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Alain Ducasse On How Food and Fashion Trickle Down

Today, there’s so much creativity, we no longer need inspiration.

This story comes from Lucky Peach #3: “The Cooks and Chefs Issue.” For more great stuff like this, subscribe to the magazine!

For our first “Cooks and Chefs” issue, Christine Muhlke wrote about how food and fashion trends trickle down to the masses, and the similarities and differences in the ways in which this happens across the two industries. Here’s what Alain Ducasse had to say on the subject.

Christine Muhlke: There are fashion shows, and two weeks later you have the fast-fashion version produced in China. Is it the same in cooking?

Alain Ducasse: Of course it trickles down. Haute gastronomy is like haute couture. Though it’s not just copies. The week before last, I was in Shanghai, Beijing, Tokyo, and Osaka; you could see an influential effect, but it was all very positive. There’s a lot of inspiration and a little copying, but it’s always good for the industry because the consumer always has sexy propositions before them. There are things happening in Asia—there are things happening in Europe and the U.S., too—but there are things happening in Asia and South America.

It’s an incredible moment for culinary “mixage.” And the culinary mixing doesn’t have a nationality, it doesn’t have a religion, it doesn’t have a skin color. Talent is everywhere. It has no frontiers. And knowledge is the best thing that you can share in the world. Today, we can know almost everything about everything, especially if you travel a bit. I travel a lot, so I know what’s going on everywhere. In the middle of all that, you have to sort out the truly good ideas from the bad copies. The media has brought a lot of information. Nothing is confidential today. Nothing is secret. If there’s a new talent, he’s immediately going to be identified. He’s going to be supported [“boosté”]. That’s really important for our industry. There’s a guy named Hiroshi Sasaki in Kyoto. We did a dinner together in Tokyo, at my restaurant [Beige Alain Ducasse]. We did two dishes together. For example, he marinated beef in salt for ten days, and I made a sauce with lemon, capers, and vinegar—-bitter, salty, acidic. Then we salted the beef with bottarga. It was impossible for either of us to have done it alone. That’s really interesting and very new, to accept such meetings where each chef keeps his identity. It wasn’t a mixture, it was a partnership, and it was magnificent.

CM: Have you noticed “inspirations”? Have you said, “Ah, this dish comes from Michel Bras”?

AD: [French “of course” voice] Yes. There we could tell the story of the cake—the pudding—of Michel Bras. Michel Bras is the one who invented the molten chocolate cake. Basta. All the others are copies. It wasn’t invented somewhere in New York.

CM: What are some other dishes that you still see twenty years later, like the gargouillou? [Bras’s “salad” of more than sixty types of raw and cooked vegetables, flowers, etc.]

AD: Well, the gargouillou, twenty-five years ago I did a vegetable plate in Monaco. Parisians, they think that Alain Passard invented vegetables. In Monaco, I’ve been doing a vegetable menu since 1987.

CM: And the egg—

AD: No, not the egg. The gently cooked egg? That’s a Japanese technique!

CM: Oh shit.

AD: The egg is Japanese! It’s a Japanese technique.

CM: What dishes of yours have been copied?

AD: I don’t know. I’ve done five encyclopedias [of my dishes]. The first one sold thirty-five thousand copies, so I hope that it served someone! But that’s not the point. I’m for giving, giving, giving. That’s why I do schools and books. We have cooking schools in Brazil, Rio, São Paolo, Manila. In my company, the department that’s grown the fastest is education.

CM: Who was the first chef who saw what more could be done with food?

AD: Who positioned himself high and low? C’est Bocuse! He did a lot of press with chefs in 1975. He traveled a lot with French chefs. And after that he stretched [“stretché”] the brand. But that’s it! Mercedes is Smart Cars and Maybachs—same thing. The brand is stretched to the maximum. And I do that a little bit, too. We’ve stretched it, but the important thing is to keep the atelier de haute couture in Monaco and Paris very high.

CM: Designers sell bags and perfumes to support the brand. Like Karl Lagerfeld: he doesn’t sell a lot of Chanel haute couture, but he sells an incredible amount of bags and lipsticks.

