Alain Ducasse may well be one of the most successful and revered chefs in the world, with 18 Michelin stars to his name, but he’s also one of high gastronomy’s most elusive, one who shuns the limelight in favour of travelling the world almost constantly in search of the very best ingredients, whilst checking in on his 23 restaurants in seven countries. He’s sometimes been described, to his detriment, as a man who is everywhere, but nowhere.
César Award-nominated filmmaker Gilles de Maistre is one of few from the outside who have been admitted into his world. His new film The Quest of Alain Ducasse, which gets a full release this June, sees de Maistre follow his subject around the world – Brazil, China, France, Hong Kong, Japan, Mongolia, the Philippines and the UK – over close to two years, with the realisation of a Ducasse restaurant, Ore, at the Palace of Versailles its backdrop.
We caught up with de Maistre to discover more about the experience.
Why does Alain Ducasse make for such a fascinating subject for a documentary?
I wanted to do something for the cinema and I was looking for a subject that was interesting and deep enough for a cinema audience. I saw that Alain Ducasse didn’t want to do movies, was very secretive, so I thought it would be interesting to go and see this guy. But I didn’t want to do domestic work. I wanted to follow him and to show how he works – making restaurants, looking for products, and going around the world managing all these artistic things.
Was it difficult to convince him to take part?
Yes it was very difficult. He doesn’t like cameras, he doesn’t like journalists, he doesn’t like documentaries – he likes to watch them, but he doesn’t like to participate! He thinks they’re not interesting, they take a lot of time and he does not have time. The first time we met he was not very nice with me – very cold. But he didn’t say no and his crew were pushing it. So we kept meeting and we talked about the movie, and after a while, he was still not saying yes or no, he was telling me, ‘I don’t know, I don’t want to, but okay…’ Finally he said yes. And after that it was very easy, he became very open. I shoot alone, with a camera, so it was fine.
Were you were travelling with him non-stop?
No, it was step by step. I was working on another movie in Germany at the same time, which was also a long project, three years of shooting, so it was complicated. I really wanted to follow the process of the Versailles restaurant so that’s why it took time, because this restaurant was complicated to achieve for him.
Why do you think Ducasse has been so successful?
There are a lot of reasons, but I think firstly he is very talented. He is really a great great cook, a great chef. I think his accident, when he almost died [Ducasse was the only survivor of a plane crash in 1984], gave him an energy for doing things in the moment, to really fight for things. I would say also he’s really good at managing people, and that’s I think the most complicated thing in the kitchen – to keep the talented people from going somewhere else, to organise all the crews and to manage chefs with big egos. He has a lot of restaurants; he has to have chefs in each restaurant. He also gives his passion and energy to people who are working for him.
Does he have a big ego?
Sure, but in a good way. He doesn’t have an aggressive ego he has a talented ego. He’s also fair. He has his ego, his ideas, his talent, but he’s open to everybody’s ideas.
Did making this film change your perception of Alain Ducasse?
Yes. Everybody told me: "Oh Alain Ducasse he’s not cooking, he doesn’t care about food, he’s a businessman, the only thing he’s interested in is money.” So at the first meeting I was like ‘Okay I will see the guy, but I’m not sure I’ll be interested in making a portrait if he’s like that.’ I’m interested to see how he’s managing food and products and restaurants, and following his passion. So we spent two hours the first day and he was very cold, but I was with a friend, a journalist who organised the meeting, who is friends with him, so he spoke with him for two hours – he didn’t look at me! But he told so many incredible stories of products, of people he’s met, in Japan, in the States and how he’s cooking this and doing that, and he was so passionate – very human, very interested in products.
Everybody says he’s a businessman, but I’m not sure it’s the most interesting thing for him. To have money and to have something well organised, is not the goal. The goal is to have the most incredible experience, with, I don’t know, a shrimp, and the only thing he’s interested in is to find the best shrimp in the world.
What’s the overriding message of the film?
I think it’s a vision of the world. I think the message of ethical gastronomy is very important, the message Alain and I want to carry on. That’s very important, also the message that food and chefs can participate in changing the world. And his passion, enthusiasm, and resilience – because this guy was almost dead.
Where do you like to eat? Tell us about some of your favourite restaurants.
If I could, I would follow Alain round all my life! Every day he’s going to incredible restaurants, not big restaurants, it could be a street restaurant, but every time, it’s such an experience. He brought me to such incredible places. One is not in the movie and it’s Ultraviolet in Shanghai, the Paul Pairet restaurant – it’s an incredible experience. But, we did 10 or 20 restaurants like that everywhere. After, in Paris, I’m very simple, I’m going to simple restaurants, you cannot go to gastronomical restaurants every day, but I like them. We have so much in Paris.
Do you feel more knowledgeable about food since doing this film?
Sure, he’s a good teacher … I’m very emotional with food, I’m not intellectual, it’s just for me the pleasure and the happiness of eating something with friends, it could be in a Ducasse restaurant or a [Joël] Robuchon restaurant, or it could be in my house with my kids. What’s interesting is to see the evolution of gastronomy: when you look at it, it’s incredible, even documentaries made 10 years ago, you can see how the world is really changing, how there’s a big wave about changing our habits, for example with meat, or with luxury products. Dishes and everything are changing so fast. It’s interesting to see from the point of view of Alain, because he’s really connected to everything. He’s like a big radar and everything happening in gastronomy in the world, he knows about it. He’s working all the time!
These are tough times for chefs and restaurant professionals around the world, but there has never been a better time to seek advice and help around a number of topics affecting hospitality workers. Here's a round-up of some of the most useful resources for chefs.