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17 December 2001

Don’t ask me to cook, I’m a chef

The New Statesman Christmas - The French cuisinier no longer sweats over a stove;

By Adam Sage

The cookbook by Alain Ducasse that went on sale in France last month may not be the most eye-catching in the history of French cuisine, or indeed the most innovative. But at 5.284kg, it is probably the heaviest, and that alone is sufficient to ensure another success for the golden boy of Gallic gastronomy.

Not only has the size of the 1,024-page Grand livre de cuisine attracted widespread interest, but the book has run up healthy Christmas sales and proved, once again, the accuracy of the Ducasse recipe.

Don’t get confused, however. This is not the recipe involving Mediterranean sea bass fried in peppers and tomatoes. It is the one involving press attaches, off-the-record briefings and the liberal use of invitations to journalists.

Ducasse, 45, is a trendsetter. He was the first of the growing number of French chefs to realise that cooking is a mug’s game – hot, stressful, tiring, unprofitable and better left to others. His place was not in the kitchen but in the media spotlight, giving interviews, writing 12 books and signing at least three lucrative sponsorship deals while his assistants gathered around the stove. As for his undoubted culinary talents, they are used to set and taste the menus for the 14 restaurants that he runs in France, Japan, Mauritius, Britain and the United States. He still describes himself as a “cuisinier” (cook), but in practice he is a jet-setting manager – the Sven-Goran Eriksson of the restaurant trade.

The formula works. Ducasse’s Plaza Athenee restaurant in central Paris, for instance, has three Michelin stars and a long list of people waiting for a table under the chandeliers. Scallops in lettuce sauce, truffles with potato marmalade, Breton langoustines and thrush breasts with vegetables in salmi sauce are among the dishes that have won Ducasse praise from the restaurant guides – even though they are all cooked by his “assistant”, Jean-Francois Piege.

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Yet the formula has also proved controversial, because it is scarcely in tune with the terroir philosophy that is supposed to be at the heart of French cooking. The terroir – a word that has no English equivalent but is best translated as the ancestral (French) soil – has always been prominent in Gallic gastronomy; it has become dominant over the past couple of years.

Vegetables and animals from the terroir are good: anything else is bad. This reassuringly simple philosophy has gained strength from an almost hysterical reaction to mad cow disease, which became associated in the public mind with economic globalisation. Figures such as Jose Bove, the peasant farmers’ leader, who campaigns against the liberalisation of agriculture, have denounced BSE as a pointer to the evils of foreign, industrially produced food. His logic may be tenuous, but it is widely shared by a French public that is always prepared to see itself as the victim of an Anglo-Saxon plot.

With McDonald’s, Margaret Thatcher and trembling cows merging to become a giant spectre hanging over la France, shoppers and diners have looked to the nation’s rural roots for comfort. The supermarkets have returned to traditional foods in old-fashioned packaging, with the Carrefour chain, for instance, bringing out a “Reflets de France” range that includes tripe and green lentils. The advertising agencies have followed suit, and peasants are now vying with naked women and footballers as the figures most frequently used in television commercials.

Haute gastronomie is also going patriotic. For instance, Bernard Loiseau, one of the country’s leading chefs, has made a virtue of his conservatism, vaunting his recipe for frogs’ legs in garlic sauce, and announcing: “I will not change the way I cook until the day I die.” As for Ducasse, his vegetables (or at least those served at his French restaurants) are all grown in pesticide-free Gallic soil, he says, and his beef comes from “des vaches saines“.

Ducasse’s effort to appear “authentic” even led him to sign a petition denouncing the intrusion of recipes involving foreign spices – a surprising move, given that he himself uses them at one of his Parisian restaurants, Spoon, which serves up such delicacies as Peruvian ceviche.

From a man who is about as traditional as English wine (which he also serves at Spoon), it was all a bit too obvious, and it failed to put a stop to the controversy. Cuisiniers should fait la cuisine, their detractors say, or take their names off the menu and let the assistants enjoy the glory. “The presence of a chef at the stove is indispensable,” said Christian Millau, a respected restaurant critic. “If not, why not open virtual restaurants?”

Even the Michelin guide that made Ducasse the first ever chef to win three stars for two separate restaurants – in Paris and Monaco – offered a thinly veiled criticism of his method. Derek Brown, the British critic who became head of the Michelin guide in March, said: “There is a kind of additional energy to be found in restaurants where the boss is there.”

As a consequence, Michelin chose to promote a restaurant more in keeping with the national mood, and Ducasse lost his status as the chef with most stars. Instead, the title went to Marc Veyrat, the descendant of a long line of Alpine peasant farmers who uses mountain herbs in his dishes.

His two restaurants are both in the French Alps, with one open in the winter and the other in the summer, enabling him to be present in the kitchen at all times. Authentic or what?

But do not write off Ducasse too quickly. His ideas may not smack of the terroir, but they are forceful. Most French chefs, after all, aspire to three Michelin stars, and three-star restaurants are expensive and time-consuming.

Take, for instance, the Hotel du Parc restaurant in Paris that was the flagship of the Ducasse empire until last year. Although menus of between £48 and £150 brought in an annual revenue of £200,000, this was not enough to pay back an initial investment of £8m, and to meet running costs that included 50 employees for a maximum of 50 place settings, a flower bill of £1,000 a month, and plates that had to be replaced at £50,000 each time.

The restaurant earned praise and three stars, but the hotel group that owned the building, Accor, wanted money as well. As a result, Ducasse had to scrap the haute cuisine there and offer a thin, “modern” menu that places the accent on beef, lobster and profits.

The new operation at the Hotel du Parc is flourishing, and provides further support for the Ducasse formula: you make your name as a cook and then trade upon it as an entrepreneur. This is neither an earthy nor an ancestral way of doing things. But it is quietly becoming a trend in the upper echelons of French gastronomy. The three-star chef Paul Bocuse, for example, admits to spending as much time on doing deals in Japan as he does on sauces at his restaurant in Lyons.

“Do diners have a better time at my restaurant when I’m there?” he asked. “No. My chef, Roger Jaloux, is probably more skilful. Even when I’m there, he does the cooking. Do you think that Enzo Ferrari puts all the nuts on to the cars that he sells?”

The fashion has spread southwards. In Montpellier, for instance, Jacques and Laurent Pourcel earned three stars for their restaurant, Le Jardin des Sens, which has been described as the home of the renaissance of Mediterranean cooking. From the mullet to the red peppers, it is a symbol of modern Provence: terroir for the elite.

Yet the Pourcel brothers have recently opened a second restaurant in Montpellier and taken over a third in Paris. They may not be in the Ducasse league, but they now spend almost as much time on aeroplanes as in kitchens.

Even the herbal Veyrat is adopting the recipe. After coming close to bankruptcy as he invested in a restaurant capable of winning the three Michelin stars, he has since used them to attract wealthy financial backers. His next venture, he says, will be a restaurant in Paris.

So are there no genuine cuisiniers left, the sort who not only invent recipes but also cook them? Well, there’s Eric Briffard, who was chef at the Plaza Athenee until Ducasse took over in 2000. He was one who was rarely away from the stove, getting hot and tired as he perfected his dishes. But although he is a highly talented cook, he was sacked by the Plaza Athenee hotel management. The reason? He spent so much time in the kitchen that he failed to get his name in the newspapers.

“Eric Briffard is an excellent chef, but he absolutely doesn’t have a media profile,” the management said.

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