AD: Mais bien sur. But I think that at Hermès, scarves must make up a large part of the business. They sell several scarves every second around the world. With all of the big luxury labels, at the top there is always the excellence of the handmade.

CM: So how do you maintain quality across the brand?

AD: You have to have precious collaborators, many of them, in order to control the thing. I have corporals who are quality controllers. Restaurants have been industrialized. I’m not the only one who’s done it. Boulud, Nobu, Robuchon, Wolfgang—there are twenty chefs who’ve developed their brands.

CM: I had lunch with a woman from Le Fooding, and I asked her about the transmission between haute cuisine and the street in France. And she said, “In France, there is no street.” There’s no fast food.

AD: Sure there is! Robuchon does a line for [supermarket brand] Fleury Michon. He’s done things for the mass public. Bocuse, too. I don’t want to do that. I think it’s stretching too thin. That’s my choice: no mass distribution. But Wolfgang did it. Daniel, too: he did the burger at the high-end at DBGB.

CM: My friend was just in London and he brought me Heston Blumenthal’s mincemeat pies for Waitrose, which came with little packets of pine-scented sugar.

AD: I think people are used to it at this point. They’ve accepted that we could stretch the brand. Bulgari is fine jewelry. They did a mineral water with San Pellegrino. And hotels, and fashion, and perfumes.

CM: I noticed a parallel between food and fashion around seasonality. Before, a designer just had to do two collections a year. Now there’s pre-fall, cruise, holiday, resort. Five or six times a year, they have to crank out a fresh line. You always have to change.

AD: I think that’s too many collections. In the end everything looks alike!

CM: In cooking, is there pressure to change with each season?

AD: Oui oui! Oui! And now one does it naturally. It’s more seasonal, more local.

CM: Are starred chefs still as influential? Is it still passed from high to low?

AD: I don’t think so. There’s so much talent. There aren’t just stars today. There are many newspapers in the world that influence. I think that everyone feeds himself from the incredible diversity of information on the Internet. And each chef chooses a personal expression. It’s a global expression or a local, personal expression. I’m both global in my vision and local in my expression. I’m glocal. And that inspires me. At Benoit in Osaka, we’ve integrated local, seasonal products for a local expression in terms of the treatment of the products, and the touch of French taste. It’s a bistro, but a bistro in the region of Kansai, with only the French taste. That’s it. Nothing is imposed, just proposed, which should be in harmony with the people who go there for lunch. It’s essential to always adapt and integrate in the country where you are at the price level you’ve decided upon. I don’t make the same food in Hong Kong that I do in Osaka. It’s not the same food in Tokyo as in London; not the same in Monaco as in Paris. Each time it’s a different atelier with a different expression but with its own autonomy, its own local life. If I have a global vision, that’s it. I’m against worldwide application and against globalization. Therefore I have to have an expression that’s different and at the same time create a space of my own. But it has to be completely in harmony with the city where I am.

CM: What influences are you seeing on your travels?

AD: Me, I want to protect myself from influences. I don’t want to be under the influence. I want to see what happens elsewhere in order to not be influenced.

CM: But you must see things and say, “Ah, I know where that came from.” What are you seeing right now?

AD: Among the new generation, I find there’s a lot of common inspiration. It’s a little dangerous. There are the masters, the innovators, and the followers. It’s like behind Ferran Adrià, there are a lot of bad copies. There are inspirations that haven’t been understood or mastered, and the expressions were very average in their execution. There were some negative influences from Ferran’s input. But I think that it was good for the supplemental understanding, this technical mastery of Ferran’s. A lot of people used it without understanding it.

CM: Do you know any fashion designers?

AD: I know Karl well. We did some interviews together for a German magazine called Focus. He’s a genius. Lagerfeld, he doesn’t need inspiration. Lagerfeld is a genius. In cooking, there are no geniuses. There are artisans. Leonardo da Vinci, that’s a genius.

CM: And Karl Lagerfeld.

AD: Yeah. Karl Lagerfeld is a wonderful man. He has an incredible capacity to create. He’s an incredible personality. He’s a formidable intellectual machine.

