There are Michelin-starred chefs, and then there’s Alain Ducasse.
As well as being the first chef to own three restaurants with three Michelin Stars (the institute’s highest rating) each, Ducasse is one of just two chefs in the world to be awarded over 20 stars altogether.
Basically, he’s a culinary icon. And he has a growing empire to show for it,
“It’s not an empire,” he corrects me, “and I don’t look at it as a business. I think of it as a succession of small ateliers. Of craftmanship. Each restaurant, or shop, tells its own story.”
In the fifty years since his first culinary apprenticeship at the Pavillon Landais restaurant in Soustons, Ducasse has opened more fine-dining restaurants than the average person visits in their lifetime.
Today, his company owns a total of 34 “ateliers”, each launched by Ducasse himself, then left in the capable hands of the chef (or chefs) he appoints to direct it.
“These days, my focus is on transferring my knowledge to chefs in their 30s,” he says. “I pay great attention to their evolution, training them, and putting them forward.”
Naturally, Claire Smyth’s name comes up in conversation quickly.
After training under Ducasse early in her career, Smyth not only went on to open her own restaurant—London’s Core by Clare Smyth—but receive three Michelin stars of her own. In doing so, she even becoming the first female British chef to win (and retain) the accolade.
“Claire was really willing to learn,” says Ducasse. “She had a strong personality already, in 2005, and it showed in her cooking. That’s what I like. Identifying talent and giving them all the opportunities and knowledge to grow and find their own culinary identity.”
His support for each of his chefs is ongoing, too. Over the years, Ducasse has done everything he can to shift the spotlight off himself and onto them.
Take the recent ‘Four Hands’ dinner at Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester. Though Ducasse hosted the evening alongside two of his three-starred protégés (resident executive chef Jean-Philippe Blondet and executive chef of Le Louis XV Alain Ducasse at the Hôtel de Paris Monte-Carlo Emmanuel Pilon), the £580/$690 dinner (and wine pairing) menu was not a celebration of his work, but theirs.
Each course highlighted one of the chef’s signature dishes, including Emmanuel’s saddle of venison, Kampot pepper, smoked crapaudine beetroot & limequat ,and Jean-Philippe’s Cornish turbot, Jerusalem artichoke, watercress, black truffle & hazelnut.
But it doesn’t stop there. When we meet in London, he tells me he’s excited to have dinner at Alex Dilling at Hotel Café Royal that evening, specifically to “check in” on yet another former fosterling (Dilling started his career at Ducasse’s Adour in New York).
“These are all restaurants with very authored stories,” I say. “So, if they’re all an extension of you, what’s yours?”
He answers without even having to think about it.
“Freedom. I did not prevent myself from trying. I’ve allowed myself to experience new things, even when there were failures,” he says. “Now we have fine dining, bistros, brasseries, cooking schools, publishing, a vegan restaurant…”
He holds his hands up, smiling. Freedom has worked out extraordinarily well for him.
Still, it’s not been as easy as you might expect for someone of his pedigree.
“It’s has always been difficult to find financing, and it still is. It’s one battle after the other. A battle a day,” he admits. “Nothing is given for free and the market is more competitive today than it was when I started.”
Which is why, when Ducasse looked into producing his own chocolate for his restaurants ten years ago, he decided to open his own chocolate business—Le Chocolat Alain Ducasse.
Manufacturing each item from the cocoa bean to the final product, the business built a slow but steady cult following and has since opened three shops in London and 26 shops across France, including La Glace and Le Biscuit outposts (for luxury ice creams and biscuits, respectively).
All of which have been, unusually, inspired by skincare brand Aesop.
“I am obsessed with design and, for me, they have the model to aspire to,” says Ducasse. “A different and unique shop everywhere in the world. The same produce but in a different environment.
“I love Aesop.”
Approaching each of these ventures as a Michelin-starred chef would, he obsesses over flavor, technique, and innovation in every product. Even when it comes to creating an ice cream that tastes like the smell of cigars, inspired by a tobacco-flavored tea he once tried in Japan.
“You have to ask yourself, how many customers would buy that? Not many. Maybe 5%. But those 5% will come and come again, because they’re only going to find it with us.”
And yet, even with those 21 stars and three thriving businesses, Ducasse feels there are many things left to accomplish.
Behind the scenes, the 66-year-old is even running a think tank exploring new ways to develop cured fish and sea vegetables.
“Every day we try to be better than we were yesterday,” he says. “That is the spirit in each one of our ateliers, and the spirit in me. A life, and legacy, of taste and pleasure.”
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