There are so few occasions in our memory, and so few places in an imperfect world, where one arrives at a destination with an unconditional expectation of perfection. There are even fewer locations which, after much hope and anticipation, actually deliver on this promise, leaving the visitor completely fulfilled. To a music lover, an evening with the Vienna Philharmonic in the Golden Hall has been known to deliver this level of excellence, and others might consider a performance of the Bolshoi Ballet to aspire to this standard. In athletics, perfection is rarely attained. A baseball pitcher’s perfect game, for instance, is about as elusive as the perfect score of a diver or a gymnast, and as unlikely as the flawless performance of a soccer star.
A three-star restaurant in Europe, so rated by the Michelin guide to denote the achievement of the highest level of culinary success by a European chef, has for many years been the setting for extraordinary expectations, bordering on perfection. The clients who step into these fine rooms gladly pay dearly for the honor of being served practically flawless dishes in the most exquisite environment imaginable.
Although the term “The relentless pursuit of perfection” was an ad jingle for a luxury car company, it might also serve to describe one aspect of Alain Ducasse’s philosophy, at least when it comes to the three establishments that he owns that are the most dear to his heart – his restaurants in Monte Carlo, Paris, and New York. With great anticipation we arrived at Alain Ducasse at the Essex House for an interview with one of the greatest chefs of our time, along with his new Executive Chef Tony Esnault, who was brought in by Mr. Ducasse this summer to replace Christian Delouvier. We were led into the Chef’s Table, or “Aquarium”, a large glass-enclosed dining room that is conveniently tucked behind the restaurant’s black granite and glass brick kitchen. We sat at the two-hundred-year-old oak table, which was taken from the Hostellerie de l’Abbaye de La Celle in Provence, and admired the ancient collection of mustard pots and hundreds of cookbooks by fellow chefs. Moderately lit and completely sound-proof, the room gave us an interesting fish-bowl view of the busy sous chefs and cooks, whose hectic movements could be easily followed, yet were silenced by thick glass and plush carpeting.
Mr. Ducasse sat down at the end of the large chef’s table, looking more like Brando’s Godfather than France’s culinary hero. The sparse light of ceiling spotlights in the long narrow room created somewhat of a halo effect around his slightly tired just-flew-from-France face, presenting us with a dramatic visual effect that might even satisfy Francis Ford Coppola himself. Before the interview began, we discovered that Mr. Ducasse had arranged for us to witness the tasting and evaluation of new dishes for the fall menu that Mr. Esnault had prepared. Mr. Ducasse is a stickler for multitasking, and has been often known to combine two or more tasks so that his valuable time is used as prudently as possible.
“If you’re not doing two things at the same time, you will never get there,” he says, and his assistant Marion Schweizer added that when she saw the earlier photo shoot scene at the restaurant where Ducasse was talking endlessly to Esnault, it was a typical landscape at ADNY.
“He is always doing two things at the same time,” she said. So we became the lucky beneficiaries of his time-saving idiosyncrasy, and thus our interview merged with his monthly tasting ritual and became one event, one task added to his incredibly busy schedule.
Mr. Esnault brought in the first dish, duck foie gras terrine with black mission fig, and he proceeded to sit down at the table, across from his mentor. Chef Ducasse looked it over carefully, his eyes squinting as he considered the dish’s color, layout, and visual appeal, like an artist might react to a student’s work. He immediately began touching it lightly with his fork, tilting his head to one side as he judged its consistency, his face both expressionless and intense. Esnault sat politely upright across the table, eagerly and confidently awaiting Ducasse’s words. As I looked around, I noticed that by all accounts he was the calmest individual in the room. I found myself holding my breath while waiting for the verdict, and I doubt that I was alone.
The dish had a layer of foie gras, then marmalade, covered by a final layer of foie gras. Chef Ducasse said that he thought Tony should take out all of the humidity from the marmalade that is on the inside layer. Then he considered the presentation, and mulled over the possibility of changing the dish so that it was lying on its side, thus showing off its lovely colorful layers to the diner. But then he changed his mind, and said that the dish is presented the way it should be. Tony added that he liked the dish’s colors, as they are the colors of the autumn, and Ducasse agreed.
