Alain Ducasse focuses on quality and purity over pomp and circumstance.
By Laurie Kahle, July 30, 2011
A decade after opening his eponymous restaurant at Paris’ Hôtel Plaza Athénée, Alain Ducasse felt it was time for what he calls “radical” change, a philosophical shift in the approach to not only cooking but to the haute dining experience itself. Given the establishment’s three-Michelin-star status, and the noble expectations that engenders, it takes courage to shake things up. But with his Essentiel culinary concept, Ducasse has tapped into today’s understated spirit of luxury, which quietly emphasizes quality and authenticity over pomp and flash. Ducasse, who embodied the term casual elegance in a heathered brown wool sport coat and tortoiseshell glasses with his silver hair swept back, welcomed us to his Paris flagship last fall, soon after Essentiel debuted. The fundamental principle of Essentiel is a return to basics, a quest for supreme quality and purity in ingredients that are coaxed to release their optimum natural flavors instead of using them as tools to showcase a chef’s virtuosity. He sums up the recipe for his approach: “Begin with real taste and original aromas. Allow them to fully express their vibrancy and subtlety. Give technique back its real role, its single purpose—revealing the flavors of nature.” Rather than a fancy floral centerpiece, our table is adorned with a bunch of Swiss chard tied with a ribbon. The table settings are similarly pared down to a single sculpted Volute plate in a swirl shape, custom designed to hold the menu. Our starter of thinly sliced sea bass and ham on toast arrives wrapped in butcher’s paper, a rebellious opening statement at a three-star table under “exploded” chandeliers with 10,000 crystal pendants dangling from the ceiling. The casual attitude is further expressed when servers place sauté pans of succulent crevettes on the table with long sculpted forks. Seeing cooking pans in a gourmet restaurant may at first seem shocking, but the underlying message is that the quality of the shrimps and other ingredients is far more important than making a fancy presentation. Ducasse and his team carefully select each supplier for their exceptional produce—cream from Maison Borniambuc in the heart of the Norman bocage, citrus fruits from the Pyrenees orchards of Bénédicte and Michel Bachès, scallops from Alain Rigault in Grandcamp-Maisy that are raised in the ideal conditions of the Seine estuary. Local sustainable fisheries are chosen because short travel times from sea to plate result in maximum flavor. Seasonality is another key to heightened taste, so turbot replaces bass from late summer to winter, game birds are presented in early fall before venison and wild boar. Each season ushers in three dishes based on quintessential French cuisine, such as Picardy Hare roasted a la royale or jugged, poultry from Bresse with Albufera Sauce, early vegetables supplied by Didier Pil, and Alba truffles. Behind the scenes, the young chef Christophe Saintagne subtly masters these prime ingredients on a daily basis, commanding the kitchen like a military operation to ensure seamless service. A staff of 47 is almost equally divided between the kitchen and front of house. Ducasse, who is described as “a comet” constantly travels between his restaurants around the world remaining vigilant in his hands-on management style. While Essentiel can be viewed as a three-star response to the current wave of casualness in French cuisine, one can’t help but wonder whether diners who seek a premier gastronomic experience will fully embrace this relaxed and minimalistic tone while shelling out hundreds of dollars for a meal. Still, Ducasse’s modernistic shift to simplicity and core values of quality and purity is a timely one that has been reverberating throughout the luxury world from fashion to horology to travel.