“I never duplicate, I always create”
Alain Ducasse is one of the world’s most celebrated chefs. The first to have three triple Michelin-starred restaurants in three different countries, he is also one of only two chefs to have acquired 21 Michelin stars during his career. His first restaurant in the Middle East, IDAM, opened at the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha in November 2012.
Here, he talks to Think. about eating fresh, local produce – and Chicken McNuggets. Written by Sholto Byrnes
What were the challenges in creating the menu for IDAM, and to what extent did you draw on the culinary traditions of the Gulf?
Each and every one of my restaurants is a challenge for a simple reason – I never duplicate; I always create. And I always create a restaurant in tune with the city in which it is located. Long before opening, my chef Romain Meder spent time discovering the produce, location, the people living there, the pace of life, the atmosphere. This preliminary phase can last for months and months.
Will you put the slow braised camel with duck foie gras and souffléd potatoes on the menu at some of your other restaurants? More broadly, do you think there is a role or responsibility for chefs to educate diners in new tastes and to overcome prejudices they may have about consuming unfamiliar dishes? Camel is one example, but the Anglo-Saxon disapproval of eating horsemeat is equally irrational.
Food choices and taboos are always irrational. The examples are numerous. That said, I don’t believe my role is to address the issue. I don’t try to change one’s food repertoire – the list of products which are culturally considered as eatable. Yet I try to explore more extensively the existing local repertoire. Take the simple example of cereals. They are undoubtedly part of the Western repertoire; however, many varieties have slowly been abandoned, generally for the economic reason of poor yield. Spelt is a good example. We try to reintroduce these forgotten varieties. As for camel, I would not “export” it. I keep saying “Eat local”.
At IDAM you have sourced 80 percent of the ingredients from the Gulf region. To what extent is this a matter of taste and flavor, and to what extent is this a 'moral' issue in terms of the environmental effect?
Both. And the good news is that both objectives are leading to the same conclusion. The less the products travel, the better they are taste-wise, and the better it is for the planet. I would also add a third “better” – favoring local supplies also means a better life for local producers.
Naturally, everything served at IDAM is halal, and in Islamic countries both Muslims and non-Muslims eat halal food quite happily. Yet in France it has been the cause of immense controversy, with Nicolas Sarkozy declaring, in last year’s presidential election campaign, that halal meat should be banned from state school canteens and that halal was “the issue which most preoccupies the French”. The electorate appeared to disagree, but what are your feelings on the matter?
Two things. One is “When in Rome, do as the Romans do” – France counts many religious beliefs yet is religion-neutral. Two: the election periods are rarely favorable to elaborated statements.
The founder of the Slow Food Movement, Carlo Petrini, has observed that the history of food has come to be thought of as involving the agricultural economy and satisfying hunger, whereas that of gastronomy is regarded as being that of pleasure and “the self-indulgence of the rich”. “This division,” he said, “is a profound mistake. The rich and the poor experience pleasure in exactly the same way. And eating is one element of pleasure.” Do you agree with him? And if so, how do you change the perception that gastronomy is the preserve of the elite?
I do agree. I believe the challenge is about 'eating well'. This is always linked to context – the good meal you may have in 15 minutes during a working day is not the one you’ll have with friends on a weekend, and the intimate dinner with your spouse is different from a celebratory meal with the family. Yet, in each instance, there is the right way of eating – satisfactorily, tastily, healthily. Therefore, my first aim is to offer a large number of food experiences to meet the array of customers’ expectations.
To do so, among many other initiatives, I created the campaign Tous au Restaurant (Let’s all go to restaurants). During one week in France, in all participating restaurants, two people can dine for the price of one at all sorts of venues, from the Michelin-starred to corner bistros. For the customers, it’s a fabulous opportunity to discover places they might otherwise not dare to attend.
On a lighter note, you have admitted having a penchant for McDonald’s McNuggets with curry sauce. Do you have any other guilty pleasures?
I do not particularly go to McDonald’s but I’m a customer, like others. I eat according to my mood, according to my constraints and appetite. For example, I love ketchup so much that I included the recipe for a delicious homemade variety in my book Nature. At Rech, a brasserie specialising in fish in Paris, I served my own version of fish and chips during the Olympic Games in London last year. And I must confess I enjoy these pleasures without guilt.
Returning more seriously to the fast food chains that are to be found now all over the planet, wasn’t your compatriot José Bové on the right track when he famously dismantled a McDonald’s in Millau in 1999 – in spirit, if not in law (it resulted in his being sentenced to three months in jail)? Don’t these chains degrade the palate, seducing people to over-develop a taste for fatty, fried food?
I’m more inclined to fight for something rather than against it. The Collège Culinaire de France I created and co-chair with Joël Robuchon launched the accreditation scheme “Restaurant de Qualité”. The affiliation is granted to restaurants that deliver dishes prepared in kitchens from fresh, high-quality produce. Customers are really looking for this transparency. We chefs have to react together to come up with an enticing and convincing alternative to convenience food.
You have said that “a chef has to stay an artisan, not become a star.” Why an 'artisan' rather than an “artist”?
I’m very proud of being an artisan. I feel like being the heir of a long tradition that I have to constantly revisit without betraying. It conjures up the idea of honesty and seriousness, of fraternity with my colleagues.
Is French cuisine still the supreme culinary expression? If so, how would you defend such a proposition against someone who argued that Asian cuisine – from India or China, say – was just as varied and refined?
It is really a question of chefs’ ability to deliver an extensive body of techniques which can be applied to an immense variety of products and culinary styles. That said, I love the variety and refinement of many cuisines internationally.
What would be your 'last meal'?
The everlasting souvenir of terrestrial happiness.
Sholto Byrnes is the Editor of Think. A former Chief Interviewer of the Independent, he is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and a Contributing Editor of the New Statesman.
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