Robb Reader: Alain Ducasse

A man on a sweet mission.

The French-born Monégasque chef is perhaps best known, in London foodie circles, for Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester – a triple-Michelin-starred Park Lane establishment with which the 62-year-old, when he opened it in 2007, intended to blend “the modernity of Beige in Tokyo, the seriousness of Le Plaza Athénée in Paris and the flavours of Le Louis XV in Monaco meeting the energy of London”.

 Or perhaps not – anymore. Along with chocolatier-cocoa bean roaster Nicolas Berger, Ducasse has created a chocolate empire whose hub is a manufacture in the Bastille area of Paris – and London has now joined the French capital and Tokyo as cities blessed with branches of what is a Mecca amongst chocolate connoisseurs.  

To say Ducasse takes chocolate seriously is an understatement…

Should coco beans be taken as seriously as the oenophile takes grapes?
Yes, and the same with coffee beans. Origin makes a big difference. The way we think about chocolate pervades every part of the process – “from bean, to bon-bon!”  Roasting should be carried out differently depending on the coco’s origin, its terroir – for us it’s like grapes and wine. We employ people to scour the world for us, to find the best coco – no middle men for us!

What was the catalyst moment that led to this venture?
Forty-two years ago, when I was about 20, I was an assistant chocolatier to famous French pastry chef Gaston Lenôtre – an entry-level role. I hesitated a long time, deciding whether to stay in that world or to go into [broader] cuisine. I chose the latter but the former was always at the back of my mind. Chocolate has always been of interest to me but it wasn’t until around 2010/2011 that I decided to act on it.

Alain Ducasse  heikki verdurme

What were the major challenges?
Finding the right equipment to do what we wanted them to. The only machinery we could find on the market was for high-yield industry. It was not adequate for what I wanted to do – which was a unique approach to roasting, involving a tailored approach to the beans according to their origin, their flavour, their potential. Eventually I found some machines from between the 30s and the 60s which were right for the task. They’re now all in the atelier in Paris.

Why Coal Drops Yard?
Whether it’s the UK, Japan or the USA, we want to be a local player and appeal to the country’s residents – to take the cultural surroundings into account with everything we do, but without losing our own DNA. That’s why I was really interested in the whole idea of Coal Drops Yard in King’s Cross. The whole architectural project with Thomas Heatherwick was about bringing a contemporary touch while preserving its industrial heritage – the exposed bricks, metalworks and so on. It’s a totally new style of shopping district, and I really wanted to invest in it – not in financial terms, but emotionally, in this space.

What minor details give a restaurant an edge over the others?
It’s about how the details, combined, tell a story. It’s about harmony between what I call “the container and the content” – which encompasses the décor, the music, the lighting, how the staff dress, the cuisine itself, the tableware, the wine temperature, the style of service, tangible details like tablecloth colour, glass style and so on – they have to tell a unique story. They must create an unforgettable emotion in the guest. The whole must be greater than the sum of its parts. Bringing together all these elements is one of my personal obsessions.

How did growing up on a farm in Castel-Sarrazin affect your personal development?
It allowed me to cultivate a genuine understanding of produce: I know what a particular vegetable or mushroom should actually taste like, how natural food is meant to be; it’s like a database, engraved on my mind at a young age. Of course, someone who grew up in the city can acquire this but it’s still something I cherish. A genuine advantage.

How important is sustainable sourcing of ingredients?
Today, a cook cannot be in denial when it comes to what’s happening globally, and the ramifications of resource depletion. It’s always been in our DNA to show caution and respect towards it – another legacy of growing up on a farm and becoming attune to natural cycles.

In what places, or situations, do you get your strongest creative ideas?
I need to have a “white page” to be able to create, to come up with my best ideas. I can create, to order, under pressure if it’s demanded in a particular situation: But inspiration doesn’t always flow freely if you’re not “in the zone”.  That said, I feel I have more ideas than I can ever execute in a single lifetime. Which is a great problem to have.

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