As he opens his first restaurant in the UAE, the man who’s held 21 Michelin stars in his career shares anecdotes with Debonair
Eduan R. Maggo
What’s your earliest food memory?
The smell of the Sunday roast chicken. I grew up on a farm in the Southwest of France. My grandmother was living with us and she was preparing the meals for the whole family. My bedroom was located just above the kitchen and I loved smelling the flavours of the dishes being prepared.
Yet I have another memory of this rural childhood — the link between nature and food. My grandmother used to send me into the vegetable garden around 11am to pick ripe produce. Our menus were dictated by nature; we were eating what Mother Nature gave us. Many decades later, I still keep this lesson in mind when cooking.
How did you enter the industry?
Against my parents’ will! They’d hoped I would take over the family farm. When I started talking about becoming a cook, my mother organised a kind of “discovery session” in a modest restaurant nearby. It was around New Year’s Eve, so very cold. I remember I spent most of the time plucking turkeys in the backyard, with a bucket of cold water. None of that changed my decision, though, and a few years later I went to a cooking school and then started to work with great professionals.
Professional kitchens are renowned as stressful environments. How do you handle the pressure?
Kitchens today are fortunately better equipped and more comfortable in terms of lighting and temperature. Being a chef is still demanding, but the brigade is a teamwork model — its success depends upon every member’s involvement.
How often do you cook outside the workplace?
I often cook for my family.
What’s the best restaurant you’ve eaten at and what made it memorable?
I’ve eaten at many different restaurants over the past 30 years — not to mention my own — so it’s almost impossible to pick one as “the best”. How does one compare a great ramen specialist in Tokyo with a bistro in Paris? Or a trattoria in Sardinia with a diner in Brooklyn?
However, I remember one great experience that stands out: It was many years ago — I wasn’t even 20 years old, working hard and being paid little. I went to Alain Chapel’s restaurant in Mionnay, in the vicinity of Lyon. The meal I had there opened my eyes — I realise how much I had to learn to reach this level of perfection. And a couple of years later, I returned and worked with Alain.
Conversely, what would you never eat again?
What everyone should avoid: too much salt, fat and sugar. They’re harmful to our health.
Does a man who cooks win brownie points at home?
Only if he also cleans the kitchen after cooking…
What’s your top life hack for the layman in the kitchen?
Keep it simple! Go to a market where producers sell their products; look at what’s available according to the season. Then, wash, peel and cut all the ingredients you’ll use so that you have it all within easy reach. And remember: a successful meal is about the moments you spend with your friends or relatives, not being busy in the kitchen.
What’s your one indispensable kitchen implement?
What new trends are you seeing?
The world is facing a gigantic challenge. On the one hand, hundreds of millions of people are starving or suffering from malnutrition. On the other, almost the same number of people are suffering from obesity or diseases caused by unhealthy diet. And everywhere on Earth, natural resources are overexploited and polluted. Adopting healthier eating habits is key — we must eat more vegetables and cereals, and less meat, sugar and salt. It’s also important that we become more respectful towards nature — we must reconnect with the seasons, and with produce.
Who would you invite to your ideal dinner table?
The producers. We, chefs, are nothing without farmers, market gardeners, stockbreeders and fishermen. They have the irreplaceable role of dealing with nature on a daily basis. Before cooking, there is nature.
If you could choose your final meal, what would it be?
A great banquet with friends, of course. I’d love to organise it on the planet Mars. I cooked on the Concorde. I’m cooking on a boat, the Ducasse sur Seine. I regularly prepare food for the astronauts on the International Space Station. Cooking on Mars would be an exciting ultimate step, wouldn’t it?
Mix by Alain Ducasse at the Emerald Palace Kempinski in Dubai is the French chef’s first restaurant in the UAE