The legendary chef reflects on a decade at The Dorchester, where he’ll be serving a special anniversary menu to mark his tenth year in the capital
The total tally seems almost unreasonable for a chef dealing in haute gastronomy: Alain Ducasse has 26 restaurants. There are the two in Tokyo, another in Doha, the one at Versailles and the one up the Eiffel Tower. But should one man have quite so many?
Ducasse is perfectly relaxed on the subjects of food and cooking, if not a little weary from his international travels. Yet on his creative vision, he sparks up. So the French chef’s answer to the question of numbers is of course yes, but not without explanation. “No two of them are the same.”
For Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester, his vision back in 2007 was to conjure a casual yet chic elegance on Park Lane, with maybe one Michelin star – but never, he imagined, three. The chef gained his first back in 1984, then struck out on his own to open Le Louis XV-Alain Ducasse in 1987. He had been in training since he was 16 years old (and now holds 18 stars). “Initially we didn’t want to do haute gastronomy at The Dorchester, it was meant to be a more informal restaurant. But we understood that there was an audience for something that would go a bit further.”
Further it does go – imagine tasting langoustines with Earl Grey tea, for example – and as he sits in the hotel reflecting on the decade since it has opened, it seems Ducasse has no regrets about how the restaurant may have deviated from his original designs. On a typical evening, its contemporary French cuisine might come in the form of wild mushrooms, Anjou pigeon, veal medallions or, in an unexpected Entente Cordiale sort of turn, Eton Mess.
To celebrate its tenth anniversary, a special menu will be served from 25 October to 23 December, celebrating the restaurant’s past, present and future. There will be duck foie gras, white truffle and a mysterious citrus iced chestnut dessert among the seven courses, as well as a one-night-only dinner with the chef himself on 24 October (£430).
Of culinary changes over the past ten years, Ducasse regards an uptick in quality as the most notable, and the now widespread use of local, seasonal produce (something he says that his outpost at The Dorchester “has always done”).
It all echoes Ducasse’s first memories of the kitchen, at 12 years old – the smells coming from his grandmother’s cooking. “She would use local produce from the farm we were on in south-west France, the river and forest nearby. Poultry from the farm, vegetables from the garden,” he reminisces. “Very local and very healthy.”
His taste has not changed so much: when at home, Ducasse likes to go to the market and cook with whatever is on offer. “Very simple, of course, as there is no commis to help,” he smiles. Just as important is his garden, where he grows not just the basic vegetables and herbs. His harvests include pumpkins, from butternut squash to massive gourds, to the figs, prunes, plums and kiwi currently in season.
“Although it makes sense for a restaurant to have one, it is a personal luxury to have a garden,” says Ducasse. Thanks to property prices and upkeep, “it costs more to have one than to buy your food in the supermarket.”
The chef’s views on sustainability and the future of food are, in turn, sensibly reasoned. “We ought to pay a lot more attention to taking care of the planet, how we use the resources available,” he says. He recommends less sugar, salt, fat and animal protein, as well as eating sustainable fish. “If we eat animal protein, it’s about producing and eating less, but in a better way, so everyone can have their fair share of what’s available on the planet.”
So there must be something more than a trendy local boast about the Dorset crab and Scottish seafood on The Dorchester restaurant’s à la carte menu. As he describes recreating a connection between producers and those eating at restaurants, by making them understand where their food has come from, it appears that Ducasse seems to have a sense of social responsibility about food.
“It’s a virtuous circle,” he says. “We will have to pay more for our produce, but we will eat less. Then, paying more to the suppliers will encourage the producers more.”
Back in the realms of gastronomy, Ducasse’s definition of haute cuisine is about creating a “unique experience”. Is it not just the produce on the plate, but the tableware, a perfectly paired wine list and everything in between – another evolution of the past decade, with diners increasingly expectant of that something ‘extra’. “I choose everything. Everything. The place settings, the thickness of the paper used for the menus... it’s not a democracy,” he jokes, in seriousness.
For chefs themselves, the most notable change has been that the kitchens are more comfortable – less hot, with tools that perform better, allowing them to be more technically precise. This comes with a word of warning from Ducasse, however: “The tools must not lead the kitchen. You have to keep that identity and personal touch in your cooking, otherwise there’s a risk of having a cuisine that’s quite uniform and generic.”
Understanding what the competition is doing, but not being influenced by it, is paramount. He cites molecular cuisine as an example of a pitfall when new techniques become available. Suddenly everyone was doing it, getting over-excited by liquid nitrogen and foams of every flavour conceivable.
Yet falling prey to a ‘this is how we have always done it’ mentality is a bugbear for Ducasse. “The key to the success of this company has been the capacity to innovate and create all the time,” he says. “My job is to push that, to be demanding and – almost – never happy with what we have.
“But entrepreneurship is about taking the risk that you might not succeed – and success can be measured as the average between what worked and what didn’t. What’s the most important is to understand why something didn’t work, in order not to repeat that mistake in the future.”
The greatest challenge is still knowing how to “seduce” guests, creating a cuisine that appeals to the local market but without losing its French roots. “It’s a balance between what we know about the place and what we think could work, but there’s no recipe – sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.” Ten years in, Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester is still striking it.