It was tragedy that made Ducasse realize he could be a chef without actually being in the kitchen. In 1984, he was flying over the Alps with several members of his staff when the Learjet dipped below the clouds and flew directly into the face of a mountain. Ducasse was thrown from the plane upon impact and lay fully conscious in the snow for almost seven hours before a rescue team arrived. He was the sole survivor. His right arm was so damaged that for a long time he could not even lift a paring knife. His right leg nearly had to be amputated. He could not stand upright for over a year, or walk without aid for three. Lying in his hospital bed, he wrote recipes from sensory memory. “I continued making menus,” he says. “I continued to think, continued my projects, continued to manage my restaurant. Intellectually, I never left the kitchen. I began to understand that I could have a restaurant without being obligated to be there physically.”
While not at all uncommon today, in 1996, when Ducasse opened his second restaurant in Paris, it was a brash move. Though he claimed to shuttle back and forth between Paris and Monaco enough to be in both places almost at the same time, Michelin slapped his wrist by taking a star from Le Louis XV (it was later restored). When he opened a third restaurant, and then a fourth, and then a restaurant in Tokyo, the jig was up.
Still, Ducasse remains intimately involved in each of his restaurants, from creating the menu to choosing its font. “I’m obsessed with details,” he has a habit of saying, and much of his time is now spent devising the perfect atmosphere in which to showcase a certain kind of food—which butter dishes and curtain rods and lighting systems display a dish to best effect. He is a mover of objects, casting them into specific positions in specific restaurants, or sometimes creating positions specifically for them. Ducasse is a man inspired by spoons.
Which is why there is no conveyer-belt Ducasse restaurant—no supplies from a central warehouse, no dishes on multiple menus, no knives or plates or glasses that are shared. There is only the slightest indication that the dishes all came from the mind of a single man. “Each restaurant must have a personality,” he says, “the sentiment of the man or woman who made it, who gave their touch, their ideas. That makes itself felt.”
When I visited Ducasse at his offices in Paris, he was selecting linens for Le Jules Verne, the famous old restaurant on the second level of the Eiffel Tower. The chef had unanimously won a competition held by the mayor of Paris to determine who would get the right to reinvent the iconic restaurant. (The project posed logistical, as well as culinary, challenges: In order to not upset the tower’s balance, all materials brought up must weigh no more than materials brought down, and they must be delivered at night, when the area is free of tourists.) That afternoon, he was lording over a table of black and white fabrics, deciding which ones would be used for the napkins, which ones would tie up the menus, which would line the waiters’ jackets and swish around the legs of the hostesses. Drawings sent over by the fashion house Lanvin lay around like blueprints. Ducasse ran his fingers over a swatch of black silk. “Très chic. Ça c’est le wow effect.”
The next day, he drove out to the Saint-Ouen flea market in the northern suburbs of Paris. The official plan was to look at some antique pastry-shaped serving dishes he’d been considering for Benoit New York. But besides having the world’s most important collection of antiques dealers, Saint-Ouen is one of those places where you get the sense that you could buy just about anything, and Ducasse has been known to spend twelve hours at a time there, often with Gwénäelle Guéguen, his statuesque wife. “He’s like a child. He wants everything, he wants to go everywhere,” Guéguen had warned.
Ducasse first saw Guéguen at Charles de Gaulle airport while waiting for a flight to New York. He switched seats so that he could sit beside her. She tried to indicate that she wasn’t interested. Sixteen years her senior, he had a beard, he was a smoker, and he was divorced, all counts against him as far as she was concerned. For most of the flight, she pretended to be asleep. Still, he persisted. “He called me and courted me, old-fashioned style,” she says. He quit smoking, shaved his beard. The first time he cooked for her, he was so nervous he burned the cake. “I ate the inside,” she says, laughing. He finally persuaded her to become his English translator, a role she still sometimes fills. “His charm made me think, Maybe he’s not just a boss, maybe he’s not just a friend,” she says. In November, they were married in Biarritz at the Hôtel du Palais, where Ducasse was once employed. “That’s how he works. If he has a passion, if he wants something, he will not give up.”