A heralded French chef nibbles on popovers and talks about sugar, salt, home cooking and the joys of shelling crayfish
French master chef Alain Ducasse, who is at the helm of 20 restaurants around the globe and has amassed a remarkable 19 Michelin stars — three of his restaurants boast a maximum three each — tries to describe one of his newest desserts while indulging in a lunchtime feast at South Beach’s BLT Steak.
He and the pastry chef at his flagship restaurant at Hotel Plaza Athénée in Paris spent a year and a half developing this dessert, and it explains everything, he says, about the philosophy driving his culinary vision these days.
“At Plaza Athénée especially, we have a new direction. Two or three flavors maximum in a dish. Like in the new dessert we call Citrus. It was a difficult thing to find the right balance of sweet, bitter, acidity. That is one of the most complicated balances to achieve,” he says in his heavy French accent.
“It is a combination of 10 to 15 different varieties of citrus — some fresh, some cooked, some candied, some just the juice. There are different textures. Different flavors. But all is citrus,” says Ducasse, who later that evening was honored by the South Beach Wine & Food Festival at a sold-out, $500-per-plate dinner prepared by an all-star team of chef friends, including Chicago’s Charlie Trotter and Alessandro Stratta from Wynn Las Vegas.
The citrus dish is difficult to envision. Is there an egg base? Does it involve a mousse? A soufflé? Pastry?
“Nothing. For the best desserts, you don’t need pastry or too much of anything. This is just citrus and citrus and citrus. Although it took so long to perfect, it is very simple. It is served in a crystal bowl. So it is very rustic, very essential. But yes, sophisticated and complicated also.”
At 52, Ducasse looks as dapper as ever with his combed-back silver hair and round-frame glasses. If he has ever thrown around any of that clichéd French-chef attitude, such behavior is certainly not apparent today. Over lunch he is casual and warm. He grabs a plain popover from the bread basket with his bare hand and plunks it down on your plate. Because he’s not about to go down in flames alone.
He studies BLT’s brunch menu carefully before deciding on poached eggs topped with spinach, ham, bacon and béchamel on the restaurant’s signature poufy Gruyere-crusted popover bread.
More than filling. But that doesn’t stop head chef Laurent Tourondel from sending out extras. Tourondel runs several BLT restaurants around the country (BLT stands for Bistro Laurent Tourondel) and you rarely catch him in his South Beach kitchen, but he is in town to participate in the wine fest and spend time with some of his food-world homies, Ducasse included.
Always at work
“Besides being one of the best chefs in the world, I think the personality of the man is what makes him so special” says Tourondel, who earlier this month announced a split from his business partner, though he says he will remain involved in nine BLT restaurants, including South Beach’s. “Alain Ducasse always talks about food with so much respect. He takes all of his projects very seriously. Some other chefs with several restaurants around the world don’t travel to their restaurants as much as he does to his. He is always in some corner of the world working.”
Since not every day does the man considered by many to be the best chef in all of France show up at one of your restaurants, you pull all the stops. Tourondel sends out tuna tartare, a rare steak, a second order of the egg-and ham popovers, asparagus, jalapeno mashed potatoes. And to end: peanut-butter chocolate mousse with banana ice cream; crepe soufflé with passion-fruit sauce; key-lime panna cotta with coconut sorbet; strawberries and rhubarb with goat-cheese ice cream.
“Put your salad to the side,’’ Ducasse instructs as the extras start arriving. And you do as you are told.
“ Tres bon,’’ he declares several times as he tastes. But then he holds up a delicate cookie dusted in powdered sugar that accompanied one of the desserts.
“This sugar. This is not necessary. It adds the white color. It is very American to add on. But it is not needed in this dish. We should always try to reduce sugar. I always say to my pastry chefs, ‘I’m going to steal the sugar from you.’ I have a new book coming out in just a couple of weeks. Nature. It is in French first but will be published in English later. And it’s all about simple cooking. The dessert recipes are all without added sugar. A few recipes call for a little honey, but that’s it.”
Does he feel the same way about salt? You’ve heard more than one Miami chef say that one of their secrets is salting a dish until it’s right on the verge of being too salty.
“Salt, sugar, fat. It’s all the same,” Ducasse says. “Chefs can use too much of all three. I believe in less, less, less.”
He does have one guilty pleasure: “Puff pastries will a lot of crème Chantilly inside.”
A garden stroll
At home is where his cooking is most loyal to his childhood memories. Born on a farm in southwest France, he doesn’t plan a meal until he has strolled his garden first.
“This is how it was done in my house. You see what’s ready in the garden. And that’s what you serve. Green peas that you can get in most restaurants or supermarkets have nothing to do with the fresh peas that you can find in your own garden. You take the petit pois that you just picked, a little onion, a little ham, and that’s it. You slow cook it in a cocotte. Later you put some fresh lettuce on top.”
But Ducasse didn’t become a superstar chef cooking only the simple country food his grandmother used to make for him. He came up the hard way, starting out at 16 as a dishwasher, then graduating to commis (apprentice), then chef de (line cook). Later he worked with French greats Alain Chapel and Roger Vergé, among those credited with creating Nouvelle Cuisine.
“When you are the dishwasher you are very motivated to graduate to the next level and become a commis,’ Ducasse says. “Then you get to remove the shells from hundreds of crayfish and meticulously remove the flesh without damaging it. That’s when you immediately want to perfect that job so you never have to do it again. And it keeps going like that. In a kitchen there is a lot of hard manual labor. You can tell who will go far by how dedicated they are to even the most menial job.’’
Plenty has been written in the past few years about the decline of French cuisine and the idea that a crew of experimental Spanish chefs, led by Ferran Adriá, have taken the lead.
Does Ducasse agree? Is French cuisine slipping?
“Simply not true,’’ he says. “The new Spanish cuisine is a very interesting proposal. It is one more layer to add to all of the layers of international cuisine. But if you take the top 10 French chefs, they have together 100 of the world’s most important restaurants. The Spanish chefs don’t have such an international influence. French cuisine is still the base for much of the world’s cuisine. And with no doubt it will remain that way. But maybe that would be too much to say.”