It doesn't get more glamorous than running a global food empire from Monte Carlo. The great Alain Ducasse takes us inside his fabulous world.
The plush beige carpet in Alain Ducasse's Louis XV restaurant in Monte Carlo is marked with a succession of tiny indentations, like bird footprints in wet sand. For a few minutes, while I sit at my table taking in the surroundings - crystal chandeliers, oil paintings of pink-cheeked shepherdesses, a small footstool placed underneath my handbag by an attentive waiter - I struggle to work out what these marks might signify. It's only when a three-storey bread trolley materialises at my side without a sound that I realise: everything around me is on wheels.
The wheeled trolleys are pushed to and fro by a discreet army of black-suited men, who themselves seem to slide elegantly across the floor as if on skates. One moment, an ice bucket containing three vintage champagnes appears at my elbow. Later, an eye-popping smorgasbord of cheese. Everything is swift, smooth and silent. Only traces of castors on the carpet hint at the care taken to ensure everything appears effortless.
It is this attention to detail that has made Le Louis XV in the Hotel de Paris one of the finest restaurants in the world for more than 20 years. The man behind it all is Alain Ducasse. At 55, he has amassed 19 Michelin stars, a restaurant empire that stretches from Tokyo to Las Vegas and a formidable public persona, despite his disdain for television. "I detest it," he says, as if spitting out a piece of gristle. "TV is a deformed vision, an excessive caricature. A chef has to stay an artisan, not become a star."
Ducasse is a star whether he likes it or not. He has cooked for French president Nicolas Sarkozy ("He is very health conscious. His wife is greedier than he is.") and counts Prince Albert of Monaco as a friend. When the prince married earlier this year, Ducasse prepared the wedding banquet.
For the ordinary mortal, a slice of such stardom is expensive. The cheapest dish at Le Louis XV is a salad costing €68 ($117). The grilled pigeon breast served in a seven-times reduced offal sauce is one of the best things I've tasted, but then it costs the best part of $180.
This being Monte Carlo, there are plenty of people for whom that sort of money is spare change. Russian oligarchs and Japanese billionaires are falling over themselves to nab a sought-after seat on the terrace of Le Louis XV, which overlooks the casino where Daniel Craig gambled his chips in Casino Royale. Even here, amid the bling and the Bentleys, Ducasse is greeted like royalty.
On the night I dine there, he is cornered by excitable admirers, including an American and his two sons, in matching blazers and chinos. They all insist on shaking Ducasse's hand. He is clearly uncomfortable. Eventually, after a lot of nodding, Ducasse extracts himself, clambers into his aubergine Mercedes jeep and drives off without a second glance.
The next morning we meet at a farmers' market in Nice, half an hour's drive away, where he is shopping for produce for that evening's service. He is wearing a blue polo shirt, silver-grey hair swept back from his forehead, trademark tortoiseshell glasses always on.
As we walk through the market, none of the stallholders seems fussed to have such a gastronomic giant in their midst. If they recognise Ducasse, it is only as a regular customer who drives a hard bargain. When I mention the contrast to the fawning customers from last night, he rolls his eyes. "I don't like that," he says. "I don't like being a celebrity." He seems happier here, picking out big bunches of herbs and making me smell them, exclaiming in ecstatic tones about the "stunning" courgettes and "incredible" peaches. We are meant to be buying ingredients for the recipe he is going to teach me - red mullet with courgettes and an olive tapenade - but he keeps getting distracted by the produce on offer.
"Look at this," he says, lifting up a juicy beef tomato. "It's like a steak!" He shoves it up to my face. "Put your nose there!"
Ducasse's passion for fresh produce, simply but attentively cooked, has informed both his new cookbook, Nature, and his menus for Le Louis XV which now places more emphasis on vegetables and salad than duck or chicken - traditional staples of French cooking.
