Under a bald lightbulb, the table was set. Weighty silver on virgin linen, swan-necked wine decanters, crystal glasses, and glistening china—a pinpoint of elegance amid the chaos of Alain Ducasse’s unfinished restaurant. In the dining room of Adour, which will open in the St. Regis the last week of January, plywood covered the floor at precarious angles and thick black wires cut through the air. Only the kitchen was functional, and Ducasse’s executive chef, Tony Esnault, was preparing ten courses from the menu he and Ducasse had been trying out for months.
“C’est beau. C’est savoureux,” Ducasse commented, peering through horn-rims at the underside of the Comté-coated and lemon-spritzed bagel—a nod to New York—that accompanied a cauliflower velouté. The dish had been preceded by a geometric arrangement of marinated sea scallops, and it would be followed by a poached egg on brioche, seared duck foie gras, Pacific halibut, Maine lobster, Berkshire pork, Millbrook venison, Vacherin with meringue, and pear clafouti. Two glasses of wine, sometimes three, accompanied each course. And Ducasse, slim for a man of his age and occupation, still had dinner reservations later that night. At two different restaurants.
“It’s a serious business, pleasure,” he said pleasantly.
A self-proclaimed “merchant of happiness,” Ducasse peddles his product in eight countries, on three continents. His empire includes 24 restaurants, four inns, four bakeries, two cooking schools, a hotel consortium, and a publishing house. In France, where he is famous enough to get fawned over in the street, he was the youngest chef ever (at 33) to achieve that pinnacle of excellence, three Michelin stars, the first chef in 60 years to win six Michelin stars at once (at age 42), and is currently (at 51) one of the most star-studded chefs on the planet, with his own little galaxy of fifteen. He sleeps four hours a night. He travels incessantly. He has been called “Robo-chef.” He is possessed of, or by, an insatiable appetite for achievement. It’s difficult to tell if he’s boulimique du travail, a workaholic, chronically unsatisfied, as the French press has accused, or simply the Frenchified version of the American Dream, a poster child for Sarkozy’s plan to show the Gauls that there’s nothing gauche about working for a living—or about being a whopping, international, franchised success.
A whopping success everywhere except New York. For Ducasse, New York is unconquered terrain, a city seemingly immune to his concoctions. In 2000, with much fanfare, Ducasse announced that he would make his American debut with Alain Ducasse at the Essex House. Foodies gushed. Gourmands swooned. Finally, New York was going to be graced with Ducasse’s luminous presence. The restaurant received the requisite four stars from the Times, but succumbed last year to the cold shoulder of a city scandalized by the prices and the pretension. (A $225 prix fixe? A choice of ten pens with which to sign the frightful bill? Lollipops?) A second, more populist venture, Mix, which opened in 2003, had an even shorter shelf life.
“It’s like a play, a bit of theater, a casting,” he says obliquely. “The performance is the food. With a play, there can be magic some nights and not on others. An actor can have a good connection with his public some nights, but not connect on others. It doesn’t always work.” It’s the closest he comes to acknowledging what went wrong before.
Since the day his restaurant at Essex House closed its doors, he has been plotting his return, searching for the exact combination of elements to mix together in the old Lespinasse space in the St. Regis so that New York finally, belatedly, applauds. “I have Paris, Monaco, Tokyo,” he says, “but New York is a rite of passage to continue to conquer the world. New York gives you global legitimacy. One can live without New York,” he assures. “But it’s better not to.”
Americans think of French food in much the same way they tend to think of French people. That is to say, it/they would be the sexiest, the most sophisticated, the most desirable cuisine/culture in the world if only it/they weren’t so damn … French. So demanding: of time, of patience, of savoir-faire. So fussy. So superior. At the Essex House, Ducasse played into the stereotype, bestowing on New Yorkers an experience so over-the-top “French” that it wouldn’t have been tolerated even in France. He gave us gaudy, old-world gloom, finicky emulsions, high-concept crackers, and one server per client, as if everyone were used to commanding his own valet. “The opening was a public-relations disaster because of a foolish attempt to teach New Yorkers what luxury was all about,” says Michael Whiteman, the restaurant consultant who co-created Windows on the World and the Rainbow Room. “The food was superb, although fairly old-fashioned, but that initial nonsense of multiple knives shoved at customers so that they might properly carve their pigeons almost got him laughed out of town.”