In the basement kitchen of the Louis XV restaurant in Monaco, head chef Franck Cerutti leans over a steaming copper stockpot and breathes in, absorbing the concentrated essence of game birds from the hills behind Nice. He has never forgotten Alain Ducasse’s words when they started working together here in 1987.
“He said, ‘I want you to spend your time cooking, not presenting,’ ” Cerutti recalls. “At that time it was still the era of nouvelle cuisine and cooking was all about presentation. With Ducasse we served food directly from the pot and practically let it fall on to the plate.”
Twenty-five years later, Ducasse’s empire has expanded but not much has changed in the kitchen where it all started. Cooks still roast meat over open coals, crush carcases in an antique duck press to extract every last ounce of flavour, and treat freshly picked courgette blossoms with the same reverence as truffles.
“We don’t care if people think we’re old-fashioned,” laughs Cerutti.
There seems to be little danger of this, judging from the crowd that turned up last weekend for the anniversary celebrations of Ducasse’s most emblematic restaurant. Legendary figures such as Daniel Boulud, Joël Robuchon and Pierre Troisgros mingled with chefs who are transforming the cuisine of their own countries: Japanese-born Tetsuya Wakuda from Australia, René Redzepi from Noma in Denmark, Alex Atala from DOM in Brazil, Dong Zhenxiang (known as Dadong) from China. More than 200 chefs with 300 Michelin stars among them gathered in the Salle Empire to savour a culinary tour de force involving 60 cooks, 150 waiters, 50 sommeliers and 420 guests in total.
“No one but Ducasse could have pulled this off,” said David Chang, the influential young chef of Momofuku in New York. “When he sends you an invitation, it’s like an invitation from God or the Pope.”
Robuchon, perhaps Ducasse’s greatest rival in France, agreed. “He has made a great contribution to cooking but lately he has become known for his ability to bring people together.”
The seven-course menu illustrated how French cooking has evolved since the 1980s at every level, not just haute cuisine: less fat, more vegetables, fewer ingredients for each dish. Instead of trying to wow his chef friends, Ducasse decided to start the dinner as he has every meal at the Louis XV: with vegetables from local farmers, simply arranged in a glass and served with a mayonnaise-like olive dip. Luxury ingredients would follow, of course, but it was typical of this chef that white truffles topped an earthy spelt risotto with spiky artichokes, its flavour deepened by an artichoke bouillon rather than the more traditional chicken stock.
“In our kitchen nothing gets thrown away,” said young chef Dominique Lory, who has taken over the day-to-day running of the Louis XV.
A pie of thrush, woodcock and wood pigeon, its juices thickened with liver and natural collagen from the bones, demonstrated a technical mastery that Cerutti says is rare in modern restaurant kitchens. But perhaps most surprising of all was a dessert “cookpot” of wild quince, apple and nothing else, the apple serving as the only sweetener. Next to it, a flourless hazelnut sablé and praline-filled chocolate on a wooden board were broken into rough pieces at the table for diners to share. “It’s nothing but it’s everything,” said Ducasse, summing up a cooking style that relies on exceptional ingredients of all kinds.
At a Mediterranean market the same day highlighting 100 of his favourite producers, Ducasse asked selected chefs to prepare a dish with a particular local ingredient. Star chefs such as Chang and Daniel Patterson from California readily admitted to feeling nervous about cooking for their illustrious peers.
“I chose lentils because it was the humblest ingredient and if people don’t like the dish I can blame the lentils,” joked Chang, who fermented them to make a miso as a base for a soup topped with bacon and black truffle sabayon.
Unlike many chefs at the event Chang has never worked for Ducasse but, like everyone else, he acknowledged an influence. “He has changed so much about cooking, from the approach to food to the way kitchens are organised.”
Redzepi, whose restaurant Noma has topped the San Pellegrino World’s Best Restaurants list for the past three years, says he grew up reading Ducasse’s cookbooks.
“There was a time in the 1990s especially when if Ducasse made a new move it really had an impact.”
After apprenticing at a French restaurant in Denmark and working for a summer at Le Jardin des Sens in Montpellier with the Pourcel brothers, Redzepi went on to develop his own style, so rooted in Danish terroir that he has even been known to use the fossil-rich local earth to enhance flavour.
“In Denmark we have no real tradition of eating for pleasure. It was an open book and I could write in it as I felt like it. I don’t think anybody believed in the project but nine years later we are established, and people who trained with us have gone on to open their own places.”
Tom Kitchin had a similar experience when he opened The Kitchin in Edinburgh after stints at Guy Savoy and the Louis XV, where he learnt the importance of cooking each dish to order.
“In Scotland we have a reputation for having amazing produce but not knowing what to do with it. Our lobsters, langoustines and beef are mostly exported to France or Spain.”
Though Kitchin draws on some of these ingredients in his cooking, he also likes to promote humbler fare. “I’m a big ambassador of the cheaper cuts, like ox tongue and pig’s head, and my customers are growing more adventurous.”
This echoes Ducasse, who confesses to a particular fondness for rustic ingredients. Nowhere is this more evident than at the Louis XV, with its emphasis on Mediterranean produce from small farmers and fishing boats.
According to Ducasse, who will happily eat a hamburger as long as it’s well prepared, there has never been a better time to enjoy food. “Restaurant cooking is infinitely better than it was 20 years ago. A great cook tells his story, not that of his neighbour or what he has seen on television. The future is ‘glocal’ cooking, both global and local.”