Legendary French chef Alain Ducasse - the only man on the planet who holds as many Michelin stars as Gordon Ramsay - is about to open a new signature restaurant at London's Dorchester hotel. It will take his empire to 27 restaurants in nine countries. Joe Warwick went to meet him
Paris to London London to Tokyo Tokyo to Las Vegas Las Vegas to New York New York to Rio Rio to São Paulo São Paulo to Paris Alain Ducasse's itinerary for the fortnight before our meeting in London reads like that of an overworked airline pilot - or an international playboy. His penthouse suite overlooking Hyde Park might look like the temporary residence of the latter, but in the early evening, sitting looking relaxed on his sofa after a day spent in a seven-hour menu tasting where he put his palate through 46 dishes, he doesn't come across like the aloof, jaded jetsetter that I was perhaps expecting.
"I've spent four nights sleeping on planes in the past two weeks," he says, adding with a smile, "It's very economical - I don't have to pay for hotels."
The £5,000-a-night suite with a view comes courtesy of the Dorchester hotel, where his 82-cover restaurant will open later this month on the site that was previously the hotel's Terrace dining room. PR-speak would say it was "eagerly anticipated" but in this instance - after months of speculation and denial before confirmation this January that Ducasse was indeed coming to town - that's an understatement.
For those wondering what to expect, the man smiling on the sofa, who will have a presence in nine countries spanning four continents when Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester opens, is keen to stress that his latest restaurant is a signature operation. It might be, by my count, restaurant number 27 in a steadily expanding empire that already holds 12 Michelin stars but - following the closure in January this year of his three-Michelin-star operation at the Essex House in New York - there are currently only two other restaurants in the world that actually carry his signature. That he insists on bracketing his new London operation with his three-starred flagships at La Plaza Athénée in Paris and Le Louis XV in Monte Carlo is a clear indication of his intent. As he says, with his trademark use of a fashion-inspired smile: Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester will be "haute couture and not prêt à porter".
The new venture is a partnership with the Dorchester, but Ducasse states boldly that he's the one in charge. "This is not just about me consulting. It's my name, it's my restaurant," he says, before adding with a grin and a show of his nicked thumb, "I am a chef, I even cut myself today."
But these days he must spend more time in his suit than his chef's jacket, surely? "I'm always in the kitchen in my mind," he says. "Of course, I have responsibility for everything in the company but I'm still really involved in the cooking and so I'm thinking about my restaurants' menus all the time. I'm always thinking of cooking - I spend most of my time tasting new dishes and trying new products. What I do is like being an artistic director. I sign off every detail of each new place, from the food to the design and decor - I orchestrate the whole project."
As to the old chestnut of how much time he will actually spend at the new restaurant, Ducasse will only say that he will be there for as long as is necessary. If he will not say exactly how long, I ask, will he at least say if he will be spending as much time at the Dorchester as he does at his other signature restaurants in Paris and Monaco? "Yes, definitely," he replies, "Perhaps longer to begin with. I will be very close to the team and will hold their hand until the restaurant grows. It's not like being in London is a penance, there are much worse places to be - such as Las Vegas in the summer when it's 45°C and even the British stay in the shadows."
Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester is actually the third restaurant he has opened in London. The first was in 1995 at Monte's club in Knightsbridge, which Jamie Oliver later briefly consulted on before it closed. (The site then passed into Gordon Ramsay's hands, becoming the short-lived Pengelly's and latterly La Noisette, fronted by Bjorn Van der Horst - a Ducasse old boy, incidentally.) "That was one of my very first consulting contracts 12 years ago and looking back it was a good experience," he recalls. "We left when the business was sold but it was a good way to learn about the market before coming here properly." Does he think the London market is hard to judge? "Definitely, there's so much diversity and competition here now that it's difficult to get your offering right."
The second time Ducasse opened in London it was with Spoon, a branch of his informal-dining diffusion brand - his prêt á porter line, as he'd probably put it - in the painfully fashionable Sanderson hotel. Unloved by the British critics but rarely empty, it lasted seven years and closed in March this year.
