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Masters of Modern Luxury: Alain Ducasse

Lisa Abend

Alain Ducasse has redefined what it means to be a great French chef. He was the first one to open restaurants around the world, and today his 20 restaurants on four continents hold a total of 17 Michelin stars. Across this far-flung empire—which stretches from the gilded Louis XV in Monaco to the bistro Benoit in New York City and the lively Spoon in Hong Kong—Ducasse maintains a reputation for perfectionism in all aspects of the dining experience. These superbly high standards have made him the single most persuasive ambassador for the pleasures of the French table. —Lisa Abend

All in the Details
Coco Chanel once said that luxury is when the wrong side is as beautiful as the right side. I totally share this point of view. In some cases, we take Chanel’s definition literally: No one ever notices it, for example, but the tablecloths in all my restaurants have mitred hems. Or take the bouquet I serve as an amuse-bouche. These are shrimp so tiny you are supposed to eat them whole. But to make the experience more pleasant, we remove the rostra—the sharp part on the shrimp’s head—even though it’s only 5 millimeters long. We do that for each and every shrimp. And then there’s what happened at Beige, in Tokyo. A few days after we opened, I noticed that many guests looked uncomfortable when they sat down: They were bent too far over the table. So I immediately had 5 centimeters cut off all the chair legs.

Of course, luxury is interpreted differently from place to place. Le Louis XV and Plaza Athénée are definitely two very high-end restaurants. Their standards of cuisine and decor are very specific and cannot be compared to those at Mix or even Jules Verne. But it’s not my aim to offer the same kind of luxury at each restaurant.

A New Course
I’m not one of those people who believes that fine dining is decaying. Top-of-the-range restaurants are developing very rapidly in countries like China or Brazil. But at the same time, we’re witnessing the blossoming of new styles of eateries, ones that aren’t necessarily as formal as before. And this might be too optimistic, but I believe that concerns about nature are gaining more and more importance, making luxury in cuisine less and less about caviar than about the authentic taste of a carefully selected vegetable or piece of fish. All of these options can count as luxurious, because the essence of luxury is always time and space: the ability to enjoy large, free spaces and to master time in order to savor life.

When in Rome
The key to maintaining standards across all of my restaurants is having the right team. There’s a very simple fact to how I operate, and it’s that every executive chef heading a brigade in one of my restaurants has been with me for at least 10 years. That means they are all fully inculcated into my cooking philosophy— and totally share my perfectionism as well! Nonetheless, trust does not exclude control. I visit every one of my restaurants very, very frequently. That’s control, like I said, but it’s also a way to stimulate and motivate the team.

You can’t be rigid when you’re dealing with so many different geographies and cultures. I strongly believe you have to be pragmatic and flexible. The raison d’être of my restaurants is not to preach the good word to my customers. It’s to allow them to have a good experience. To do that, you have to achieve the right balance between surprise and reassurance, and you have to do it in everything—in food, service, ambience, even wine. Most of my guests expect to find French wines on the list, but in the United States, we also have a smart selection of American wines. And in Japan, I also have great sakes on my list. And in Doha, where I cannot serve alcohol, I invent alcohol-free cocktails that pair well with the food.

With cuisine, it is the same. In Doha, there is camel on the menu—but cooked with French techniques. I never betray French cuisine, but when in Rome, I do as Romans do.

Essential Ingredients
Luxury as we know it today was born in the courts of Europe, where artists used to work for aristocracy, and art was an expression of noble power and refinement. The bright side of this is that crowned heads were very useful patrons for artists and gave them the means to produce great works. In other words, luxury brings art into the world. Personally, I appreciate aesthetics, but never at the expense of function. And I must admit I’m a compulsive collector. I hunt antiques of various kinds, though I’m most drawn to pieces of luggage. My favorite is Goyard; it is the icon of luggage makers—pure perfection. I’m particularly proud of a special trunk they made for me to carry culinary utensils.

This article was originally published in the July 2013 issue of Robb Report. Click here to read more articles from this issue.

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