When he delivered his assessment, it was entirely in French, spoken through an interpreter. As his fork continued breaking down the layers of the foie gras, an intimate knowledge of French was not needed to recognize the connection between the two chefs as adjustments and recommendations to the dish were made. The subtle communication between them included words, hand motions, and sometimes just a mere facial expression. Although the dish’s essence, identity, and ingredients were conceived and created by chef Esnault, it’s clear who has the final word before it is placed on the menu for the new season.
The two chefs worked closely together in Monte Carlo at Ducasse’s Louis IV restaurant for three years, and Esnault left Ducasse over five years ago to come to America. Benefiting greatly from his rural farm upbringing, his schooling, and his mentorship with Ducasse in Monaco, he came to America and worked at the Ritz Carlton in San Francisco and Boston. Last year he won Food and Wine magazine’s prestigious “2003 Best Hotel Chef of America” award, which garnered him some much-deserved attention, and eventually led to the offer to run the kitchen at Alain Ducasse at the Essex House. For Ducasse, it was an easy choice, as Esnault was not only experienced with living here in America, but he had already been trained in Ducasse’s specific and rigid culinary methodology.
The next dish was brought in; medallions of Millbrook venison wrapped in potato. Ducasse eyed this dish a little longer than the previous one, and hesitated with his utensils, which now consisted of knife and fork.
“It’s a bit too much, I don’t know how to cut this,” he said, but cut it anyway, and on the inside it looked delicious. He went on to say that he thought the sauce had too much venison, that you can taste too much venison in it. The chefs then discussed how the dish could be changed esthetically, and how it could possibly be prepared with a different type of potato. The wine pairing with the dish had been chosen by sommelier Andre Compeyre, and Ducasse sipped the red wine that Compeyre selected to make sure it was a good match for the autumn meat. Other than the esthetics of this dish, he seemed quite pleased.
Michelin and the New York Times
Mr. Ducasse is very much celebrated for being awarded the most Michelin stars of any chef in the world, currently nine in all. He has three stars for Plaza Athenée in Paris and Louis XV in Monte Carlo, one star for Benoît in Paris, and two more for La Bastide de Moustiers. While at times he appears somewhat nonchalant toward this impressive achievement, its easy to understand why a man who has received three stars five times in his career and had them taken away two times worries little about the number of stars he owns. Instead, he concentrates his seemingly infinite energy on improving and growing his substantial culinary empire. However, just when you think that the stars do not motivate him, he laughs and lets us know that “it’s much nicer if you have them, than if they take them from you.” But, of course.
Considering the enormity of his success, our interest in his opinion of Michelin’s November release of their New York City guide seemed only natural. Although receiving additional stars for ADNY is certainly not a sure thing, it is quite likely that he will receive at least one, and most likely two, putting him over 10 Michelin stars - an amazing accomplishment. And considering his potential for reaching 12 Michelin stars by years end, it’s not surprising to discover that he is very upbeat about the premiere of Michelin’s New York guide.
“The more the media is talking about this profession and about the restaurants and the industry, the better it is. The more guides there are, the better it is for our profession,” he says, allowing himself a smile, the sparkle in his eyes exposing his confidence. And while we’re on the subject, has anyone seen Mr. Bruni in ADNY lately?
“Not yet,” replied Tony Esnault, spoken quickly like a prize fighter trained and ready for a rematch, ready to put his new cuisine to the Bruni test and get the Times’ fourth star back for his famous boss. Have they been preparing for his return? Perhaps, but their mantra is that they prepare every evening for their clients, and not for any guide or critic.
“We consider all our guests to be a VIP. There is no difference” explains Ducasse.
Hmmm, then what if he were to come here this evening, I asked innocently.
“He can come tonight, that would be fine,” Esnault says, and laughs.
“He is ready,” says the master, spoken in a sincere tone; a strong vote of confidence for his apprentice. And what better night for the New York Times critic to return for a follow-up to his three-star review than when Alain Ducasse is in town?
Rabbits at the farm
The next dish is brought in; Barramundi with beets. As chef Ducasse begins to peel away the dish’s layers with his fork, I remembered a photograph of him as a much younger man. As I watched Chef Esnault patiently waiting for the next gastronomic adjudication, I could see both men in my mind’s eye, young boys growing up on their rural farms, having similar childhoods in completely different parts of France. Yet both landed here in the center of the culinary universe, creating and tasting delicacies for the elite and well-financed food lovers of New York.
