Alain Ducasse could use a drink.
The French superchef has just arrived in London after a trip that took him to New York, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Tokyo and Osaka, Japan, in seven days. On this balmy May evening, Ducasse takes a seat at a table under a sycamore tree in the garden of the Arts Club, an exclusive establishment in Mayfair. Sporting a two-day beard, with his snowy hair combed back, he orders his favorite aperitif: a Campari with two ice cubes, no sugar and a bottle of Perrier on the side.
This is the first time Ducasse, 56, has visited the 149-year-old Arts Club, a sanctuary for writers, designers and musicians that draws financial types too. Ducasse, who is here at the club’s invitation, travels 300 days a year, Bloomberg Pursuits reports in its Fall issue.
He frequently explores antique shops, art galleries and outdoor markets around the globe, hunting for ideas that may influence the menus or décor in the 24 restaurants he controls in eight countries. From his table he admires how a row of king-size mirrors running along one of the garden’s walls creates the illusion that the space is twice its actual size.
When a waiter delivers his drink brimming with ice, Ducasse grimaces.
“Two ice cubes,” he says, “not five or six.” The server mumbles an apology and whisks the Campari away.
Opulence and Simplicity
Details matter to Ducasse, who’s earned 21 stars from the Michelin Guide during his 40-year career. Even though he’s more entrepreneur than chef these days, he directs his kitchens to strike a balance between opulence and simplicity. Chef Jocelyn Herland’s saute gourmand appetizer at Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester in London, for example, weds Scottish lobster with the creamy comfort of truffle-infused chicken quenelles, a variation on a favorite French dish.
Ducasse’s playfulness is also on display at the Dorchester, one of only four restaurants in the U.K. with three Michelin stars as of September. He has encircled one table with twinkling fiber-optic strands that hang from the ceiling like a giant, retro 1970s wig. And at Le Louis XV-Alain Ducasse in Monte Carlo, he stopped all of the clocks at 12 to create the sense that time stands still when you are eating in his culinary temple.
Ducasse grew up on a farm in the rural town of Castel-Sarrazin at the foot of the French Pyrenees. In 1987, he went to work in the Hotel de Paris in Monaco where he was appointed chef de cuisine and put in charge of Le Louis XV, its regal restaurant. Three years later, Michelin awarded the haute cuisine palace three stars.
Not content to stay in the kitchen in Monte Carlo, Ducasse took his talents global and helped usher in the era of the international celebrity chef. Today, he owns French-food havens from Paris to Tokyo, Mediterranean eateries in southern France and Italy, and bistros in New York, Osaka and St. Petersburg, Russia.
Ducasse also manages three luxury hotels in Provence and Tuscany, as well as a cooking school in Paris. His latest book, J’aime New York, which highlights his favorite culinary destinations in the city’s five boroughs, comes out in November, produced, naturellement, by Alain Ducasse Publishing.
When traveling, in addition to sampling his chefs’ handiwork and seeking markets for new ventures, Ducasse pursues his other passion: collecting. He buys all sorts of vintage goods, often at flea markets. He has decorated Benoit New York with vintage suitcases, antique marble mortars and terrines from the 1700s.
Fried Chicken Sandwich
As the Arts Club’s garden fills with members puffing on Montecristos and sipping champagne, a waiter finally returns with a retooled Campari featuring two ice cubes. He sets it before the parched Ducasse. Mixing in a touch of seltzer, Ducasse takes a sip of the bitter Italian spirit and smiles. For the next hour, the chef describes how he stays sane on the road, why the Italians are better at business than the French and the transcendence of a perfect fried-chicken sandwich -- in Brooklyn.
Why he loves business travel: It’s not fatiguing to me. I love it. Every day, you discover a new place, new people or taste something new. I really enjoy finding people who put everything they have, their hearts and feelings, into their work. I like to find identity and diversity at a time when globalization is making things so similar.
