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Alain Ducasse on Thieving New Yorkers, Essex House Lessons and the Future of Food

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Recently I sat down with Chef Alain Ducasse on the patio of Mix, his new restaurant at the W Vieques in Puerto Rico. Ducasse seemed relaxed, unshaven and inquisitive. He speaks softly but forcefully and almost entirely in French (though his English is pretty good.) The interview was conducted mostly in French, and though there was a lovely interpreter present, any errors in translation are mine (and my wife's). Words in italics were spoken in English.

Once upon a time there was a Mix in New York?
Was! Maybe it was too contemporary and the address was not the right address and maybe the price was not the right price at the right time. After the Mix in New York, we opened one in Vegas in a beautiful room with a beautiful design by the same designer and it’s a success. We opened the second one here [in Vieques] and we’ll open another one with W in St. Petersburg between November and January.

Is Mix a template you can see repeating over and over again?
No, because this is a unique model. It is never the same thing twice. It’s not the same designer, not the same city. "Mix" is a good name because we can mix in whatever is necessary for where we are.

In this case, on an island, it is hard to get ingredients?
Right now it is 20% local. And one day, in 2, 3, 4, 5 years I hope that it will be 80% local ingredients. That’s my job, to get to 80% local in 3 years. I think that for a chef it is necessary to pay attention to the planet and energy and all that. I think it is important to try to be local as quickly as possible..

You had mentioned as well that each Mix is never the same. I read that you said that you don’t serve the same cuisine in Tokyo as you do in NY in an interview with Chef Heston Blumenthal. What’s the process of due diligence as to what is appropriate in each country?
We always try to tell a different story that’s in harmony with the city where we are. Of course we cannot have the same cuisine in Tokyo, Paris, London, Monaco, NY. It isn’t possible. There’s a necessary adapting that comes from the understanding of the environment to make a cuisine that is within the tastes, in the right price, in the harmony with the design? here we are in a resort so it's not the same food as a fine dining in Paris. It is very very different. Each time it is custom made.

But how do you know the measurements?

I have collaborators who have been there for a long time. We start with a story and then we have to refine it and make it more precise. My last venture in Osaka is in Kansai, a region rich with produce, but at first we didn’t know the producers. Now we use 80% local ingredients. It’s a great success. We maintain the DNA of French cuisine but integrate the local products and local sensibilities to make an acceptable proposition in the city of Osaka. In both Osaka and in Vieques, it’s a difficult balance because it is far from our original culture.

Speaking of the difficulty of finding a balance in a place that is far from your culture, tell me about New York.
Now, there is Adour Alain Ducasse where we are more in harmony with the city. It’s a little bit more modern, a little less formal and a little more accessible than Alain Ducasse at the Essex House. You can go there with the possibility of discovering a good harmony with a glass of wine or maybe even a little provocation. It’s expensive but acceptable. It’s more luxury prêt-a-porter than haute couture. Alain Ducasse at the Essex House was very haute gastronomie francaise. Above all, it was classic. Contemporary but classic and very formal. But Adour Alain Ducasse is more in harmony with the life of city.

Do you feel there was a sense of humor at Essex House that was missed in translation? A Dadaist gesture perhaps, with the panoply of pens and knives, and the lollilops?
The proposition of Alain Ducasse at Essex House was of haute gastronomie francaise. It was the proposition of haute couture. Maybe too formal but [shrugs shoulders] it was formal. I was imposing a style of haute gastronomie in New York with the difficulty of the press, of the misunderstanding and the price too much. Alain Ducasse at the Essex House was difficult, but for me it was a great experience. I had a faithful public, Essex House foodies, who would spend a lot of money there. Some of the foodies at Essex house would spend four hundred to five hundred dollars per person over the years despite the critics and the perception of French arrogance. We changed because the owner changed, but maybe, if he hadn’t, there still could be an Alain Ducasse at the Essex House.

So there wasn’t a sense of humor at the Essex House.
Well, I wanted gimmicks. I still do the knives, not the pens, at my country hotel in Provence. The same set of knives I used at Alain Ducasse at the Essex House to eat pigeon, I use at Le Bastide de Moustiers in Provence and people love. it But in New York it was seen as a provocation. I don’t use the pens any more because the New Yorkers stole them all. They complained but then they stole them. They signed the bill, saw it was expensive, so they took the pens.

What are your thoughts on the Food Network and the cultural sea change toward spectacle of cooking more than the experience of it?
Mine has become a very mediatized profession with all the risk and advantages that that entails. The media has a role that can be extremely positive but can also be extremely negative for the chef who think he’s a star, for the chef who’s made a star by the media and then killed by the media. It’s like in politics. On the other hand, I think the communication around food and about food is great. Of course, there are different personalities but the fantastic thing is the diversity. The cuisine of the chef of the Breslin is very different from the cuisine of Tony Bourdain which is very different from the cuisine of Daniel Boulud and Jean Georges Vongerichten. The richness of the food planet is fantastic. There’s no country that is the best culinary place. Every country is great. The culinary world is so varied no one can say mine is the best.

What’s your approach to the media?

I don’t listen. When they say it is good, It’s never as good as they say it is. When they say it’s bad, it’s never as bad as it is. You are aware of what they are saying but you continue along the road of doing your job being passionate and trying to get better every day. You have to remain an artisan. I am a craftsman.

Is there going to be an Alain Ducasse Roadshow on the Food Network?
I don’t do television. No. no. no. It’s not my job. I don’t know how to do television. I don’t have time. That’s very clear. I don’t know how to do it and I don’t have time.

People who say "I don’t do television" often follow that argument by saying the role of a chef is in the kitchen, but you have so many kitchens that you can’t possibly be in all of them.
It is I who give the direction. I am more the artistic director. I am the one that thinks. I am not the actor. I am the director. It is I who does the casting, the graphics, the typography, the DNA of the menu. I go and taste. I choose the personality. That is my responsibility. That way each restaurant will develop its difference. I give the direction and little by little the restaurants find their personality. I give the DNA but then the restaurant has to have its own life. I have two studios of haute couture in Monaco and Paris. Then I have three ateliers of luxury prêt-a-porter of luxe: in New York, in London and in Tokyo. But I use my name only five times: in Monaco, Paris, New York, Tokyo and London.

Much has been written about you, what do you think people consistently misapprehend about you?
People thought when I arrived in New York, it was arrogant for a French chef to come an open such expensive restaurants. But it wasn’t a desire to be arrogant, it was to produce haute gastronomie française. They said it was too expensive but little by little the restaurant lived and survived and made money. It was six years and it allowed other New York restaurateurs that followed to demand value for the quality they were delivering.

Like who?
Today, Thomas Keller, who has the premiere haute gastronomie restaurant in New York. But it was I who took the hits. As a younger journalist, what’s your take on my experience in New York?

From having read about it, it seems the critical apparatus delighted in deriding the luxury experience. When you opened Adour, people felt vindicated because people thought you had learned your lesson, that they had taught you a lesson.

That’s a very New York interpretation. I’m fine with that analysis.

You are opening a Mix in St. Petersburg? Where’s the new destination of cuisine?
Japan and not just Japan but Kyoto. The scene is global. I’ll tell you what, if you buy a round-the-world ticket, I’ll show you twenty four to places to eat and when you’re done, you’ll be a lot less New Yorkery.

· Alain Ducasse [Official Site]
· All Alain Ducasse coverage on Eater National. [-E-]
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