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Interview with Alain Ducasse, 3-star Michelin, executive chairman of Alain Ducasse Entreprises

Internationaly renowned Chef, accumulating 3-star ratings for his restaurants at Le Plaza Athénée, the Hôtel de Paris in Monaco and The Dorchester in London, Alain Ducasse is also a businessman focusing on all forms of catering, including fast food. He has built, with his associate Laurent Plantier, a group of companies, which represents nowadays : 27 restaurants in 8 countries, 1,400 employees from 40 different nationalities, a training centre for professionals and the general public, a publishing house and a hotel consortium.

HTR Magazine: Is it possible to draw a parallel between the restaurant industry and the world of fashion where haute couture prefigures trends that will become accessible to the broader public thanks to ready-to-wear lines? In other words, can branded commercial restaurants benefit from the work of starred Chefs?

 Alain Ducasse: The analogy is certainly pertinent. And I would even go a bit further because I believe that there is a real dialogue between haute couture everyday clothing. Fashion shows inspire the streets but streets also inspire the shows. Similarly, commercial restaurants and haute cuisine also must know one another, speak and exchanger. Chefs have things to offer restaurant chains, but they also have questions to ask and experiences to share.HTR: Will you pursue the action begun with the French Minster of Education to immerse professors at vocational schools in internships in the world of modern haute gastronomie? _ A. D.: I think I can say that this experience has offered a great deal to teachers at vocational schools. And it has also given a great deal to us by structuring our approach to culinary arts with regard to both students and teachers. For practical reasons, this experience is currently on hold but we are ready to reactivate it.HTR: hat are the essential trends that will feed the restaurant industry in the years to come? A. D.: Offers are becoming so different that it is difficult to give a single-sentence answer. Fragmentation also certainly constitutes one of the major trends in the restaurant industry: throughout the developed world’s great cities it is possible to find fine French restaurants as well as Sichuan and Venetian cuisine, bistrots and dozens of other concepts. Under such conditions it is difficult to summarize the essential trends. Nonetheless, I believe that beyond this diversification of offers, there lies one question that the entire industry must face. Products. Regardless of the type of cuisine, raw materials are necessary. And if only for economic reasons, your suppliers should not be far away. In this way the quantitative and qualitative development of the offer raises the issue of agriculture, animal and fish husbandry. Will we be able to keep our producers going and will we know how to intelligently exploit natural resources?HTR: Is there an antinomy between gustatory and nutritional quality and fast food concepts that involve a certain “industrialization” of processes? If not, under what conditions? A. D.: The industrialization of processes is just one of the causes of antinomy. There is, of course, also the economic constraint that may result in a lower quality of products. And then there is a phenomenon that I would call “gustatory demagogy” which consists of overloading foods with fats, sugar or salt that heighten flavors while eating. But it must be observed that most fast food players are losing touch with the phenomenon are making a great deal of effort to improve the organoleptic and nutritional quality of their products.HTR: What have you learned from the launch of Be boulangerie-épicerie? A. D.: We had relatively modest quantitative objectives. Our ambition was mostly qualitative: explore the world of fast food with a very strong added value. Which is normal when you are cultivating a new idea, we were able to feel our way around at first and, today we have a fairly small range but its approach is very demanding in culinary terms. Thus the lesson is very simple: there is always room on the market or quality!HTR: If we multiply the concepts with Asian, Mediterranean, American influence… will that bring us toward a kind of world cuisine that is more fun and qualitative? A. D.: Your question concerns two different aspects. On the one hand the notion of “world cuisine”. If this means a mish mash of ingredients, recipes and culinary references, I certainly hope this is not the direction contemporary cuisine is headed in. On the other hand, the multiplication of restaurant offers with clear, honest seems like a perfectly positive trend to me. Particularly if it meets the expectations of our contemporaries who undeniably seek fun and high quality gastronomic experiences.HTR: Are innovations for presenting products, textures, and associations well accepted by the public or does the traditional meal continue to have a strong role? A. D.: Once again, I believe your question holds several distinct ones. Let us begin with what might be termed a traditional meal. In reality, the French model has evolved significantly since WWII. Less time is dedicated to preparation, less time is spent at the table, less food is eaten, meals are eaten out more often than in. So it is not really feasible to talk about being weighed down by tradition. And yet, it is true that the ideal French meal is still a moment structured by a succession of dishes and strongly valorized by its conviviality. Then there is the question of innovation with regard to products. Frankly speaking, put that way I’m a bit skeptical: true innovations are extremely rare and many wind up in the oubliettes rather quickly. On the other hand, it is true that the French have adopted an incredible number of new tastes over the last two or three generations. I’m thinking in particular about the arrival of new fish on the market, the revival of ancient vegetables or varieties of fruits and of course spices and seasoning.HTR: What do you think about Unesco including the Gastronomic Meal of the French among the ranks of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity? A. D.: First, I would like to say I think highly of this Unesco’s decision and I salute the work that has been done for/by Pierre Sanner, with the European Institute for Food Culture and History, to present this candidature. To fully understand the meaning of this recognition, some perspective is necessary. The Intergovernmental Committee held in Nairobi presented three inscriptions to the list for gastronomy: that of Mexico for the traditional cuisine in the state of Michoacan, the diet of the Mediterranean basin shared by Spain, Greece, Italy and Morocco and, finally, that of France entitled the “Gastronomic Meal of the French. Three candidatures were accepted, while it must be pointed out that six countries wished to see the singularity of their culinary practices recognized. There is no Franco-French chauvinism here! All six countries believe cuisine reflects a relationship between man and nature, that it expresses a vision of living in community. In the end, that is what it is about: each culture has a specific sensibility that stands out in its cooking and means of nourishment. We may be perfectly at ease with globalization and yet remain convinced that the world needs all the wealth of its diversity.HTR: Beyond fashion and good conscience, will notions of sustainable development and fair trade naturally position themselves within the concepts of the restaurant industry in the 21st century? A. D.: They will be imposed because there will be no choice anymore. We cannot continue to use natural resources as if they were endless. When I see what is happening with regard to subjects that are as essential as water and fishing resources, I say to myself we are approaching the eve of adjustments that will sometimes be painful. But we cannot avoid them.HTR: What are you most proud of about the work of Alain Ducasse Formation & Conseil? A. D.: Their services at Food Studio at Sirha 2011, of course! With Agnès Bourguignon, who manages this activity, we are currently succeeding in three areas that are particularly important to me. First, giving Alain Ducasse Formation & Conseil a real international dimension. Be it in training or advising, we work a great deal outside France and we are receiving increasing numbers of foreign trainees and lecturers in Paris. Then, the diversity of the offer. With all our properties, we cover the full gamut of training programs, from introductory to initiation of amateurs, and of course continuing education and professional conversion. Finally, a third important issue, we are making ADF&C an activity that opens onto the real life of the profession. Time spent at ADF&C is a moment in the professional life of our educators: they have worked in kitchens before and will return afterward. And while they train, they are also consultants, meaning they never lose touch with the reality of the trade.

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