A Conversation with Alain Ducasse PART ONE

27 May 2005

In October 2006, food communities from around the world (representing about 130 different countries) will return to Turin for the second edition of Terra Madre, along with new participants.
The new feature of Terra Madre 2006 will be that the small farmers, fishermen, nomads and producers will be joined by around 1,000 chefs and cooks of all nationalities, together with representatives of a hundred or so universities from around the world (the total number of people attending will be between 6,000 and 8,000). Academic culture and cooking will meet food-producing communities. They will form alliances, discuss, exchange experience and knowledge. In particular, chefs and cooks will be confirming their essential relationship with those who produce their raw materials. They will each adopt one or more products from the Terra Madre communities and include it as a permanent item on their menus. These chefs and cooks represent the whole range of activity: from cooking for a household or community, cooking in a simple traditional restaurant, through to top chefs of international renown. Many big names have already enthusiastically confirmed they will be present, so this first Dialogue leading up to 2006 will feature one of them: Alain Ducasse, a world star of the kitchen.

C.P.: “At the present time attention and debate in the world of cooking is mainly focused on technique. International events which attract top chefs, such as Lo Mejor de la Gastronomia in San Sebastian, do all they can to promote highly innovative recipes in a continuous display of original and highly complicated procedures. Chefs all seem to be searching for the invention of the century, but it would appear they have forgotten the importance of raw materials — their quality, where they come from, how they were obtained and the people who produce them”.

A.D.: The mid-1970s experienced the dominating influence of nouvelle cuisine, which was the highest expression of the chef’s personal creativity, where the product was less important than technique. Around 1985 there began to be renewed interest in the raw materials and now, after 2000, the last three or four years have seen people again talking about creativity and the chef’s personal touch. These shifting trends are due to media influence, which makes people think that all that matters today is creation and not the product. Perhaps in a few years there will be another change in emphasis: basically they are just historical cycles.
My staff and I have always focused attention on products however, and we began to do this against the tide back in 1975, when nouvelle cuisine was in full swing. Technology and technique are important of course, we certainly would not deny it, but there is a danger that it can take over from the chef, who becomes a victim of standardization. You can talk about temperature and perfect techniques for cooking a chicken, they are significant, but it is dangerous if this becomes the only issue. You have to first ask what the chicken has eaten and if it has done its exercises every morning (laughs). What makes it good isn’t how it is cooked but the sort of life it has led. This is the essential ‘existential’ factor which can make it into an exceptional product. In San Sebastian chefs talked for hours about how to cook a chicken and nobody said anything about the chicken itself”.

C.P.: The basic idea underlying Terra Madre is that gastronomy is a complex, multidisciplinary science which involves cooking and agriculture, anthropology and economics, history and medicine. As a chef and expert in cooking, what do you think about questions relating to agriculture and the agricultural world in general?

A.D.: The only thing which should interest a chef is variety: choosing nature’s products is the crucial thing. Technology is useful, but we mustn’t be its slave. It is a service that can help food aspire to greater perfection, it can help control, and make things more convenient and cleaner.
Biodiversity is crucial; technology comes afterwards. But diversity in general is crucial. For example, we should stop saying that Italians are traditionalists and the Spanish are the new creative cooks. People always like to make contrasting oversimplifications, one lot against the other, and never one lot joining forces with the other. We should be recognizing the culture and knowledge of each group, cultivating and celebrating differences. Every small farmer does some things differently to another, they try to do better than their neighbor and not slavishly imitate each other. We need to emphasize differences if we want things to work better, whether in agriculture, the kitchen or life”.

C.P.: “What you say is very interesting but it prompts me to ask you a rather personal question, since you have various restaurants in different parts of the world. Monte Carlo, Paris, New York: you are a global chef, you have become a brand name recognized all over the world. How do you reconcile your powerful image with the nitty-gritty of working in different parts of the planet? For example, what is your relationship with producers — does your staff seek them out directly or do you have intermediaries? Aren’t you tempted to standardize your cuisine in your different restaurant activities?”

A.D.: “We always try to go the source of the product; we constantly scour the countryside and nearly always have a direct relationship with producers in the various places where we operate. We first look for products, bring them to the kitchen and, if they are acceptable, then begin to develop and combine them. We try to find out about their background: that is something that you can’t ignore — it is of innate importance and makes a difference to great cuisine. The raw material must be close at hand: farmers, fishermen and artisans from around the world produce incredible things and enable us chefs to apply our art. It is a bit like the history of art and applied art: photography is an applied art, chefs are involved in an applied craft. Without good raw materials you can’t do anything. If you add merde to make a mixture, a perfect technique will still leave you with a perfect mixture of merde!”

C.P.: “But how do you apply this philosophy in all your restaurants and where do you have most difficulty in finding the right products?”

A.D.: “The chef has to spread this message and attitude everywhere — apply it to the artisanal produce found locally, look for the best chickens, the best ducks, the best Saint Jacques scallops. Every place has its particular products, so a lot of recipes can’t be standardized: you have to offer food in harmony with the area where the restaurant is located. This is also a matter of respecting your customers: if they are walking along a sidewalk in New York and come to a restaurant, they will expect the food to be based on American products.
The place where I have had most difficulty in applying my philosophy is in fact the USA. A journalist fried of mine used every conceivable means of transport to find the products I was looking for. He covered a total of 125,000 miles and the results of this work for my New York restaurant were published in a book: Harvesting the Excellence. It was hard work but very rewarding”.

To be continued

Adapted by Ronnie Richards

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