I finally got to speak to Chef Alain Ducasse!
After literal years of wistful wishing, I enjoyed the privilege of a tête-à-tête with this living legend during his recent visit to Manila. He turned out to be approachable, engaging, and very inquisitive, asking me how my experience was, as a stagiaire (or intern) at his Restaurant Le Meurice in Paris, and teasing me about only being able to understand and not speak French, after living in Paris for so long.
Back when I worked at Restaurant Le Meurice Alain Ducasse—a two-Michelin-starred establishment at the historic Le Meurice Hotel in Paris—I’d see the great man in the kitchen, tasting dishes and talking to chefs far, far higher up on the brigade than I was.
I always hoped he might pass by, as I was working on pastry chef Cédric Grolet’s tart noisette, and I would get the chance to say, as I’d practiced, “Chef, merci de m’avoir donné l’occasion de travailler ici.” (Chef, thank you for the opportunity to work here.)
It never happened, of course, so I’d just quietly carry on, dipping hazelnuts into tempered chocolate, seizing any opportunity to dine at some of his other establishments—Le Jules Verne, Alain Ducasse au Plaza Athenée, Le Dali at Le Meurice, and Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester— and accepting the probability that that was as close as I’d ever get to him.
Ducasse, after all, is a busy man who built and runs an empire, although he humbly claims it’s not an empire, and he never intended to build an empire. Nevertheless, he’s expanded beyond restaurants, delving into chocolate, cinema, and education.
He’s a man who shares his knowledge and skill, challenging others to bring out the best in them, allowing his team to blossom and make a name for themselves. He did this for my own teacher, Chef Grolet, giving him the opportunity to create the desserts at Le Meurice in 2013.
Grolet went on to garner awards upon awards, and is now widely recognized as the world’s best pastry chef. Their robust partnership has enabled them to consistently retain Le Meurice’s Michelin stars, share their delicious dishes of great subtlety, and impart their knowledge to their brigade of chefs and stagiaires.
It’s not surprising, then, that Ducasse’s current obsession is to share his knowledge and help uplift people’s lives. This is what brought him to the Philippines, partnering with the Tuloy Foundation through Ducasse Education, a program that’s already sent bright young chefs to France, Dubai, and the United States, and opened doors for more at some of the country’s best restaurants.
Ducasse is a perfectionist—at Le Meurice, we’d throw pastry into the bin if it had even the tiniest imperfection, virtually invisible to the naked eye—who, paradoxically, embraces life’s imperfections. It’s a difficult balance, he says, knowing you’ll never truly reach perfection, but working toward it anyway, day in and day out, which is key, even for young chefs. He’s proud that his personnel put as much energy into it as he does.
He always thinks about the big picture. It’s not just about the head chef’s vision, but the synergy of the team. It’s not simply about preparing a dish with the best technique and extreme attention to detail, but presenting it with exquisite tableware. “A meal,” he states, “is a story, the table, a stage.” It’s not only about natural, seasonal ingredients, but the emotions one experiences, upon tasting the full strength of an ingredient.
That’s no doubt why he is happy when he is able to meet farmers, fishermen, and artisans, because they help one another bring out the best in food. This, he says, is the reality of our industry. He believes in sourcing and expressing local, with a global vision.
That philosophy was artfully implemented at Harvest of Hope, a dinner event held by Enderun Colleges for the benefit of the Tuloy Foundation, last November 27 at The Tent of Enderun Colleges in McKinley Hill.
The menu was prepared by Ducasse Education Philippines chefs and alumni, and showcased produce from various Philippine farms: sustainably caught local tuna from Meliomar; kesong puti, Greek yogurt, and salted butter from Pinkie’s Farm in Batangas; adlai grains from Hineleban Farms in Bukidnon; Wagyu beef from Kitayama Farm in Bukidnon; artisanal cheeses from Malagos in Davao; and local fruits and vegetables from Down to Earth, Shumei, and Sambali Beach Farm. The chefs prepared a truly Franco-Filipino dinner that brought together French culinary techniques with the country’s bounty of local produce.
The Youth with a Future program, through this charity dinner and auction, aims to support and provide educational scholarships and job placements every year, to a select group of Tuloy Foundation culinary students. More details about the program can be found at www.youthwithafuture.ph.
For Ducasse, the project demonstrates that you can help uplift the lives of people with no means to the highest level of the industry. It also highlighted a bit of his other quest, which is to promote less sugar, less salt, and less fat in our food, since a healthy plate makes a healthy planet.
Amid joking that I might simply have needed a French fiancé to actually learn to speak French, he reminded me that, to be a great chef, one must be a very good teacher. I promised I’d strive to do that with my own little Ooh La La! business, one pastry at a time, just as the chefs at Le Meurice taught me—sometimes the hard way, which is oftentimes the best way.
Click on the image below for slideshow
Greek style micro cucumbers, local white cheese, edible flowers
Tuna belly escabeche with local vegetables
Kitayama beef loin, local farm vegetables, dalandan and black pepper jus
Local artisanal cheese plate, mulberry jam, pili nuts
Tropical lemongrass vacherin, mango, passionfruit, coconut
Alain Ducasse checking out local spirits and liqueurs from Destileria Limtuaco together with Enderun Colleges chef-instructor Suzette Montinola.
Alain Ducasse inspecting Meliomar's sustainably caught seafood with Chef Marc Chalopin of Enderun Colleges.