“The past is always there, like the memory of a taste,” says Ducasse, as his mouth greets the barramundi and his famous taste buds break down the components of each bite.
“Growing up as we did, it’s like an education that we both had where we received the basics. Then we were able to evolve from there. It’s something that we have in our memories, I think, and always will.”
Tony suddenly had a flashback to his childhood on the farm. “On the farm we learned how to kill rabbits. We learned how to put it down by breaking its neck, to take the knife and remove the blood. After that, we’d pull out his insides.” I suddenly had a new respect for Tony and his simple country upbringing, yet I found myself sitting slightly farther away from him at the table. Those poor bunnies, I lamented, as the next dish was brought in.
“Squab breast with daikon radish and turnip,” I am told, and it looks delicious. Chef Ducasse digs in, and the process continues. I suddenly wonder if he starves himself on the plane from Paris to New York so he is capable of eating all the food he comes here to taste? Perhaps he owns 28 restaurants to satisfy his voracious appetite? Or perhaps I am just jealous of his job this evening; while I sit and ask questions, he gets to eat all the food. But alas, tomorrow night I will be the one doing the tasting. I am already looking forward to my own anticipation of perfection.
The ADNY dinner experience
The following evening, we were welcomed warmly upon entering the dining room, yet we were consistently treated more like a friend or a relative than merely as a guest. Mr. Ducasse’s assertion that everyone in his restaurant is a VIP began looking less like a slogan, and more like a philosophy that is taught to the staff at every level. The choreographer-trained waiters moved elegantly along the exteriors of the small room, but they never made us feel pressured or uncomfortable, which is a delicate balancing act for any brigade. It only took a moment to realize that, like Mr. Esnault, the staff had also achieved a level of quality that Alain Ducasse expected. And the staff accomplished this while demonstrating an element that is somewhat uncommon at restaurants of this level – personality.
We found the entire staff from one side of the house to the other to be charming, helpful, and full of spunk. We had previously met some of the staff at the 4-star soccer tournament that was held a few weeks prior, including the sommelier, Andre Compeyre. Andre was a backfield defender, who played very hard in his team’s loss in the semi-final of the tournament, and his ADNY jersey had more dirt and grass stains on it than the white it had when the game began. He was no less enthusiastic, colorful, and talented as our sommelier for the evening, and each of his suggestions for wine pairings was near perfection.
With Mr. Ducasse back in France, Tony Esnault was running the kitchen again and the results were magnificent. Our first course of appetizers arrived, which included the Duck Foie Gras terrine we had seen Mr. Ducasse taste, Chilled steamed langoustine, and wild Alaskan salmon. We found that our conversation was abruptly put on hold as the food arrived - it was already breathtaking. It was at that time, as I enjoyed the coolness of the almond milk and the various vegetables that chef Esnault mixed superbly with the langoustine, that I noticed that ADNY’s main room, while nearly full, was hushed to the point where no conversation could be heard at any location in the restaurant other than the one at our table. Again, perfection was achieved.
As the fish and meat came to our table, each dish evoked the same reaction of stunned adoration before we dared to even touch Esnault’s creations. The Maine lobster, line caught bass, Chatham cod, squab breast, all reminded me of when Ducasse boasted that 95% of the menu at ADNY would contain ingredients form the local land or sea.
When Mr. Ducasse was young he endeavored to be a cook, a traveler, and an architect, and he has been talented enough to become quite good at all three. We asked chef Ducasse if he had any words of advice for a young chef just getting into the business, who may be reading his story.
“They have to work faster, they have to work better,” he said. “That’s it, it’s very simple.”
Just when I thought I had loosened him up a bit, I decided to try to dig deeper and find out what future plans this man has, one of the worlds most successful chefs, who clearly is at the pinnacle of his career. His career plan took me by surprise.
“If I’m not going to make it with my cuisine, I’ve decided I’m going be a photo model.”
As we waited for the translation of his line into English, and then received it, there was a pause as if the translation was perhaps bungled somehow. But just to make sure we understood him, he added an addendum.
“Yes, a model for food magazines.”
We all shared a laugh, but my guess is that if Ford Models ever got wind of this, they might make the Godfather of haute cuisine an offer he couldn’t refuse. A 3-star rating for his striking poses would, of course, be the usual expectation.