What he always packs: Alden shoes. I’ve been wearing them for 20 years in black and brown. They are supremely comfortable. And a relaxing rose water eye mask that I wear under a sleep mask.
What he expects from a hotel: Consistency and honesty. The hotel has to develop a straightforward proposal and deliver it. If it’s a country inn, then I expect to find the best possible version of a country inn. By the way, Blackberry Farm in Tennessee is a perfect illustration of this in the U.S. If the hotel is urban, high-end and classical -- again, I hope it plays the part perfectly.
Music he listens to when traveling: French pianist Helene Grimaud. Her musical interpretations of Mozart, Chopin and Liszt are a source of inspiration.
How he beats jet lag: Whenever it’s not necessary to be awake, I try to sleep. In the plane, in the car, anywhere, for 10 minutes, 15 minutes. When I’m tired, I don’t try to resist. I just stop what I am doing and let myself go to sleep.
His most interesting recent meal: Turtles in Tokyo. The whole meal revolved around turtles. It was seven or eight courses. The chef was a specialist in turtle. He did tempura of turtle and prepared turtle steaks. Throughout the entire meal you ate all the parts of the turtle, but in different steps. You end with this amazing soup, with a very interesting texture and flavor.
Must-see place in Japan: Every time I go to Japan, I have to visit the Nishiki food market in Kyoto. It’s the most civilized street for food in the world. They sell everything, but at its best. It’s the belly of Japan; they have all the products, from the simplest to the most complex. I found some incredible condiments, such as yuba, which is bean curd skin, and condiments such as chirimen jako, which are salted and sun-dried sardines seasoned with sansho berries. Japan is like a chest with never-ending drawers. There is always something new to discover.
Favorite discovery in New York: In Brooklyn, there’s a place called Diner. I had the fried-chicken sandwich. Buttermilk fried chicken on housemade focaccia with jalapeno mayonnaise, pickled onions and eggs. There’s some greenery on there as well, depending what’s in season, say watercress or frisee. Everything was harmonious. It was nothing, but it was everything. It was simplicity itself, and simplicity is not easy, you know.
Why he doesn’t cook in his kitchens anymore: I’m there only to taste and guide now, to give direction. My chefs don’t need me to cook. They are better than I am now. They train every day. A football coach wouldn’t be good playing in the field. It’s the same for chefs.
Why Italians make better business partners: With Mario Batali, I visited Eataly (the Manhattan Italian food emporium co-founded by Batali, New York restaurateurs Joe and Lidia Bastianich and Italian entrepreneur Oscar Farinetti). It’s incredible, this space. It has everything. Only the Italian people could do this kind of project. Well, Mario is an American, so only the Italians and the Americans, because they have a taste for creation and business. The French? It’s a dynamic we don’t have. The Italians, they will put the success of the business first and will be all together defending the business. The French have too much individualism. They only think of themselves.
Favorite pastime: I go to antiques markets, and I recently bought some copper pans from 1840 with a stamp from Louis Philippe (the last king of France, who reigned from 1830 to 1848). I will try and find more to make a set. I also found some old menus from that period, which are handwritten. They have an incredible quality of printing and typography. They show the history of French haute cuisine, and they are very long. They would eat for hours. They were not stressed by the Internet and technology.
On cultivating his own garden: I have a house in southwest France, between Bordeaux and San Sebastian, and I take pleasure in returning to the countryside, to my garden, and picking whatever vegetables are ready. I have everything -- zucchini, eggplant, tomatoes and 20 different herbs, from lemon thyme to basil, sage, rosemary.
His homecoming meal: When I got home this last time, I had a little asparagus with morels. I prepared it in a casserole dish, in a little bit of wine and olive oil and some vegetable stock. No bread, no potatoes. When I’m at home, I try and eat as healthy as possible because I have to eat a lot when I’m traveling and working, dinners and lunches. That’s my job.
And the wine: With that meal, I would have loved to drink a nice Burgundy like a Meursault or a Montrachet.