If you’ve ever seen a storm coming just by observing the simpers of the family dog, then you know what it feels like in the moments before Alain Ducasse enters a kitchen. Postures stiffen. Conversations taper. Sounds are more acute—of sizzles and scrapes and knives against cutting boards. And then he arrives, all silver hair and impeccable whites, tailed by a photographer who captures every handshake and hoisted champagne flute and hand rested assuringly on the shoulder of some young cook.
Even as he settles into his place at the pass, it is impossible to get lost in a task; to forget that he is there. A few of the cooks call him “papa,” and that seems impossibly intimate, especially after I’m told that he prefers “Mr. Ducasse” to the honorific “chef.” I smile a bit at the ask, as if I’ve called Queen Elizabeth “bae.” But I’m in Mr. Ducasse’s kitchen tonight, observing from a corner as he leads a brigade of his former and current employees in preparing his “legacy” dinner. Mr. Ducasse’s kitchen; Mr. Ducasse’s rules.
There’s not a lot of room for this kind of bended-knee ceremony in the restaurant industry these days. The cult of casual that has turned so many dining rooms into house parties left its mark on chef culture too, stripping the craft of its continental, pro-forma conventions. But you wouldn’t know it at a Ducasse restaurant. To many, the chef is a symbol of a particular tributary of fine dining that runs to crisp white linens, ritualized service, and a pressing need for mother-of-pearl spoons. He is an elder statesman of haute cuisine; a walking constellation of Michelin stars, spread among 25 restaurants in seven countries. But Ducasse, a superstar in Europe, didn’t even introduce his particular brand of rococo decadence to the United States until the year 2000, when he opened Alain Ducasse at the Essex House in New York. It did not go well.
I’m told that he prefers “Mr. Ducasse” to the honorific “chef.” I smile a bit at the ask, as if I’ve called Queen Elizabeth “bae.”
The restaurant was roasted for its high prices and hauteur—for its Cartier pens and tiny stools designed expressly to shield handbags from the indignities of the floor. Even as he awarded the restaurant three stars, New York Times critic William Grimes described the place as having “the unmistakable look of a giant gilded turkey.” And this was before 9/11 plunged New York into its steepest economic decline since the 1930s; before a cash poor and traumatized city looked for salvation not in the escapist theater of fine dining, but in the easy comfort of hamburgers and fried chicken; before the stripped-down energy offered at restaurants like the Spotted Pig and Momofuku Noodle Bar became the prevailing aesthetic in town. Even still, in this middle-brow climate, fine-dining restaurants like Per Se and Marea opened and thrived in New York. And so, it bears mentioning, did Ducasse. Essex House rebounded, and it stayed open for seven years before relocating to the St. Regis and doing business for another five there, under the name Adour.
Culturally though, New York never seemed to fully warm up to Ducasse. In retrospect, he might have been a bit of a recessionary whipping boy—perhaps we rejected, even punished the chef for representing a kind of extravagance that felt distasteful and un-American in those rocky mid-aught years. In that context, it isn’t surprising that Ducasse’s only restaurant in town these days, the bistro Benoit, is also his most casual and approachable; ultimately, New Yorkers had an easier time wrapping their heads around steak frites than they did foie gras-stuffed squab.
It was at Benoit that I observed that legacy dinner one night last fall, and where I first marveled at the energy of this Mr. Ducasse: so stately and serious and private. In a time when we expect our chefs to invite us into their homes, divulge their wellness secrets, transcribe every detail of their diets for our entertainment, this kind of impersonal celebrity can be a challenge to embrace—certainly a challenge to write about. If other chefs of his vintage and caliber haven’t entirely adapted to the new food culture and its attendant media, they have at least met it halfway. Gentlemen may still require jackets at Daniel, but Boulud himself is savvy enough to recognize the value of rolling with T-Pain, mixing with young, zeitgeisty food figures like Danny Bowien, and pioneering the “triple selfie.” Eric Ripert may have a Légion d'Honneur, but he’s not above the occasional #tbt. But that kind of chumminess with the public is not the Ducasse way. Ducasse is a man who prefers “Mr.” And so that’s what I call him when, buoyed by the double-dare cocktail of champagne and shit-stirring curiosity, I ask if he’d like to come get drunk with me in Brooklyn some evening. Pourquoi pas, says Mr. Ducasse. Mr. Ducasse is full of surprises.
If Ducasse is a French essentialist, what might he make of the radical vision of Gallic cuisine presented at a restaurant like Rebelle?
I’d like to say I asked all of my questions in a dank dive bar, just us two. That with the help of the whiskey and the anonymous faces and the security of dim light I was able to reconcile the riddle of this man, who has such a fractious relationship with the New York food world, but still inspires a hush when he enters a room here. A man who holds the line for a restaurant value system that works in Paris, in Monaco, Hong Kong and Doha, but that has fallen out of fashion in so many cosmopolitan American cities; who remains unknowable, even in this time of open-door, all-access, all-the-time culture.
