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Interview - Alain Ducasse
ALAIN DUCASSE is synonymous with French fine dining, and has enough gravitas as a chef with 20 Michelin stars to turn the food world's ‘rock stars' such as Rene Redzepi and David Chang into star-struck schoolboys - like he did at the latter's MAD symposium in Copenhagen in 2013.
Born in 1956, the Paris-based veteran chef and astute businessman has outlasted competitors to build up a global empire of some 30 restaurants and counting, still going strong even as younger, big names like Gordon Ramsay and Jamie Oliver struggle with their businesses across the pond. Mr Ducasse flew into Singapore for a whistle-stop visit just a couple of days before his 63rd birthday on Sep 13, just in time for the official opening of his first restaurant concept - BBR by Alain Ducasse. The 235-seater, smart-casual Mediterranean restaurant-bar at Raffles Singapore, takes over from the former Bar & Billiard Room.
Although he is known for French fine dining - notably his restaurants in historic hotels such as Plaza Athénée and Le Meurice in Paris, The Dorchester in London and of course, where he started it all - Le Louis XV at the Hôtel de Paris in Monaco - he was adamant that his first outpost in Singapore would not be a fine dining restaurant. Speaking through his PR director and translator Emmanuelle Perrier (although he is quite adept at English himself), he explains that his plan was to create a brand new concept not seen before here, and he wanted an elegant, casual and not too expensive place that more people can experience than they would if he had gone the fine dining route.
Is it a deliberate decision to go into casual dining because of the overall trend towards more informal restaurants rather than elaborate and expensive fine dining?
No. We continue to do fine dining because we feel there is still a strong appetite for it. In Macau, for example, we have two restaurants - Morpheus, which is fine dining, and the French-casual Voyages - both on the same level of the City of Dreams. Both are doing very well. I am also opening a fine dining restaurant in the Palace Hotel Tokyo, and a bistro in Kyoto. So we see a strong interest in both, it all depends on the destination.
That said, how has French fine dining evolved over the years? And how do your restaurants stay relevant in this era of modern ‘progressive' chefs?
You have an (old-fashioned) image of French fine dining, but it hasn't been like that for a long time. If you take our restaurants - Plaza Athénée, Louis XV in Monaco, or London's Dorchester - our guests are around 40 years old and to attract this crowd you have to incorporate a level of casualness because you don't go to a fine dining restaurant in the way that your parents used to. It's about moving with the times and we understood this trend even before it became a trend. We consider it our mission to nurture and feed today's consumer, which is why restaurants have to evolve. For example, we revamp our restaurants every 10 years at the minimum. The design, the cuisine, we change everything. And in between we make small changes, every season, like in fashion. For a designer, if you don't reinvent yourself every season, every collection, you're dead. It is the same for restaurants. Our fine dining turnover is around US$23 million, so this is a very significant market for us. Louis XV, for example, is nothing like what it was from the first time. Really fine dining is not something that is stuck in history like a museum. It's the opposite.
Do you feel that guides like the Michelin have become too commercial? How do you feel about chefs who are obsessed with stars or being in the World's 50 Best list?
The Michelin is a global reference, and it remains a reference for foodies. In Macau, when we decided to open Morpheus and Voyage, my objective was to obtain two or three stars. It's not a secret. We work hard to attain this distinction. Whenever we develop fine dining, it is always our objective to earn stars. I have 20, I would like to have 22, 24, or more.
But what do you think about the controversies surrounding the guide and 50Best in terms of lobbying or cronyism, etc?
That is not for me to answer. But Michelin and 50Best are great ways of getting publicity and it's great if we can get both. We don't have time to lobby because we are busy opening new restaurants. But Plaza Athénée is number 13 (on the World's 50 Best) and we have chef friends who are top-ranked in the 50 Best and also have three Michelin stars. But (it has to be realised that) every medium, every listing or ranking - on the web or in the guides - makes gastronomy shine. And it has an impact on our restaurants in the end.
So what do you think chefs, especially younger ones, should do?
Think about your clients, and what you can do to keep your restaurant busy. Think about your customer and having said that, can you really fill up your restaurant without media or the support of the guides. Or if you don't have the support of the rankings on websites. It's a very tricky, complicated question, but you need a little of both. But the reality is that there are many talents out there who will not be recognised and it's terrible and sad. With this in mind I developed programmes like Food de France, to help young talented chefs who don't have the power, money or networking skills to get the recognition they deserve. I invite 42 young chefs who come from different provinces in France, to come to Paris - we pay for everything - and we also invite the press to come and meet them and they get some publicity from this. And as a result, we have helped to change the lives of some of these chefs.
You once said that the reason why you keep opening new restaurants is because you train so many chefs that you need to find restaurants to put them in. Is that still true and also, what are your objectives going forward?
Yes, that is still very true. Our executive chef at BBR, Louis Pacquelin, started out in our bistro in Paris, and now he is here in Singapore. I have no plans to retire, I will continue to keep track of what's happening in the industry, open new places, keep on training talented chefs and see how we can change the dining scene in different countries. Because if we don't do that, the chefs we have been training will look elsewhere - we have to stay at the top and keep them so we don't lose them to the competition.
What are some of the highs and lows of your career and how do you deal with setbacks?
I only focus on the good parts. It's a decision that you make when you wake up in the morning. Success is a balance of what's good and what's not. Even if you have 49 per cent of bad, you still have 51 per cent of good. Even if there's a lot of downside, what counts is that you also have some positive (to build on).
You travel so much. How do you deal with jetlag?
I don't get jetlag. I decide not to, so I never get it. It's my decision.