CM: Did you talk about what it takes to have a brand at all levels?

AD: Lagerfeld has touched it all: H&M, haute couture for Chanel, Fendi, his own collection. Photography… He takes his own picture for interviews and then he sells it to the publication! He took my photo for the interview and taught me never to be photographed with my jacket buttoned. [NB: Lagerfeld photographs the campaigns for Chanel, Fendi, and Dior Homme, publishes books of his own pictures, directs commercials for Magnum ice cream starring Rachel Bilson, launched a perfume called Karleidoscope, and, with his friend Gerhard Steidl, is publishing a twelve-volume set of the complete writings of Nietzsche.]

CM: Do trends come from that level?

AD: Yes.

CM: And it’s still the same in food?

AD: The same. I’m no longer a cook. I’m the one who gives direction to my restaurants. I give the vision and build the restaurant, and afterward I’m the one giving input and orienting it from where we are toward where we should go. It’s a question of direction of vision. That’s my work. Same thing with Lagerfeld. When you’ve finished giving the restaurant the spirit, you have to leave room for the freedom of the chef, so that his perimeter of creation is active within the perimeter that you’ve decided together. The chef Franck Cerutti at Le Louis XV in Monaco, he’s going to give his feelings. Chef Christophe Saintagne at the Plaza Athénée in Paris has a personal expression. When we’ve codified everything, there’s the notion of feeling, of balance and harmony between the manager, the chef, the pastry chef, the sommelier. In London the team is young, all between thirty and thirty-five. They get along. It’s a family. This family is an extra expression of what we’ve written out.

CM: So it’s possible to keep the feeling across all of your twenty-eight restaurants?

AD: Yes, but you have to give the chefs the possibility—like this salmon [at Benoit New York]. It’s his problem, not mine. My problem is to be the client. I told him, we’re going to do little appetizers for sharing like they do in Italy. I tasted them, I gave my input. And after, it’s good. You can do it. And in each place there are different personal expressions. It can’t be a Cartesian rule. The feeling must be everywhere. It should define a very clear perimeter of expression. And within this perimeter, there should be a real personal sensibility that expresses itself and which makes the difference so that each restaurant doesn’t resemble the others.

CM: Is there a fear of falling out of fashion? Must you stay in fashion?

AD: You have to try to be just a little bit ahead of fashion, but you mustn’t follow it. It’s better not to think about it. Because fashion goes out of fashion, therefore you shouldn’t be in fashion. You must be simultaneously contemporary and timeless. Contemporary, that is to say you must feed the customer of today, in the city where she is. The customer doesn’t have the same eating habits today as she did five years ago. And she won’t have them five years from now.

CM: We talked about the chocolate cake, Wolfgang’s pizza, Passard’s vegetables. What are some other dishes that have traveled the world?

AD: There aren’t any more. Twenty years ago, there were influences. But today there is so much creativity that there are no more dishes—Troisgros’s salmon with sorrel, no one’s doing that anymore! There’s so much creativity, we no longer need inspiration. We’ve surpassed the stage of copying and inspiration.

CM: So are there still dishes that people made twenty years ago? Maybe something like, I don’t know, Frédy Girardet did in the ’70s. I think there are still some of those “classics” circulating, like the half-cooked salmon.

AD: The first half-cooked salmon was Troisgros, when he did the salmon with sorrel. After there was unilateral fish, cooked on the skin side. Frédy did a foie gras deglazed with vinegar and herbs in ’75. I mean, fifteen years ago they were doing the “salade gourmande” with slabs of foie gras and haricots verts. But people haven’t done it since. There’s no need to reference the past. It’s over.

CM: In New York, people say that Gilbert Le Coze was the one who originated tuna carpaccio.

AD: It wasn’t Gilbert. It was [Paul] Minchelli at Le Duc in Paris. I think it was 1970. And Maguy [Le Coze, co-owner of Le Bernardin] was still with her brother, Gilbert, in their restaurant in Paris. Of course, the Japanese were first. Don’t forget that sashimi is Japanese…