A Conversation with Alain Ducasse PART TWO

01 Jun 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.: You will agree with me that it is crazy to transport products from one side of the world to the other. It is an unsustainable practice because the pointless transport causes pollution, while inflicting economic injustices on the poorest producers.

A.D.: When I eat mullet in Paris and pay a high price, too high a price, I know it has come by air from Dakar. When it stops off in Brittany it is already too expensive. You have to first look what there is around the local geographic area, it is much easier anyway. Imported products, apart from being less sustainable from an environmental point of view, are not economic. And then they are “tired” from the traveling: they are not necessarily better at all, on the contrary, the opposite is usually the case.

C.P.: In this global context, where the contradictions and absurdities of agribusiness prevail, it isn’t only products which are being squeezed, but also traditional knowledge. Our lifestyles mean family eating is often limited to standardized precooked food and multinational brands; we have reached a point where food origins and cultural identity can now only be found at a restaurant, while at home we eat ‘global’ food. Don’t you think that chefs now have an additional responsibility, since they risk being the last custodians of culinary knowledge?

A.D.: My team and I are at present working on what you can best cook for one euro fifty. We have a school and we have pooled our knowledge to show that a chef can “cook for the community” without spending much. A chef can prepare a good dish from a product which is not very good — a well cooked industrial turkey and properly cooked vegetables is something different: a chef can add heart and knowledge. He can also teach people what to do, transferring his love for the product. People have to rediscover the pleasure of going to the market and learning to understand the raw materials. In the large-scale retail trade today you can even find good products with a minimum standard of quality. The last century saw disgusting rubbish being produced and all kinds of inconceivable practices that resulted in mad cow disease and other food scandals. Awareness has fortunately changed a little since then and we have to help people to learn how to eat good products at home, to eat properly in a simple healthy way without overspending or looking for outstanding quality at all costs. An average level of quality is available and you have to know how to find it.

C.P.: I think we need to be careful over the price question however: it was the obsessive drive for low prices which landed us with mad cow disease. Maybe it would be better to reduce the amount we eat and aim for good quality at a fair price. This would also save the markets for small farmers and artisans who are the sector under most pressure. We still have a lot of these amazing producers in Italy, but if we don’t begin paying them enough, they will soon disappear.

A.D.: In Italy it is wonderful to still find women who have retained the memory and awareness of regional cuisines; to find markets with small farmers selling local products. And there are people willing to pay more for a great product, because pleasure is still important in Italy. Price is important, it is true, and small farmers have to be able to earn a decent living: behind a liter of milk there are animals, hectares of land, the work of one or more people. How can it cost less than a liter of bottled water? It’s crazy, shocking even.

C.P.: Well that is music to the ears of the people who organize Terra Madre. What do you think of this event which you will be attending in 2006?

A.D.: It is an amazing idea to bring together men and women from around the world with a common love and passion for good quality food products and allow them to shared their experiences. People who have preserved biodiversity and differences. We must cultivate and preserve diversity on the planet; we mustn’t be controlled by a single way of thinking. We should keep our eyes open, look at other people and try to understand who they are, appreciating their values. We need to look into each other’s eyes and understand each other. Yesterday, for example, I was in the mountains near Bilbao with olive groves and vineyards all around. I had lunch in a small traditional restaurant where they cooked in the fireplace. I ate extremely well as a result of the savoir faire of the place and I immediately wanted to learn this simple age-old technique.

C.P.: “What is your definition of gastronomy?

A.D.: Looking at a product and trying to respect its original flavor — the flavor due to the person who grew, raised or created it — by using the right preparation, the right cooking and the right accompanying ingredients. The message of gastronomy has to be clear for everyone and it must enable people to appreciate what nature has given us. It is respect for the product. The influence of technology and the media remove this pleasure because they end up reducing everything to a trivial game: the only thing gastronomic journalists ask you are good addresses and recipes. We chefs work with the sources and the journalists only want an effect. When you analyze the sources you can understand the professional approach, the rigor and love. But journalists just want the wow! factor. They want to be continually surprised, but every dish has a story which begins a long time before it is cooked.

Adapted by Ronnie Richards

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