With 300 Michelin stars between them, it was only right that 240 chefs gather in Monaco to pay tribute to the modern father of French cuisine, Alain Ducasse, writes Sudi Pigott
IT WAS NOT an invitation to refuse, even if it involved flying to Monaco for the weekend barely a month before Christmas: a celebration of Alain Ducasse’s 25th anniversary at his flagship Le Louis XV, with 240 chefs from 25 countries bearing 300 Michelin stars.
Sitting in the foyer of the Hotel de Paris in Monaco as guests checked in to, it was touching to see Tetsuya from Sydney grinning ear to ear as he greeted his old friend with a bear hug, former DJ Alex Atala from Sao Paulo, whose meteoric global culinary rise must owe much to Ducasse’s championing, saluting Ducasse with a high five, Raymond Blanc kissing his fellow Frenchman with a passionate cry of ‘magnifique’.
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Twenty-five years ago, Alain Ducasse was hired by Prince Rainer of Monaco with the specific challenge of creating the first three-Michelin star hotel restaurant in the world within three years – a task he accomplished.
The celebrations kicked off with what was modestly billed as ‘Cocktail – Monaco seen from the sky’ in reference to the sliding roof of Restaurant Le Grill on the eighth floor of the Hotel de Paris. There was a taste of what was to follow with Vranken vintage champagne by the magnum and Puligny Montrachet Domaine J Carillon flowing freely with ‘simple’ canapes: pumpkin topped with black truffle, sardines farcies ‘Riveria’ artichokes, barigoule and langouste, partridge and tiny racks of milk-fed lamb with a ragout of chestnuts and panisse chips served from the open kitchen.
Pictured above: Alain Ducasse and Prince Albert of Monaco with some of the world’s finest chefs © Christian de Brosses/Le BeauKal.fr
As Michel Roux Junior told me while appreciatively sampling a tarte au citron de Menton, ‘It’s wonderful to be here. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. It is just incredible the way he runs his empire.’ High praise indeed from a famously tough taskmaster whose daughter Emily has just finished a stage at Louis XV. ‘They certainly worked her very hard, making no allowances for her being young, English and female. She’s learnt so much.’
MANY OF THOSE at the party, particularly the UK contingent, have done time at Louis XV including Claude Bosi of Hibiscus who told me (and kept to his resolve) ‘I will be keeping my mouth zipped.’ He confessed somewhat sheepishly that Ducasse had requested a quiet private word with him over the recent spat in the press.
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Tom Kitchin, another Ducasse protégé, was chosen to prepare a dish for one of fourteen live cooking stands at the Saturday lunchtime gastro-paradise ‘Grand Marche de la Mediterranée’. As Kitchin explained to me: ‘I was summoned a day early to prepare the dish I’d created using Riveria octopus, the ingredient chosen for me. Doing a cook-off for Ducasse and his culinary lieutenants was terrifying – the pressure of MasterChef: The Professionals multiplied infinitely!’
Yet as Ducasse explained to me while surveying with evident satisfaction and happiness the world’s greatest ever farmers’ market: ‘What’s most important to me as a chef is to transmit and share knowledge. There should be no frontiers to cuisine. The future is to cook with one another, not against one another. I am constantly curious, delighted and amazed by the diversity of ingredients and techniques amongst the world’s chefs, hence the street food here today.’
Pictured above: Alain Ducasse showing Prince Albert of Monaco around the Grand Marche de la Mediterranée
Accompanied by Prince Albert of Monaco he proceeded to exclaim with great pleasure about David Chang’s creative interpretation of green lentils prepared as a miso with koji rice and a garnish made from bacon, grilled celery root with a bacon and black truffle sabayon.
The culmination of the weekend’s extravagant celebrations was dinner for 440 in the presence of Prince Albert in the Salle Empire at Hotel de Paris, fittingly where Escoffier once had his restaurant. The menu personified Ducasse’s reverence for exceptional produce deceptively simply served to elevate its purity.
THOUGH IT WOULD be impossible to single out one course for praise, I noted that Joel Robuchon seated on my table shared my delight in exquisite Gamberoni de San Remo with a prodigious topping of caviar and an incredibly intense seafood gelée served with Dom Perignon Vintage Rose 1995 en magnum.
Later Carlo Cracco, a Milanese master of risotto told me that to produce spelt risotto for such numbers especially with artichoke and Alba white truffle was technically extraordinarily challenging. And, no discernible detail was overlooked. The memorably grassy olive oil with the risotto was only pressed two days earlier to taste at its most virgin!
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There was more truffle (rumours abounded that sourcing enough – around 7 kilos – had been taxing) in the salad accompaniment to a magnificent game and blette (Swiss chard) tourtellotte with wondrous sauce salmis.
Not quite the place to catillate (lick the dish), I mused to my neighbour who just happened to be Philippe Gollino, formerly at Le Louis XV, who now heads up Ducasse’s cookery school for professionals at Argenteuil close to Paris.
Pictured above: Prince Albert of Monaco toasting Alain Ducasse © Stephane Danna / realis
Mischievously, he replied: ‘I’d like to serve the salmis as scarpetta, perhaps the kitchen will do so later! It’s a recipe I took from my grandmother – Ducasse loved me bringing such recipes to the table and sublimating them into a haute interpretation without losing their essence. You soak bread in the juices and roast to caramelize, it’s the pure taste of childhood.’
WHAT MADE THE most impact on the chefs was the sheer level of technique. Rene Redzepi of Noma (who coyly let slip that his application long ago for a stage at Le Louis XV had been ignored) agreed: ‘To have produced a menu as demanding as this for a restaurant of forty covers would be ambitious. To get the balance correct cooking for such numbers is nothing short of genius.’
Claire Smyth of Gordon Ramsay Royal Hospital Road, who spent two years at Le Louis XV, continued: ‘Such precision and perfection is what we all strive for.’
Pictured above: Magnus Nilsson, Alain Ducasse et Rene Redzepi © S.Danna/Realis
The last word, must go, of course to Ducasse: ‘Yes, the weekend has gone well,’ he affirmed, ever the master of understatement while hugging farewell to another great protégé, Massimo Bottura. Grinning mischievously, he added: ‘It’s been good for my ego!’
Jests aside, it’s evident that Ducasse is thinking of his legacy with the impressive expansion of his education institute to Manila and Brazil and considerable, ambitious plans for the future. The weekend will surely be immortalised in culinary history.
As Ducasse has often said, ‘We must never stand still, always be looking forward as well as to the past.’
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