Cooking Up a Global Empire

Alain Ducasse finds a way to make haute cuisine profitable

Alain Ducasse is not one to throw in the dish towel. Although anti-French sentiment is still simmering in the U.S., France's most famous chef is going ahead with plans to open Mix, a trendy eatery in midtown Manhattan in September. SARS may be scaring off tourists by the thousands from Hong Kong, but not this stubborn entrepreneur. He's unveiling Spoon Food & Wine, a fusion restaurant, in Hong Kong in October.

Ducasse's days of slaving in front of a hot stove are long gone. These days, the 46-year-old Frenchman is more of a chef d'entreprise than a chef de cuisine. His Alain Ducasse Group, which includes his restaurants, inns, cooking schools, cookbooks, and consulting activities, logged revenues of $15.9 million in 2002, its first full year in operation. "I have to be an artisan without forgetting to be a business director," he says.

Haute cuisine is a risky business, even for a master like Ducasse. Industry analysts estimate that 90% of restaurants fail. And even for those who manage to make a go of it, the twin demands of making money while satisfying persnickety food critics can prove too much. Such pressures apparently drove the owner of a highly rated Burgundy restaurant to suicide in February. Indeed, top-notch restaurants rarely break even, no matter that the tab for dinner for two at a three-star spot such as Ducasse's Louis XV in Monaco can run to $500. The traditional 1-to-1 staff-to-diner ratio and sky-high prices for special ingredients such as Breton lobster and black truffles detract from the bottom line. "Mathematically, haute cuisine can't be profitable," says Bernard Boutboul, the director of Gira, a restaurant industry consultancy in Paris.

It can with Ducasse's new math. His three-star restaurants in Monaco, Paris, and New York are located in hotels, which assume most of the expenses -- including paying Ducasse a salary -- along with any losses. For the hoteliers, the prestige of having the man on the premises recently annointed the "World's Best Cook" by the Academy of Hospitality Services is reward enough. "Ducasse deserves a lot of credit for being adventurous and pushing the envelope," says Jeffrey Chodorow, the CEO of New York-based restaurant group China Grill Management Inc., who is splitting the $5 million tab on Mix, a Euro-American hybrid with modern decor.

Ducasse isn't the first gourmet to make millions. Austrian-born Wolfgang Puck has whipped up a $300 million empire ranging from the upscale Spago Hollywood to a line of frozen pizzas. Ducasse, though, has been the only French chef to go truly global. Since the opening of the first Spoon Food & Wine restaurant in Paris in 1998, others have sprung up in Mauritius, Saint-Tropez, and London. If Mix succeeds in Manhattan, Ducasse and his partners may export that concept, too. "These days, his sun never sets," says French restaurant critic Claude Lebey.

Mind you, the world-renowned chef's recipe for success isn't fool-proof. When the three-star Alain Ducasse at the Essex House, his luxury restaurant in New York, opened in June, 2000, foodies said it was too stuffy. But Ducasse won them over by toning down the atmosphere. He has been influenced by American tastes, too. On the menu at his Spoon restaurant in Paris: bubble gum ice-cream, priced at just 12.50 euros.

By Christina Passariello in Paris

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