Alain Ducasse – a longtime leading light on the culinary scene – hardly needs an introduction. Here, we talk to the mighty Michelin-starred chef behind projects as varied as Le Louis XV in Monaco and, recently, a quartet of French country inns, including Smith stays Domaine des Andéols in Provence and L’Andana in Tuscany. Alain also oversees the restaurant at the swish St Regis Washington DC.
When did you first realise you wanted to be a chef, Alain?
From my childhood, I wanted to be a chef. I grew up in a farm near Castel-Sarrazin in the Landes region (south-west France). My earliest memories are the smells of the kitchen and the sounds of the barnyard reaching into my bedroom.
You’re world-renowned for your cuisine, and your projects run the gamut from three-Michelin-starred grandes dames such as Le Louis XV in Monaco and Alain Ducasse at the Plaza Athénée in Paris to chic countryside retreats and bakeries; how do you maintain the same incredibly high standards across such a broad spectrum?
The secret is the talent and commitment of the team I work with. A bunch of capable people who share my vision and whom I can count on. And also, my endless curiosity for the way people eat all around the world.
Who, or what, provides you with most inspiration?
Mediterranean cuisine is especially dear to my heart. I discovered it in my early twenties and it played a decisive role in defining my approach to cooking. It represents a perfect example of combining simplicity, elegance and respect for exceptional products. However, since then, I have discovered the wider world, and realised how much each and every culture has its own wealth of culinary traditions.
Which other chefs do you most admire?
I have been fortunate enough to work with exceptional chefs. The one who counted the most for me was Alain Chapel. With him I learnt a lot about cooking – but even more about life. My encounter with Roger Vergé was also crucial, since he introduced me to the Mediterranean cuisine. I could also mentioned Michel Guérard, Gaston Lenôtre or Paul Bocuse, all of whom have played a role, in one way or another.
You have described yourself as a ‘contemporary innkeeper’ – what do you mean by that?
When it comes to picking a hotel, people are today looking for a great variety of experiences: to be a contemporary innkeeper means acknowledging and addressing this variety of expectations. This is my aim with the country inns I run (three in Provence and one in Tuscany, L’Andana, pictured left), as well as with Châteaux et Hôtels Collection, the voluntary association of independent hotels I chair.
Of your four country inns (the ‘Maisons d’Alain Ducasse’), which is your personal favourite, and what makes it so special to you?
All of them are special, of course! But La Bastide de Moustiers is specially special… It’s a 12-room country inn, located in Moustiers-Sainte-Marie in Provence. I bought it in 1995, when I was chef at Le Louis XV in Monaco. It’s a very peaceful place, ideal to relax and revivify.
You discovered Moustiers-Sainte-Marie while roaming the French countryside on your motorbike; if you could hop on your bike again now to explore any other part of the world, where would it be?
They are so many remote parts of the world that I would like to travel through that a bike would not be up to the job… A rocket, maybe?!
At La Bastide, you also searched antiques shops for Provençal furniture; how much are you involved in the design and decor of your restaurants and other projects?
200%! What is around the plate – from tableware to decor – is as important as what is on the plate to create a memorable experience.
One of Mr & Mrs Smith’s criteria for a truly great hotel experience is that guests should know where they are in the world. How important is a sense of place to your cooking?
The soul of the location is crucial: most the products used in my restaurants are local. I take a lot of time to identify the best local producers. The style of cooking must also be inspired by the local culinary culture – I’m not a blind and systematic exporter of French cuisine. What inspires me is terroir: a combination of territory and tradition.
What will you do for dinner tonight?
I will take the perfect opportunity to have a quick bite to eat with my wife and relax.
Tell us something we don’t know.
Are you aware of your potential talent for being a chef? If not, go and visit our new l’Ecole de Cuisine in the heart of Paris to unveil it!
Tell us about where you live: what do you love about it?
My heart and my brain are always in kitchens. This is where my roots are. I am a chef.
Describe your ideal holiday…
Rather than long holidays, I prefer short breaks. I love those unexpected and unplanned moments – a parenthesis in the rush of daily, working life. I can remember magic moments like this: walking in the streets of Osaka in the sunset, having a drink with friends on a shady terrace at noon in Provence…
What do you never leave home without?
A pen, a piece of paper and my BlackBerry. Plus an empty suitcase to carry objects I fall in love with – like tableware for instance – and bring them back home. And my address book, where I have the addresses of restaurants and names of chefs, young and well-established, all over the world.
What’s the most romantic place you’ve ever been?
Unexpectedly, Charles de Gaulle airport has been for me the most romantic place: it is where I first saw Gwénaëlle, who is now my wife.
Come back soon – we’ll be revealing some secret foodie finds from Alain Ducasse’s travel address book…