Alain Ducasse Doesn't Believe in Talent

PHOTO: LAMB AND DUCASSECourtesy Thomas Krakowiak

Every indicator points to Alain Ducasse having an extra helping of talent under his hat. He cooks dishes no one else could and serves them in ways no one else would.

The results are almost always the same. Wherever he opens a restaurant, crowds and critics flip out. Ducasse comes by Michelin stars the way most people come by tires. His work has changed the world of eating as well as the lives of many of his proteges.

It looks like talent -- but Ducasse says it isn't. In fact, the chef says he doesn't really believe in talent.

"Sixty percent is the quality of the product," said Ducasse. "Thirty-five percent the technique, 5 percent if you have just a little talent. That's my base. And not every day -- we don't have talent every day. That's the key, that's the key of my business."

With restaurants across the globe, Ducasse is the only chef to be awarded three stars in the Michelin Red Guide in three cities. The classically trained French chef now heads the Plaza Athenee restaurant in Paris, the Louis XV restaurant in Monaco, a restaurant bearing his name at the Dorchester in London and two restaurants in New York, among others.

He has climbed the ladder of gourmet success two rungs at a time. When he took the head chef role at Le Louis XV in Monaco's Hôtel de Paris at age 33, Ducasse promised in his contract that he would transform the restaurant into a world-renowned restaurant in four years. And he did just that.

"My restaurants are in movement," Ducasse said. "Every day I discover different flavors. I discover one person ... or one dish or I have a meeting with one new cook. Every day, it's a new, it's a new experience. That's my creativity. That's my interest every day, to discover more and more."

The name Ducasse generally evokes French cuisine so rarefied that it confers on the diner either permanent francophilia or serious gourmet-phobia, in either case taking engagement-ring-sized chunks out of his guests' salaries. Ducasse means huge preparation, serious presentation, small and numerous plates and grand dining rooms. He isn't such a strict traditionalist, however.

CLICK HERE for Ducasse's Gourmet Recipes

"It's necessary today when you have a restaurant, if you have a bistro, fine dining in New York or in London or in Tokyo, you propose one contemporary food," said Ducasse. "Contemporary is to satisfy the guest today, not tomorrow, not yesterday, first is for today."

Ducasse is not only interested in his guests' satisfaction.

"Every day, my objective is to take a pleasure, my pleasure," he said. "I'm very, very, uh, egoist to finish. That's my pleasure first -- first as a cook is personal pleasure, before the pleasure of a guest. That's clear."

Growing Up Ducasse

The genius-chef-to-be grew up on a farm in southwestern France. He remembers a yard full of animals and a garden full of vegetables. "I remember one of my first dish are a mix of vegetable!" he said in his endearingly tipsy English.

"I have country house with a big garden. At home, I prepare very, very simple food from the garden or from the farm, with skinned fish, with a beautiful salad," he said. "Or, I put on the plant vegetable directly from the garden to the plate."

At age 12, he said the smell of his grandmother's cooking drew him into the kitchen. "I remember the perfect taste when I eat chicken," he said. "I compare every day with my taste original flavor."

Ducasse developed through the years, experimenting with Provencal flavors and learning his craft under the apprenticeship of Alain Chapel, whom he considers his spiritual master and mentor.

Ducasse's traditional French cooking style has taken on a global dimension, incorporating diverse flavors and local produce.

I "discovered the peel of soy milk, and only in Kyoto, you have the skin of the soy milk, and that's very delicate, that's a unique flavor, a unique consistence, and only in Kyoto. And for me, my objective is to prepare, one day, in France, the same skin milk, soy skin milk, to propose in one of my restaurants," he said. "I never duplicate same restaurant around the world."

Ducasse's journey to the top was not without setbacks. After receiving two Michelin stars in 1984, Ducasse narrowly survived a plane crash and had multiple surgeries, which kept him out of the kitchen.

'Competition Is a Motivation'

While he fancies experimentation, Ducasse's personal favorite dish is a Smoked Red Snapper from the Italian Sea, which incorporates simple, clean flavors.

"You put the fresh fish from the sea directly to the grill, no olive oil, with the skin with everything and you put on the grill, three minutes they tell you, eat directly, no salt, no olive oil, nothing, just the fish, the grill, and you eat," he said.

"I cook first for myself, and after for my customers or my friends or for my family," he said. "Food today for me is essential, because it is my passion."

Ducasse, whose restaurant in the Essex House hotel in New York City closed in 2007, said part of the trade is constantly scouting out the competition.

"Every city, every country upgrades the level of restaurant and various proposals with many, many influences. That's the competition. ... It's too hard to have the best one when you are in New York or you are in London. The competition is big," he said.

But it's the same competition that drives him. "Competition is a motivation. Every day you are -- somewhere -- to have the best position in a city."

Ducasse has also developed cooking classes for non-professionals, championing his belief that a chef's palette can be acquired.

"Everybody in this planet has the same chance to be a great chef," he said. "It's not a privilege."

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