But this is Mr. Ducasse we’re talking about, and so the evening was a bit of a production. A driver was hired; a translator was enlisted; itineraries were proposed and approved. Getting drunk in Brooklyn turned into a food-and-drink crawl that began in lower Manhattan—each stop designed to tee up or set off some aspect of the chef’s lore. If Ducasse is a French essentialist, what might he make of the radical vision of Gallic cuisine presented at a restaurant like Rebelle? What fish-out-of-water antics might come of a trip to a red-blooded ‘murican barbecue joint?
Of course, the man himself has too much dimension to fit neatly into my if-this-then-that conceit. There are things I wished I’d asked him. There are things I felt I couldn’t. One night isn’t long enough to crack a nut like Mr. Ducasse, but it was certainly a start. Herein, some personal observations from an evening spent in the thrall of the food world’s most inscrutable gentleman.
1. Mr. Ducasse is most comfortable around other cooks.
We start our evening at Rebelle on the Bowery. Chef Daniel Eddy came to Rebelle from Spring in Paris, a restaurant that is part of France’s own downscale culinary movement, known as “bistronomy.” As we try to settle into the strange rhythms of communicating through a translator, I probe Ducasse about bistronomy and Rebelle’s version of it—the way it de-emphasizes the grandeur and performance of a classical French restaurant. I want him to have a strong opinion about it—to straighten his collar and say something about valuing tradition. But instead the guy has the gall to quietly enjoy the place. He loses himself in the wine list and says some lovely things about the leeks. It all feels a little decorous until Eddy shows up and breaks the ice. He whisks Ducasse away from the table and into the kitchen, and suddenly the solemn French superchef is peeking over shoulders, and posing for sweet photos with cooks. He appears to be having a damn good time. I briefly hate myself for not being charismatic enough to wring a smile like that out of him. But I get it. This isn’t my club.
2. Mr. Ducasse is kind of a big deal in Red Hook.
It could be that anyone who recognized Mr. Ducasse at Rebelle was too cool to say hello, but whatever the case, when we walk into Hometown Bar-B-Que, the place goes off. The fanatic greeting would be astonishing anywhere, but it is particularly amazing at a honky tonk on the remote shores of Red Hook, Brooklyn. Heads turn as we make our way to a table; strangers approach to express gratitude for memorable meals in Paris or Tokyo. One man—a neighborhood guy I happen to recognize because I once spotted him wearing a shirt that read “MILF VALLEY”—tells me his wife says the only man she’d leave him for is Mr. Ducasse. This is an incredible thing to witness, and a real testament to the man’s allure abroad: A guy like MILF VALLEY may not eat at Essex House in his own city, but when he takes his wife to France, he knows exactly where he’s supposed to go.
3. Mr. Ducasse is kind of goofy.
The central Texas barbecue offered at Hometown seems so far afield from la vie Ducasse, I’m not sure how he’ll receive it—to say nothing of how he’ll get on with Hometown’s proprietor, the Brooklyn-bred, salt-of-the-earth, shorts-and-a-baseball cap teddy bear Billy Durney. But it’s a real pleasure to watch the two find common ground in the food—this buttoned-up guy losing his mind over a beef rib, gnawing at the bone, asking questions, pouring out another dram of whiskey. He proclaims that he wants to open a barbecue restaurant next to the American embassy in Paris. He’s in a good mood. He wanders into the kitchen again, hands in his pockets. He jumps on a bench outside, and dances around. He poses for some kooky portraits. (What is it with French super chefs and their kooky portraits?) And then, all at once, he makes it clear that it’s time to go. You don’t put up a fight when Mr. Ducasse says, “on y va.”
4. Mr. Ducasse is also kind of sentimental.
He wears a beaded bracelet beneath his shirt cuff that he bought with his young daughter on a beach. He says that very little makes him angry. When I ask him what he wishes people knew about him, he says all he really cares about is the “transmission of knowledge.” He makes a last-minute edit to our itinerary so that we can check in on a few of his old cooks, Walker Stern and Joe Ogrodnek, at Battersby in Cobble Hill. He’s wanted to go see them for a long time, he says. Mr. Ducasse is only in Brooklyn so often. There’s no bench dancing at Battersby, and it’s interesting to witness the shift in energy from our time in Red Hook. Only Walker is in the kitchen tonight, his wife keeping watch at the bar, and that eminence I saw at the legacy dinner comes out again. If Ducasse revealed himself to be a giddy student of cuisine at Hometown, at Battersby he’s the deliberate teacher. Walker, for his part, was psyched.
5. Mr. Ducasse does not like cinnamon.
I learn this at Grand Army Bar, where we’ve gone for a nightcap. I learn this because he has asked for a cocktail—something with bourbon, bitter, acidic, shaken—and when it arrives smelling of cinnamon his translator sends up the alarm. “Mr. Ducasse does not like cinnamon!” she says. But as much as Mr. Ducasse is a cinnamon agnostic, he is also, even more so, a gentleman. It’s not so much that he doesn’t like cinnamon, but more that he doesn’t like too much cinnamon. Americans tend to be heavy-handed with the cinnamon, says Mr. Ducasse. But the cinnamon isn’t all that intrusive in this drink, on this evening, as it turns out.
So he sips it, and we talk and there are deep breaths all around.
Jordana Rothman is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer and co-author of Tacos: Recipes and Provocations. Her work has appeared in publications including Gastronomica, New York Magazine, and Tablet.