Despite his reputation for arrogance, Ducasse is charming, once you get past his reserve. “He’s very, very shy,” Guéguen explains. “When he’s ‘Alain Ducasse,’ he can talk to people and be sociable, but Alain doesn’t really like to talk about himself. He’d rather not be in a group where people look at him.” When the couple goes to restaurants, she makes reservations under her last name, and they try to keep a low profile. At Saint-Ouen, this proved impossible.
Bonjour, Chef! Salut, Chef! Ça va, Chef? followed Ducasse down the aisles of the market. “Everyone who says hi to me I’ve bought from at least once or twice,” he deadpanned. “Maybe three times.”
In the Marché Serpette, a building for the more ritzy secondhand goods, there were seventeenth-century rooms and Art Deco rooms and rooms of doorknobs and vintage Chanel. Ducasse homed in on a set of antique runway lights that the proprietor said had been found at a rural airport. “The patina is beautiful.”
“Valentino bought five yesterday,” the man informed him.
“Bastard!” Ducasse decided to take two, making arrangements for them to be picked up and delivered to a storage facility he keeps in order to have just this sort of item on hand. “I need absolutely nothing,” he admitted. “But if I don’t get them, I’ll regret it.”
He also decided that he would regret going without a set of hulking black-and-gold metal furniture from a vanished branch of Banque de France. “C’est unique, original,” he proclaimed, his stamp of approval, before writing a check.
We made our way toward a stall crammed with frilly gold frames. “Chef! You’ve come to see your painting,” exclaimed a tiny woman with a gray pixie cut, air-kissing his cheeks. She shifted a canvas of a nude man to one side, revealing a turn-of-the-last-century work, Les Buveurs du Sang. In the foreground of the painting, a slaughtered cow sprawled awkwardly, while behind it a line of men and women in top hats and petticoats lined up to drink its blood, hoping to be cured of consumption. The work was masterful, the effect grotesque.
“Magnificent.” Ducasse pointed to one of the girls in the line. “Look, she’s about to faint, she’s so disgusted.”
“He’s been to see the painting seven or eight times,” the lady told me, amused.
“No one would buy it but me. The question is what to do with it. I could put it in a steakhouse—well, no, not really. You’d have to place it behind a curtain and only show it to people who wouldn’t be shocked.”
“I’m certain you’ll find a solution over time,” she assured him. “Until then, the painting will wait for you.”
On the way to the exit, Ducasse turned to me and smiled mischievously. “Now I need to find a place to put it all,” he said. “I’ll just have to open something new.”
In early December, just after the opening of his restaurant at the Dorchester in London and just before the first night of service at the revamped Le Jules Verne, Ducasse was back in New York for a final tasting and walk-through at Adour. The interior was now gold and crimson, the colors of wine. Lights shined up from the plush carpet to illuminate a transparent central table, yet to arrive. The carved walls of Lespinasse, now painted silver, peeked through a glass covering designed by the architect David Rockwell. A modern rendering of the Adour River wound through the private alcove rooms in back.
“It’s like a Fabergé egg,” Ducasse said, taking in the effect of the whole space before granting his ultimate compliment. “I’m content.”
The restaurant still lacked a few finishing touches. Over to one side, a bespectacled gang of computer programmers calibrated the interactive wine bar, which provides information about different wines and wine regions as you move your hand over the bar’s surface (it sounds gimmicky, and is gimmicky, though the technology impresses and is easy enough to use, even after the Champagne has gone to your head). Wine cases were still en route, tables and chairs awaited delivery. The menu was largely set, but Esnault was still auditioning suppliers. He called Ducasse back to the kitchen, where two identical little mounds of steak were perched on two identical white plates. Ducasse cut bite-size pieces off each and then passed them around to the staff. “The American meat is better than the Australian,” he definitively pronounced, though it would be impossible for a less practiced palate to tell the difference.
Ducasse was leaving town that evening, and would not return to New York until just before the opening. I had expected dress-rehearsal jitters, but he was relaxed, his shirt open at the collar, his fingers plopping chunks of raw black truffle into the mouths of those lucky enough to stroll by. A sommelier brought out some wine. The skeleton staff leaned against the kitchen counters, laughing, drinking. Suddenly lamb appeared, then pasta. Ducasse shaved truffle on top. Everyone grabbed a fork. That afternoon, at least, Ducasse had the formula right.