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L’Obsession

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Not that diners need to understand the philosophy behind their perfectly turnipy turnip. Adour will not be a restaurant of lengthy descriptions and explanations. The Ducasse team also assures that pricing will be “different” from that at Essex House (although a price list has yet to be released). And having noticed that wine is the one French product Americans take to with unconditional vigor, Ducasse is, for the first time, giving wine equal billing with food. Gérard Margeon, the group’s global sommelier, has created meticulous pairings, usually one red and one white selection for each dish. There will be private wine lockers, and selections of wine difficult to find even in their countries of origin. “We’re going to propose something different,” Ducasse told me. “A concentration of our knowledge, harmony between food and wine, complementary pleasure.”

When Ducasse talks about a homecoming, he’s talking about a return to the nobleness of simplicity, but it will still be served up in fancy digs, with a few truffle shavings on top. He considers Le Louis XV in Monaco, the restaurant where he first achieved three Michelin stars, to be the embodiment of his ideology, offering Mediterranean fare in a setting so opulent as to almost feel incongruous. Think Marie Antoinette playing shepherdess at the Petit Hameau—he makes ice cream using milk from the prince of Monaco’s cows—and you get the idea.

In his approach to the menu at Adour, he’s turning to preparations he knew as a child. And he’s thinking about ingredients the way Coco Chanel thought about accessories—always take one off before leaving the house—asking executive chef Esnault to prepare the same dish multiple ways, leaving out an ingredient each time to see if the taste is purified. There will be lobster (but served in a gratin), hearty sweetbreads, a roasted lamb loin, and “peasant vegetables,” all served à la carte. There will be a bar menu. This approach may come as a surprise to the diners who suffered through the excesses of Essex House or the confusion of Mix, but it is classic Ducasse. He’s putting his most essential philosophy on our plates, and if that doesn’t win over the palates of New York, he doesn’t know what will.

On a cool October morning, as the sun rose, pale and milky, over the sleeping 17th Arrondissement of Paris, Saturday supplies were arriving en masse to the bustling kitchen of Rech, Ducasse’s Art Deco seafood establishment. Laundered linens wrapped in plastic towered over the bar like little obelisks. The clanging of dishes, the sound of running water, and the briny smell of fresh fish spilled from the kitchen out to the wood-paneled dining room, as the staff paraded through with various tasks and an air of expectancy. The next day, 70 chefs from all over France would be dining here, invited on behalf of the association of Châteaux & Hôtels de France, a collective of which Ducasse is the president.

Ducasse arrived around nine, a smattering of stubble powdering his chin. He asked for a coffee—delivered hastily and on an antique platter—downed it in one gulp, and then jogged back out to his car, where the waitstaff helped him unload a half-dozen large prints framed in dark wood.

“These are from the Essex House,” he mentioned nonchalantly, hoisting a picture of a street lamp rising from the flooded quays of the Seine up a narrow flight of stairs. “The problem is, I don’t know how I’ll hang them,” said Delphine Heraud, Ducasse’s director of operations in Paris. She bit her lip and surveyed the paneled walls. “Hmmm, maybe with fishing line?” The corner of a frame careened toward the ceiling, and she let out a little shriek. “Arnaud! Le plafond!”

Meanwhile, the head chef arrived carrying a plastic container he presented formally to Ducasse: Inside, squirming gray shrimp flopped around in saltwater, waving their antennae woozily. Ducasse nodded his approval, the chef whisked them away, and ten minutes later he returned with a plate of perfectly pinkened shrimp nestled around a clove of baked garlic and a few sprigs of rosemary. Everyone gathered at the table. Heraud picked up a shrimp between two fingers and then daintily plucked off the head. “Mmmm,” she sighed. “But I would have liked it better if I hadn’t seen it living before.” Ducasse ate his shrimp whole, head, shell, and all.

“I think you should go work for me in Japan,” he told his chef. “Would you like that?”

The young man seemed disinclined, shrugging his shoulders.

“Well, think about it,” Ducasse advised. “And let me know.”

Because Ducasse cannot be in all of his kitchens all of the time, he must deeply trust his executive chefs. “He’s closer to me than my own father,” one of them told me sincerely. All the chefs have gone through his culinary boot camp in Monaco; most were sought out personally by Ducasse after he had tracked their careers closely for years. “We’re like a school of thought,” Ducasse says. “A little like a sect. When I tell someone, ‘The venison sauce isn’t robust enough,’ he immediately knows what I mean because he’s been formatted, conditioned in Monaco. Of course, there are ones who cry,” he says of the training, “but it’s necessary. The culinary world is very strict, very rigorous, very disciplined, very hierarchical. They’re not tortured, but they work hard. The ones who stay, they know that they’ll grow up, that one day I’ll call them and then they’ll be a chef, they’ll travel, they’ll be invited into the circle, voilà.”


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