"The hotel's ownership changed (Schrager selling out to The Morgans Hotel Group) and so we took the opportunity just to finish up and then concentrate on opening a signature restaurant in London," Ducasse explains. "After seven years in London, a restaurant is already an old restaurant. In New York at the Essex House it was same thing and after seven years, when the hotel's owners changed (it was bought by the Jumeirah Group), we had an opportunity to finish the lease and finish the contract - so we did. Now we're concentrating on opening two new restaurants there next year."
It is, he adds, very different in Paris. "In Paris there's less of a need to just do something new after five or six years. The first time we changed anything in Paris was when we changed the decor at La Plaza Athénée after five years," a job he entrusted to his favourite designer, one-time Philipe Starck protégé Patrick Jouin, who has been employed again to do the interior at the Dorchester. "In Paris there are very few designed restaurants, everything is very classic. Compared with New York and London, we have been sleeping in Paris." What the French sometimes refer to derisively as the Anglo Saxon disease - the need constantly to reshape and refashion - Ducasse seems to embrace. "I like things to change, change is good," he insists.
"I am happy to close a restaurant if there's an opportunity to do something new, something else," he goes on. "For example, in Tokyo I had a branch of Spoon six years ago, back when I didn't know the city very well. It wasn't a great location on the outskirts of the city and so I was happy to move out and to open a beautiful new place in partnership with Chanel in Ginza in the centre of Tokyo. Each time we change for the better it's good."
Ducasse says he has learnt something from every restaurant he has closed. Mix in New York, which he opened in partnership with Jeffrey Chodorow (his partner in the London branch of Spoon and still his partner in Mix in Las Vegas) in September 2003 and closed just over two years later, is a good example.
"It was a fantastic learning experience. It was a 50:50 partnership and first my partners were not OK with the pricing strategy, then they were not OK with the bartender, then they were not OK with any element of the restaurant," he recalls. "We also spent a lot of time and money on the design that I don't think was appreciated because New York is in some ways still very conservative. I eventually decided that we had taken the wrong path and decided to close it. From that experience I learnt never again to have a partnership that's 50/50: someone needs to be in charge. In the Mix we have in Las Vegas with the same partners it is in the contract that I decide everything and that I have the right to impose my ideas. I also learnt always to listen to what the customers want before designing a restaurant - to propose rather than impose."
Leaving behind the restaurants he closed and returning to the one he's about to open, his partnership with the Dorchester - which heads the Dorchester Collection, a portfolio of five, five-star hotels across Europe and the USA that includes La Plaza Athénée - was "a logical partnership, a long-term partnership and not just a one-off," he says. "We already had a good relationship with the hotel and the management through the Collection before we signed the contract." That's not to say he's engaged on a 50:50 partnership, where his decisions on the direction of the restaurant can easily be questioned. "I decide," he insists.
The aspirations that go with being a signature operation aside, compared with other restaurants in his back catalogue, Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester "will have the modernity of Beige in Tokyo, the seriousness of La Plaza Athénée in Paris and the flavours of Le Louis XV in Monaco meeting the energy of London," he says. "I never do the same restaurant twice and every restaurant has its own identity. This one will be elegant but not too formal, with dynamic service. I did a casting for the front-of-house staff because I wanted a young, ambitious team with everyone smiling. We will do our job but first we will give hospitality and we will make our guests feel welcome. I really want to change the image of French restaurants that are too formal because today that's not what people want, things have to be more relaxed. A restaurant is a reflection of society and so if society is changing, restaurants must change."
Everyone will be wondering whether Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester will add to the chef's collection of Michelin stars, but the man himself is giving little away. "We want our clients to give us three stars in their hearts - that's the first aim," he says. "The Michelin guide will do its job and we will do ours. We do not make restaurants to have more stars.
"I didn't like being alone having 12 stars," he adds, referring to Gordon Ramsay's recent claim that Ramsay was the most Michelin-starred chef in the world. "Michelin is really not important to me but it's good for my industry in terms of the media interest. If someone has lasting success there's a reason for it and it's important to know that reason. Robuchon, Nobu, Gagnaire, Ramsay their success means that there's a consistency in their work and what they do. Being in such a lot of different cities is a lot of work, it's not easy. There are only about 10 chefs that are around internationally and Gordon Ramsay is the only chef from the UK in lots of different cities. We talk about Spanish chefs a lot but they are not really international."
