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Amid gloss and glitter, Ducasse and his students cook up tasty revelations

cook book

'L'Atelier of Alain Ducasse, The Artistry of a Master Chef and His Protégés'

June 30, 2000
Web posted at: 9:24 a.m. EDT (1324 GMT)

In this story:

The 'Ducasse Paradox'

'Rescuing hidden ... treasures from oblivion'

In search of white truffles and Bresse chicken

Fresh Basil Sorbet


(CNN) -- The world of Alain Ducasse is an otherworldly place.

Ducasse, who just recently opened his first restaurant in the United States -- Restaurant Alain Ducasse at the Essex House in New York -- isn't well known in America but is a revered figure in France.

He is the only person in history to have and hold six Michelin stars -- three for his Louis XV-Alain Ducasse in Monaco and three for Restaurant Alain Ducasse in Paris. For a time, Ducasse flew between the two restaurants every day. Now he is too busy. There is a separate string of restaurants called Spoon, which serve American cuisine such as hamburgers and macaroni and cheese to Parisians, Londoners, and residents of Tokyo.



Ducasse has a guide to the resorts and restaurants of France.

There is a line of frozen food that carries his name. He even has a deal with AOL France to provide seasonal recipes to the users of that Internet service four times a year.

At Restaurant Alan Ducasse in Paris, we are told, Ducasse makes money serving a maximum 50 diners a night, looked over and pampered by a staff of 53. But there are rumors in the food industry that while the far-flung Ducasse empire as a whole may make money, the restaurants in Paris and Monaco each lose in the millions of francs each year.

Ducasse isn't saying.

And for the record, while he speaks to the French media often, Ducasse does not, at least publicly, speak English. There is always a translator nearby to convert his thoughts for the English speaking world. Just another touch of mystery.

And finally, there is the Ducasse Paradox, the subject of an entire chapter of this book. Despite the fact that his three-star restaurants are the basis for his reputation and are alleged to produce the most haute of haute cuisine on this planet, Ducasse cannot be found behind the stove preparing dinner for his guests.

  Breton Turbot
  with Shellfish

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L'Atelier of Alain Ducasse, The Artistry of a Master Chef and His Protégés
Introduction by Jean-Francois Revel
Text by Bénédict Beaugé
Photographs by Hervé Amiard
English Edition, John Wiley & Sons, New York, 2000,
  • Recipe count: 48
  • Art: Photographs in color and black and white
  • Nutritional information: None
  • Price: $60, hardback
    VideoCNNfn's Peter Viles looks at the restaurant of Chef Alain Ducasse
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    VideoCNN's Elsa Klensch visits Spoon, a Paris restaurant where choice is king
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    If you go into the kitchens of some of America's most famous chefs -- Thomas Keller at The French Laundry in Yountville, California, Daniel Boulud at Daniel in New York, or Charlie Trotter at Charlie Trotter's in Chicago, you will find them cooking.

    Not Ducasse. He is the chef who doesn't cook -- at least not on the line at his restaurants.

    The 'Ducasse Paradox'

    Ducasse is the executive, the manager, the visionary. He does create dishes, he does go to great lengths to find the best ingredients, and he sets the tone, but he does not feel it necessary to stand behind the stove.

    Ducasse is the artist inspired by country and coastline. His world is an atelier, the French term for the artist studio. In this book we get a sampling of the Ducasse philosophy, we see the master chef's creations, and then we see these same ingredients in the hands of his students, some of whom still work for Ducasse and others who now have their own restaurants.

    The design of the book is intended to reinforce the mystique of Ducasse. In the preface Patricia Wells, who has become the doyen of French food writing, describes Ducasse as "a man obsessed: obsessed with perfection, sharing, aesthetics, taste, savoir-faire, and much more."

    In the series of black and white photographs by prize-winning food photographer Hervé Amiard, we see Ducasse, dressed in apron and white chef's jacket. But he is not at the stove. He waits patiently, menus in hand, as a cameraman works nearby. He looks in on the kitchen. He answers reporters' questions. He gives advice, consults, and with fork and spoon in hand, samples a creation as the chef who prepared it works nearby.

    In the opening essay of the book Jean-Francois Revel, a member of the august Academie Francaise and a professor of philosophy, says what makes Ducasse unique is the "Ducasse Paradox."

    "He is the first chef-restaurateur who has dared to admit openly, and even elevate to the status of a doctrine, his belief that a chef can serve his customers with the world's finest food without constantly slaving at the stove himself." He quotes Ducasse, who is better at mixing ingredients than metaphors: "I have a very modern way of thinking; the chef is there to lead the team and not just to sit behind the piano."

    'Rescuing hidden ... treasures from oblivion'

    What follows is a discussion of how important the concept of the atelier, the studio, is to Ducasse, who wants to be a collaborator, who wants to send his young students to the four corners of France in search of fresh ingredients, charged with the task of resurrecting and preserving the traditions of thousands of anonymous home cooks whose recipes are the backbone of French cuisine. "In borrowing from them, I am fulfilling a sacred duty: I am rescuing hidden gastronomic treasures from oblivion," he says.

