faith in Fleur Pellerin, the South Korean-born minister for small business and the digital economy.
‘I think it’s interesting because she is a foreigner. She’s an outsider. She doesn’t take such a traditionally French view,’ he says. ‘I think she understands the need to preserve our diversity which is supported by all of those little businesses: markets, restaurants, small hotels and little inns.’ Which is not, ironically, at the core of what Ducasse does. Not that he doesn’t love that part of the food experience.
‘In Paris I like to go to the markets and when I travel I look to find new little interesting things. In fact the time I really relax is when I discover something new, something I could not have imagined ever existed.’
He was travelling through Japan recently (he has three restaurants in Tokyo) and was in a car near Kyoto. It was dusk and the driver stopped the car by a river where they spotted a man standing by a boat selling some fish he had just caught. The driver bought the fish, some ayu, they took it back to the ryokan, the inn where they were staying, where the 70 year old chef grilled it and encouraged Ducasse to eat the liver and offal too.
‘In our globalised world, where everything seems the same,’ muses the great Ducasse, ‘it is moments like that and individuals like that fisherman and that chef who can really make me happy.’
And off he skips to check out his global foodie shenenigans. Lets hope he can find some more precious nuggets between New York, Paris, Monaco, St Petersburg and Doha.