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December 1, 2011

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'I am a happy chef'

IT'S not impossible that diners in China will be able to feast on Alain Ducasse's take on bird's nest soup, turtle and frog and his own signature dishes that have won his restaurants galaxies of Michelin stars.

"What I can say is 'maybe.' Actually, the plan has been discussed two years before. Shanghai and Beijing are two ideal locations," Ducasse tells Shanghai Daily in an interview last Friday. The chef, who is considered by some to be a culinary demigod, spent a week in Shanghai, visiting Chinese restaurants, talking to chefs and sampling their food. That set tongues wagging over whether he might open a restaurant in China.

Ducasse was officially in Shanghai for the Masters of Food and Wine event held by the Park Hyatt Shanghai. It was the first visit to the Chinese mainland for the chef and businessman who runs an empire of restaurants (27 in eight countries and regions), cooking schools and consulting activities, and publishes cookbooks.

Each of three Ducasse restaurants holds three stars today, for staggering one-time total of nine. Over the years his many restaurants have won 19 stars.

Ducasse tells Shanghai Daily he was surprised by the unique flavors and textures in China's "great, historical and diverse cuisine" and would probably absorb some Chinese culinary techniques in his own cooking.

"I tasted the turtle and got a kind of glutinous texture which I haven't tasted in Europe before. The way Chinese chefs prepare hairy crab and Peking roast duck is a king of art, a way of cultural expression," he says.

Ducasse, French by birth but now a citizen of Monaco, says he found similarities between the Chinese and French dining cultures.

Chinese and French kitchens both use apprenticeship; chefs learn cooking from a very young age and spend many years building a solid culinary foundation and understanding the produce and ingredients, he says. Further, both cuisines cover a broad spectrum, from street food to luxury restaurants. Cuisines are diverse, filled with regional differences.

In both countries the definition of cooking is not a job, but a craft, he says.

Given his operations in eight countries around the world, he's in a good position to spot trends.

"People's interest in food will grow further. I believe they will not be satisfied in just eating in a restaurant but will want to cook by themselves, bringing them real happiness and self-achievement," he says.

Cooking an art of living

He sees cooking as an art of living, a way to relax, like yoga.

"Restaurants should focus more on ingredients since I observed that people are becoming more attentive to what they eat, including where the ingredients come from and how they are cultivated in the farm. They set a higher demand on the quality," he says.

Less is more is the idea that will shape cooking, as it shapes fashion.

"Sugar and fat tend to be used less, hence, the diet can be healthier," he says. Elaborate cooking techniques and flavor transformation in molecular cuisine are a flash in the pan, according to the chef.

"In other words, the chef's main task is not adding food with more flavor, but preserving the original flavor of the ingredients."

Ducasse is the world's only chef overseeing three, three-Michelin-star restaurants at the same time: the Plaza Athénée in Paris, the Essex House in Manhattan, and the Louis XV in Monte Carlo.

With a name that extends from restaurants to a pastry "university" in Paris to cooking supplies, he has become a brand.

"I am a happy chef," the 55-year-old Ducasse says. "My pivotal center is creating recipes and new food ideas."

But creativity is not limited to the kitchen.

"The role of the chef," he told the New York Times, "is to train people to take care of the clients, who live in the spirit which he develops over the years."

He spends most of his time flying to his various restaurants, including those in Hong Kong, Singapore, Tokyo and London. He once told Fortune magazine that he doesn't suffer jet lag. "I am not stressed. I prefer to make others stressed. For me, working faster and working more is my key to the success."

The chef doesn't say much about his personal life but the high value he places on his time may be linked with experience. He received his first two Michelin stars at age 26, the same year he became the only survivor of a plane crash.

From then on, there was unmistakable urgency to his career. His "pastry university" in the heart of Paris offers different schools or majors, such as chocolate, ice cream and sugar. Each is led by a master. Ducasse plans to open a cooking school in Doha, Qatar, after the successful launch of schools in the Philippines and Brazil.

All of this empire building takes a team and behind Ducasse is a large dedicated team, most of its members having worked with him for more than 15 years.

This kind of loyalty, envied by many other celebrity chefs, comes from both Ducasse's management and his personal charm. He involves young chefs in the company, both professionally and personally. He sets the general course and his chefs follow the plan, making independent decisions.

"I 100 percent trust my chefs. I always say to them, 'Do as if it's your own restaurant'," he says. "I have the duty to share my knowledge with the future generations of chefs. I must transmit flavor, techniques and motivation," he says.

In a 40-mnute interview, the French-speaking Ducasse graciously spoke English and patiently repeated himself to make note-taking easier. His charm was evident when he told the reporter, "From your eyes, I can see you are a potential chef. I am serious."

Ducasse's philosophy: "The product is the only truth. A turbot without a stroke of genius is better than a genius without turbot ... Each good product, grown with love and respect, in its distinctive land, has an incomparable flavor, without which a chef is nothing."

No matter how busy he is, he always takes time to taste various ingredients, a new Italian olive oil, a Lebanese cheese or a wild fresh strawberry.

When he was young he drew inspiration from working with legendary chef Roger Verge, known for his Provencal cooking, famous for its fresh herbs and local ingredients, simply prepared.