    There is a beautifully rendered section on the ingredients that Ducasse is so passionate about, green asparagus from Villelaure, black Taggiasca olives from the Italian Riveria, turbot from Brittany, lambs from the Pyrennes.

    We see Ducasse, out of his chef's uniform this time, "communicating his enthusiasm" to his suppliers to experiment with new ways of growing vegetables.

    All of this would simply be too much, and this book would be consigned to the realm of coffee table books about chefs and cooking, if it were not for the recipes. Once the ingredients have been discussed, the remainder of the book takes those ingredients and showcases a recipe from Ducasse and then from five of his students. They cover olives and olive oil, asparagus, wheat, white Alba truffles, bass, turbot, lamb, and lemons and citrus fruits.

    But even here, those who really want to cook from these recipes face formidable challenges. This is not intended to be the sort of book that allows home chefs to cook like the master. There are no concessions on methods, ingredients or the large amounts of time necessary to prepare these creations.

    While Ducasse's elegant touch is evident in all his dishes, he rarely slaves over a hot stove himself  

    In search of white truffles and Bresse chicken

    Many of these recipes are simply beyond home cooks in America because the ingredients are not available, or, if they are, would cost a fortune.

    Take, for example, Ducasse's "Bresse Chicken Cooked in a Pig's Bladder, with Albufera Sauce and Stewed Vegetables." While is it possible, if you work at it hard enough, to find an intact pig's bladder, a 3 1/2 pound blue-legged Bresse chicken is simply not available in the United States.

    That aside, the technique is not difficult. The chicken is stuffed with its giblets along with fat from duck foie gras and trussed. It's then stuffed into the pig's bladder with goodies cognac, Madeira, and white port. The bladder is placed in a pot of boiling water and simmered for an hour and then allowed to rest and cool.

    The Albufera sauce is made with more duck foie gras, light cream, truffle juice and more of the white port, Madeira and cognac.

    The cooled chicken is cut apart, the breasts removed and coated with the Albufera sauce. The chicken breasts are served alongside baby vegetables that have been stewed in chicken broth.

    If the cost of white Alba truffles -- at about $150 a pound -- doesn't present too much of a challenge, several of the recipes in this section are tantalizingly simple.

    For "Scallops and Celery Root and White Truffles," Alessandro Stratta, the executive chef of Renoir at the Mirage Hotel in Las Vegas, makes a vegetable ragout of celery root, leeks, and potato. Scallops are sauteed and placed atop the ragout. In turn, they are topped by a garnish of white celery heart and olives in a lemon-olive dressing mixed with fried chips of celery root. The whole dish is then topped with shaving of truffle.

    Ducasse's recipe for "Breton Turbot with Shellfish" gets its powerful flavor punch from a sauce that combines mussel broth, reduced heavy cream, butter and two raw oysters all gently heated and passed through a sieve.

    The turbot steaks are simply sauteed in butter and olive oil, put on the plate, and served with the sauce spooned over the fish and steamed cockles, clams, razor clams and winkles also napped with the sauce.

    Fresh Basil Sorbet

    Perhaps even more interesting is "Spit-roasted Turbot Steaks with Lemon Salsa and Swiss Chard." Franck Cerutti, who runs the kitchens at Louis XV, roasts smaller turbot steaks and serves them with a salsa made of lemon, olives, capers, and pine nuts. The fish steaks are laid down on a bed of Swiss chard sauteed in olive oil and sprinkled with tiny croutons cooked in butter until they are golden.

    When it came to lemons and fruits, Ducasse produced a dessert -- "Candied Menton lemons, Filled with Fresh Basil Sorbet and Glazed Grapefruit Tartlets." Learning how to make the basil sorbet is worth tackling the recipe.

    The recipes from his students ranged from lemon tartlets, to scallops in a citrus sauce, to floating citrus islands. The most impressive recipe was from Jean-Francois Piege, who cooks at Le Restaurant Alain Ducasse in Paris, and spins a different approach to duck a l'orange by making a rich sauce from the duck legs and an orange aperitif.

    The duck breasts, roasted rare, are rolled in orange marmalade and coated with grated orange zest, before being sliced and served.

    In summary, there is little doubt that the purpose of this book is to entice you to make reservations three months in advance to visit a Ducasse restaurant where you can expect to pay as much as $300 per person plus wines for your dinner.

    It is not a book for the novice or for those who don't have determination, some imagination and, for the acquisition of some ingredients, a fair amount of cash.

    That said, the book is beautifully rendered, and the format -- leading with a recipe from Ducasse for each ingredient section and then a recipe from his students -- offers an entertaining view of how the students craft variations, and occasionally, improvements on the master's examples.

    Finally, if you are caught up in the mystique of Alain Ducasse, this book is a gateway into that rarefied world.

    6-star chef takes prices to new heights in New York
    June 26, 2000

    John Wiley & Sons, Inc., Publishers
    Academie francaise
    Volailles de Bresse

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