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June 21, 2018

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Doc trailing chef Ducasse on global flavor quest

In the new documentary “The Quest of Alain Ducasse,” the esteemed French chef steps off a small plane in the middle of the Gobi desert in Mongolia. As he stands pondering the vast emptiness, a motorcycle suddenly appears, as if out of nowhere, carrying two men. The bemused chef chuckles: “There are customers everywhere.”

For Ducasse, 61, that seems to be a fundamental truth — and a driving force. The man oversees a veritable empire, with 27 restaurants across the globe and 19 Michelin stars among them.

From his first three-star triumph as a young upstart at the Louis XV in Monaco, to his haute-healthy, no-meat Paris eatery at the Plaza Athenee, to his recently opened restaurant at the opulent Versailles palace, where a special royal dinner costs US$1,157, he seems on a nonstop mission to expand. In September, he will open a new restaurant on an electric boat floating along the Seine river.

There was a time when Ducasse, who grew up on a farm in southwestern France, spent most of his hours behind the stove. Now, he seems to spend most of them in the air, crisscrossing the globe, tasting new menus, seeking new flavors. In an interview at a New York gathering marking the release of the film, he politely deflected a question about how many frequent flyer miles he’s amassed. But he did remark that he’d recently traveled for 20 hours to the mountains of Peru, just to taste a cup of coffee.

“It was very good coffee,” he noted, with typically deadpan delivery.

His constant travels, as portrayed by director Gilles de Maistre, have a very different goal than those of the late Anthony Bourdain, who sought to explain cultures to his viewers through food. For Ducasse, the goal is to gain inspiration for his restaurants. He gets much of it from Japan.

“It’s my only quest,” he says in the film, sampling a heavenly slice of fresh tuna in Kyoto, “tasting things that I haven’t tried yet.”

Critics have noted that the film does suffer, though, from narration that occasionally sounds worshipful. Some viewers might also have wanted more of a look at Ducasse the man, away from his work. We never see his family, or what he does in his spare time.

There is, however, one poignant personal scene when the chef reflects upon the most harrowing moment of his life, a 1984 small plane crash in the Alps that killed several colleagues. Only Ducasse survived.

“It wasn’t my time,” he says.

The film illustrates Ducasse’s exalted position in France — we see him hobnobbing with more than one French president — but we also see him in jeans in the garden, picking raspberries or tasting a raw zucchini.

Despite his poker face, he can be funny: A good meal, he tells a gardener, depends on who you’re with. “If you’re not in good company, it’s better to be alone with a good vegetable.”

According to the film, Ducasse “is said to have a perfect palate, as others have perfect pitch.” Ducasse himself is much more prosaic about his gifts. Being a great chef is, he says, “95 percent hard work and 5 percent talent.”


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