“Ciao,” Ducasse replied.
Batali watched Ducasse meander away. “Man, he’s fucking awesome,” he said. “It’s not even embarrassing to say that.”
Ducasse has been spending a lot of time in New York recently, trying out our food before attempting again to offer us his. He’s eaten at McDonald’s, had barbecue, bought hot dogs off the street. One day he asked me where to find the city’s best burger. I took him to Corner Bistro, where, between bites of greasy deliciousness, he talked about Giuliani’s White House odds. At the end of the meal, he dipped his fries in the bacon juice and said, “Now, that was some good fat.”
Part of any successful culinary venture entails getting into the heads of the people you’re trying to please, translating their cultural desires, which Ducasse has been able to do most everywhere else. His concept of terroir, the physical conditions—sun, soil, and climate—of a place that give it a particular culinary heritage, extends to the conditioning of taste buds. “There’s a mental terroir in New York, an intellectual and cultural perimeter in the way people feed themselves. When you open a restaurant, it’s not the same in London, in Paris, in Tokyo or New York. You always have to understand the men and women who live in that town. Every place has its own mental terroir.”
And Ducasse thinks he has finally figured ours out. “One must have a clear message, no confusion,” he says. “Clarity, that’s our philosophy. Everyone in New York is so rushed, so stressed, you have to give them easy pleasure. It won’t be necessary to have a qualification to enjoy it, one must simply be open to it. That’s what we’re proposing to New Yorkers.”
With this newfound insight, Ducasse is launching a two-pronged attack on the city that wouldn’t have him: Adour, but also Benoit New York, the latest franchise of his classic Paris bistro, slated to open this spring. Benoit will give Ducasse a foothold in New York’s casual-bistro market, but of course his focus is on the more serious offering at the St. Regis.
Ducasse calls Adour a return to his roots, a paring down of his cuisine to the haute version of fundamentals—fine ingredients made, through painstaking preparation, to taste even more like themselves. The restaurant is named after a river close to his hometown of Castel-Sarrazin in the Landes province of southwestern France. Ducasse grew up on a farm that his family had run for generations, raising chickens, ducks, pigs, and rabbits, growing wheat and vegetables. In his bedroom over the kitchen, he could smell the varied aromas rising from his grandmother’s traditional cooking. By age 12, he says, he knew he wanted to be a chef, but his grandmother—annoyed at his questions and his commentary (he once famously complained that her beans were overcooked)—refused to teach him, sending him instead to the garden to gather vegetables so that he wouldn’t be underfoot. “I now have in my head the original memory of the taste of a tomato, a cucumber, an onion, lettuce,” he explains. “My grandmother would wash them, and exactly ten minutes after they’d been growing, we would eat.”
This belief in essential flavors grew as Ducasse made his way through a parade of impressive kitchens: Michel Guérard’s in Eugénie-les-Bains, Roger Vergé’s near Cannes, and especially Alain Chapel’s outside Lyon. In Chapel, Ducasse found an intellectual mentor. While at one point the sign of a good chef was his ability to turn something practically inedible into something savory, Chapel took the then-revolutionary position that a dish was only as good as the ingredients that went into it. “Feeding yourself from nature,” says Ducasse, “that’s true luxury, absolute and elemental. It cannot be bought. It must be cultivated.”
To understand how all of this translates to Adour, consider the turnip. The great thing about the turnip is its profound turnipness, the fact that it tastes like nothing but a turnip, that nothing but a turnip tastes like it. If you were to cook one at home, you’d probably boil it in water, which you’d later toss down the drain—along with much of the original turnip flavor. Knowing better, a restaurant would cook the vegetable in chicken broth or, if it wanted to be fancy, veal stock. Some turnip flavor would be lost, but another flavor would be gained. But how to get a turnip to taste more like a turnip? If you’re Ducasse, you create a turnip consommé or a reduction sauce and then cook your vegetable in that, so when the turnip is served in “Multicolor Vegetable Composition (With a Natural Jus Reduction),” for instance, the essence of the flavor is not only retained, it’s exalted.