Three years after the opening at Essex House, Ducasse introduced Mix, as if to prove that he was a fun guy after all. Quashing the idea of stuffy French fare, Mix sought to marry down-home American dishes (PB&J) with quotidian European cooking (bouillabaisse) in a way that elevated each beyond its humble origins. The idea worked in campy Las Vegas, where Mix is still going strong (with a Michelin star to boot), but New Yorkers found it schizophrenic, confusing, another case in which Ducasse grossly miscalculated what this city would want.
It could be that Ducasse, like a man trying to woo a distant lover, was simply trying too hard. “There are difficult clients,” he admits. “The Parisians and the New Yorkers are terrible. The Parisians are spoiled by history, and they are very demanding and arrogant. But New Yorkers have everything because they’re in New York. They eat out five times a week. There’s so much on offer, so much diversity, so much that’s good. The competition is very intense.”
Being French, he cracked the code to the demanding Parisians quickly, building on their “good roots,” as he says, simplifying some classic dishes, sculpting others, providing simpering service to pad their egos (no sneering garçons ashing into your haricots verts chez Ducasse). He now has twelve restaurants in the City of Lights—more than in any other city—the three-star crown jewel being his eponymous restaurant at the Plaza Athénée. (“I have never seen such a meal,” my expat sister gasped, tears literally welling in her eyes, during our twelve-course extravaganza there. “I didn’t even know it existed.”) These are restaurants that speak to the Parisian soul: the belief in the value of craftsmanship, the sense that pleasure is a basic human right.
“Everyone in New York is so rushed, you have to give them easy pleasure,” says Ducasse. “One must have a clear message, no confusion.”
New Yorkers are different. They don’t want their pleasure to feel even remotely like work, don’t want their dinner to need much explaining, don’t want to be given a utensil they don’t know how to use, don’t want to be made to feel like uncultured American cretins. Ducasse should have understood this. His favorite, most memorable meal is still the first three-star one he paid for himself, saving up a cooking trainee’s meager funds to dine for one night like the Sun King. “I had a lobster salad and a gibier, and it was as if I were eating for the first time in my life,” he remembers.
But Ducasse’s missteps were not solely the result of cultural differences. There was also the unlucky fact that he came to New York when French cooking was in decline here. Not long after he opened Essex House, the Towers fell, the recession started, and we went to war. Suddenly, it seemed frivolous, even unseemly, to sit down to a five-bite meal that it took ten people three days to construct. Throw a brioche down Broadway today and you’ll hit a simulacrum of a certain type of French café that never actually existed in France, but the real old-French bastions, the pristine purveyors of haute cuisine, couldn’t withstand the cultural shift; Lespinasse, La Côte Basque, Lutèce, all bid the city adieu.
If anyone has managed to tap into New York’s Zeitgeist in recent years, it’s Mario Batali, the Italian chef who’s so “American” he is, in fact, American. His dishes are bold but his restaurants undemanding. You can go in jeans (the reservation line soothingly tells you that coat and tie are not required), throw back a beer (made especially for him by Brooklyn Brewery), get a bit rowdy. His brash, florid, larger-than-life cuisine personifies his temperament—and explains why New Yorkers in particular love him. When he and Ducasse bumped into each other at Chelsea Market on one of Ducasse’s recent trips to New York—Batali coming from the kitchens of the Food Network, Ducasse visiting a mural that was being painted for Adour—it was like watching continents collide.
“Chef!” Batali beamed, engulfing Ducasse in a bear hug.
“Chef,” Ducasse greeted him politely, ducking out from under Batali’s arms, smoothing his suit.
“You good? You look good. He’s fucking gold,” Batali gushed as a bevy of assistants fluttered about. He gave Ducasse a slap on the back. “How is Adour?”
Ducasse explained in halting English that he had come to see the artwork for the restaurant, which was in its final stages. “A masterpiece,” he deemed it. “And you?”
Batali motioned off into the distance. “These butchers over here? They’re fucking drowning. So we’re gonna do a steakhouse for hipsters. We’re gonna have cheap steaks. Twenty-five-dollar steaks.” He held up two fat fingers, pinching them close. “Fucking little steaks.” He burst into a guffaw. Ducasse smiled demurely. Both sets of handlers checked their watches, rifled through planners. “All right, baby,” Batali said. “Arrivederci.”