Alain Ducasse, the michelin-three-star French chef, is both amused and perplexed by his current dilemma. "We don't know what to do," he says through his translator and girlfriend, Gwenaelle Gueguen. They're sorting through a mountain of faxed requests for reservations at his new restaurant, a 65-seat culinary temple that opens this week on West 58th Street. So far he's received 2,700 entreaties, and he still hasn't responded to any of them. "We have received so many nice letters from people who have been to my restaurants in Paris and Monaco," he says. "It's like a private club. They will have priority. The people who don't know us will have to come later."
And don't even think about phoning Alain Ducasse At the Essex House (the restaurant's official name): This is the ultimate don't-call-us-we'll-call-you situation. "We are very full, but very empty," said Ducasse with an impish smile, trying to explain why he hadn't yet offered seats to anyone except a few friends who have been invited for the opening. Those who sent in faxes have been sent letters promising that they haven't been forgotten, and that they will be offered an evening . . . someday.
For months, the buzz has been building among New York food fetishists about this whimsical jewel of a restaurant (Baccarat crystal and Lalique light fixtures, sun-splashed gold-and-red décor, a miniature table for each lady's handbag, a window rose garden, a silk-lined private room that seats an additional ten) that will take just one seating a night and will close on weekends. With an expected tab of $250 to $300 per person including wine and tip, Ducasse will be the most expensive restaurant in Manhattan, significantly pricier than four-star favorites like Jean Georges ($85 to $115 prix fixe, truffles not included) and Le Bernardin (average check $125 per person). Naturally, this kind of gold-plated chutzpa makes him a target. "In France, Alain is God," says Eric Ripert, the chef at Le Bernardin and a longtime Ducasse friend. "But chefs here are saying, "Can he make it in New York?" They're scared of him. I think it's ridiculous to be scared; the competition is good for us. But everyone's looking for Is he going to get killed by the press?"
Those who expect to see Ducasse himself behind a hot stove will be disappointed. That's not how the man honored with the most Michelin stars operates. The 43-year-old superstar chef is too busy being the president of a French hotel chain, the chef or owner of five other restaurants (one in Paris, two in Provence, two in Monaco), and a consultant at four more (London, Paris, Mauritius, and Tokyo) to spend his time merely cooking. In New York, his veteran sous-chef, Didier Elena, will be doing most of the actual pot-stirring. "Obviously, it's nice to be able to see the chef," says Tim Zagat, a Ducasse devotee who doesn't expect the peripatetic chef's absence to be a problem. "If the sous-chef's fantastic, it won't matter."
"Everybody is telling me that it's not possible to do what I want to do," says Ducasse with a Gallic shrug. "But if New York doesn't have the ability to do this, where else in the world will? If I succeed with the décor, the casting of the clients and the staff, it'll be magic." Right now, your only chance to be part of that magic may be to appeal to the chef's romantic side; Ducasse said he couldn't resist last week's plea by a man who begged for an August table for his wife's 50th birthday. And how will restaurant critics, at least those who prize their anonymity, get in? "The gastronomic critics are so sly," says Ducasse with a sigh. "They'll find a way."