We nip downstairs to have a peek at the building site that will become the new Patrick Jouin-designed restaurant. Ducasse suddenly looks less the suave, silver-haired 51-year-old and more the excited child. He's particularly enthusiastic about two design features that will sit at either end of the restaurant - a sexy curve of brushed metal near the entrance and at the other end a table surrounded by a curtain of fibre-optic lights. "Wow, wow," he says pointing at each in turn, "Double wow!" You really can't fake that kind of excitement. Or so I'd like to think.
"It's a beautifully designed restaurant in a beautiful address, in a unique hotel in a unique city," he says. "Maybe London today is the most dynamic city in the world, I like it more than New York maybe - no certainly. I am more comfortable in London."
The kitchen will now be headed up by Jocelyn Herland, from La Plaza Athénée (see right) and not Nicola Canuti, who was previously meant to have been running the kitchen and whose departure "for personal reasons" was announced shortly after this interview. The menu, like the interior, is aiming for "contemporary classic" and will, Ducasse says with another smile, offer "the best value for money in London" starting at £35 for the set lunch to £115 for the full-blown tasting menu.
Back upstairs we don't talk about the near-fatal 1984 Learjet crash, his glass eye or his new marriage (I leave all that to the lady from London's Evening Standard who visits later) but before I leave I can't resist bringing up Robuchon. Is the rivalry between them as fierce as is often suggested? And if so, how did they end up having a restaurant together in Paris, Le Relais du Parc? "It's another good story," he says. "The media loves it. We were partners together in another restaurant before we did Le Relais du Parc together. There's a big respect between us and we have an excellent relationship. We had a meal together in Las Vegas last week. Why should we not be friends when we have restaurants all over the world? We're always bumping into each other so why should we not be friends? My company is even publishing his new book"
So there you have it, forget everything you've heard before, Ducasse and Robuchon are in business together and, in fact, the best of friends.
His Blackberry is on the table in front of us, its blue light flashing, no doubt his inbox is full of new messages from chefs in various time zones that need his attention. Doesn't he ever long for a time when things were less complicated and he had restaurants in just the one city? One country? One continent? "Never," comes his shotgun reply, "The day I'm bored, the next morning I will stop and it won't be tomorrow."
From the menu
- Fine chestnut velouté, royale of foie gras, light whipped cream
- Squid bonbons, crunchy green vegetables, coco chutney
- Dover sole fillets, shrimps and Paris mushrooms, "vin jaune" sauce
- Halibut, lemon caper sauce "niçoise", spinach and Jerusalem artichokes
- Poached breast of Landes chicken, Albufera sauce, seasonal vegetables "au pot"
- Peppered Angus beef fillet, "pont-neuf" potatoes
- Coco-caramel delight
- Rum baba, Monte Carlo-style
Following the sudden departure of Nicola Canuti, the executive chef is now Jocelyn Herland (right), who comes from Alain Ducasse at La Plaza Athénée in Paris, where he was chef adjoint - second in charge of the kitchen. The 25-strong kitchen team includes sous chef Bruno Riou and pastry chef Angelo Ercolano.
Front of house the restaurant will run with Christian Laval (left) who has worked with Ducasse for more than 15 years in Paris, Monaco and New York. He will be supported by Philippe Beaucourt, who has worked for the group in Monaco and Tokyo.
More Ducasse on the way
Ducasse will reopen the Jules Verne restaurant in the Eiffel Tower in December, following extensive refurbishment. Meanwhile, following the closure of Alain Ducasse at the Essex House in January, he will relaunch his presence in Manhattan next year with two new restaurants. Alain Ducasse at the St Regis Hotel is scheduled to open in January and Benoit, his famous Parisian bistro (of which there is already a branch in Tokyo), will open in March on the site of legendary French New York restaurant, La Côte Basque. And that will make 30 restaurants worldwide, a nice round number.
• Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester, 53 Park Lane, London, W1A 2HJ. 020 7629 8866, www.alainducasse-dorchester.com. The restaurant will be open for dinner on 13 November and for lunch from 14 November.