Ducasse is considered the leader of Provencal cuisine, exemplified by his Le Louis XV restaurant in Monaco where the menu contains sections such as "The Vegetable Garden" and "The Farm." A popular starter is raw Provencal vegetables with Parmesan and herbs.


Ducasse has come in for his share of criticism and skepticism. In 2005 when he opened his first Asian restaurant, BEIGE, in Tokyo, critics questioned whether a French chef could conquer Asian palates, which are so different from Western taste. They asked the same question when he opened his restaurant Spoon in Hong Kong in 2003.

Both restaurants soon became among the most popular food destinations for locals.

Respecting and adapting to locals is the key to success, he says. "On one hand, we need to preserve the DNA of who we are, how we feel about the cuisine. On the other side, we adapt ourselves to local culinary habits."

He observed that Americans prefer consuming more meat while Japanese prefer fish. US serving portions are the largest, Hong Kong is in the middle and the smallest portions are in Japan.

His restaurant Essex House in Manhatton was once criticized by Frank Bruni, the former restaurant critic of The New York Times who said he "did not experience the intensity - or rather consistency - of pleasure that should accompany the prices."

Ducasse takes food reviews with a grain of salt. "Food critics provide important incentive for restaurateurs, no matter whether a review is good or bad. But when you read a good review, the restaurant is never as good as the review says, and vice versa."

Alain Ducasse
Chef and businessman who runs an empire of restaurants (27 in eight countries), cooking schools and consulting activities, and publishes cookbooks.

Q: What is your life philosophy?
A: Overcome outside obstacles as well as my own limitations in order to move forward.
Q: Your favorite pastime
A: Discovering local foods from the four corners of earth.
Q: Your most embarrassing experience?
A: When the restaurant is full. I feel panic and worry about making mistakes when dealing with so many orders at the same time.
Q: What will you do if one day your students exceed your achievement?
A: I would love that and would become a regular customer of his restaurant.



Shortbread dough: 2 egg yolks; 80g sugar; liquid vanilla extract (SQ); 100g butter; 2g coarse salt; 200g flour; 8g yeast Caramel: 12 oranges; 150g sugar Chantilly cream: 30 cl heavy cream; 5 tsp clementine; 20g marmalade Garnish: Apricot glaze (SQ) Sauce: 7 tsp clementine marmalade juice; 3 tsp reduced juice from cooked oranges


Make shortbread dough. Mix butter, flour and salt. Work the dough until it reaches a sand-like consistency. Beat egg yolks with sugar and vanilla until light in color. Combine the two mixtures, cover with plastic wrap and chill for 1 hour.

Roll out the dough to 2 mm. Cut dough into rounds using a round, 8cm cutter. Place cutouts on Silpat mat and bake for 10 minutes at 170°C in a convection oven. Let cool on a rack.

Preparing the orange caramel. Peel oranges and separate them into segments, save resulting juice.

Prepare caramel by cooking sugar in a dry pan. Deglaze caramel with collected orange juice. Reduce juice to the consistency of a 30-degree Baumé syrup.

Add orange segments to reduced caramel syrup and let sit 1 day in refrigerator.

Preparing the Chantilly cream. Beat heavy cream until stiff. Add clementine marmalade.

Assembly and presentation

Cool the apricot glaze by adding some orange caramel.

Place 8cm baking rings on parchment paper. Arrange orange segments like petals at the bottom of the rings. Fill three-fourths of the rings with clementine-flavored Chantilly cream.

Spread a thin layer of clementine marmalade on the cookie rounds. Place on top of cream. Turn ring upside down and cover the dessert with apricot glaze.

Center the orange tian on a plate. Remove the baking ring. Drizzle a ribbon of reduced orange caramel sauce and clementine marmalade juice around the dessert.

Other critics

Van Der Laan Rembrandt
Chef de Cuisine of Allure Fine French Cuisine, Le Royal Meridien Shanghai

My previous stop before Le Royal Meridien Shanghai is Alain Ducasse's Restaurant at the Plaza Athénée and Le Jules VerneRestaurant at the Eiffel Tower. Alain Ducasse is a genius and his cuisine is always inventive and scrumptious. You will be impressed by his culinary talent. Meanwhile, he is an excellent leader. I have got helpful guide from him.

Lam Ming King
Executive Chef of Jean
Georges, Three on the Bund

Without a doubt, Alain Ducasse is one of the culinary masters of this century. His passion for food and commitment to using the freshest produce has definitely exerted a great influence on me and my career as a chef. "Grand Livre de Cuisine" by Alain Ducasse still serves as my culinary encyclopedia. I remember fondly my experience at Benoit in Paris a couple of years ago. I believe it represented what a great meal simply means - bringing true happiness to people.

Chef David Laris
CEO of Laris Creates

Alain Ducasse is without question a man who has achieved demigod status in the culinary world. Restaurants all over the world, a cooking school, consulting company, products, the list goes on ... but what I like so much about his work is that he has been able to create strong concepts with multiple layers; he has been true to his food without allowing himself to be boxed into any one dimension as a chef; he has been able to be a brand, a chef and businessman while still keeping a balance of the food, quality of concept and design.


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