"My wife is a vegetarian," he says (Ducasse's second wife, Gwenaelle, is a Breton-born architect whom he met on a flight from Paris to New York. They married in 2007). "My son, Arzhel, is 2 and he eats vegetables twice a day. We have a vegetable garden on our farm in the south west and he gets two baskets, one over each arm, and says 'Garden, Papa!' and then he eats what he picks."
After two hours, we have all we need. He drives me back to Monaco and parks directly in front of the Hotel de Paris, which is the kind of thing you can do if you're Alain Ducasse. On the way into the kitchen he shakes the hand of everyone he sees - from the florist to the kitchen porter to his head chef, Frank Cerutti.
I am a little terrified of having to display my culinary skills in front of such a perfectionist. Even a wobbly restaurant chair causes him to frown. And I have never cooked red mullet before. Still, no matter. As soon as he is in the kitchen, Ducasse seems to make things happen without actually doing anything. Partly, this is because his movements are so graceful, so quick, you could miss them in a blink. More obviously, it's because he delegates mundane tasks such as slicing the courgettes lengthways in thin, pasta-like strips to two sous-chefs while we concentrate on the sauce.
He puts a couple of teaspoons of olive tapenade into a vast marble mortar, adds a dash of olive oil and grinds it. He is clearly anxious I will ruin his recipe and it takes him several minutes to agree that I can, if I am very careful, pick a few leaves of thyme and put them into the mixture. "That's enough!" he barks, when I have thrown in about three-and-a-half leaves. Even in this relatively relaxed environment he is too much of a perfectionist to let me loose in his kitchen. It would be like Van Gogh handing over the paintbrush to an over-excited toddler.
As he continues to work the herbs in to the olives, adding the cooked red mullet livers and a splash of vinegar, he delivers a series of philosophical pronouncements about his approach to food, including "My food is not an expression of cooking. It's an expression of discovering the essence of taste." And the more mystifying: "With cooking, there's always the tangible and the intangible, that which is in the domain of sentiment, of the individual."
His tastes are shaped by the food of his childhood: Ducasse grew up on his parents' farm in Castelsarrasin in southwest France. His bedroom was above the kitchen and when his grandmother cooked blanquette de veau for Sunday lunch, the aromas would waft upstairs. At 16, he became a waiter at the local restaurant. "But it was so hard! I had to be chef because being a waiter was too much work."
Later, he was trained by Alain Chapel, one of the originators of nouvelle cuisine, before becoming head chef at the Hotel Juana in Juan-les-Pins where, in 1985, he was awarded two Michelin stars. Two years later, aged 30, he was asked to take over Le Louis XV. In an act of almost insane bravura, Ducasse agreed to a contract which stated that if he did not win three Michelin stars in four years, he would be fired. In the end, he got them in three, one of the youngest to do so.
Did he ever entertain a moment's self-doubt? "No," he says matter of factly. "I just decided. It was: 'Can I do this? Yes.' And then it was: 'Can I do it better?"' He concedes that his strength of mind is, in part, the legacy of a near-fatal accident in 1984 when a light aircraft in which he was travelling with friends to Courchevel in the Alps crashed into a mountain, killing everyone else on board. Ducasse was thrown from the cockpit and survived. He endured 15 operations to repair injuries to his back, legs and eye; to this day, he still has a slight squint. "When I was recovering in hospital, I had a lot of time to think of dishes in my head," he says. "I began to understand how I could do it."
The tapenade is now ready. I have done little more than hold down the mortar and pretend to look busy. Putting it to one side, Ducasse cooks the red mullet skin-side down for two to three minutes in a splash of olive oil until it glistens on the plate. I nod, knowingly. The courgettes are put in a frying pan, tossed nonchalantly for little more than a minute. The dish is ready. Then, just as I am about to tuck in, he takes my knife and fork and prepares a mouthful for me, with exactly the right amount of each ingredient. It is, predictably, delicious: fresh, delicate but with the olives providing the necessary punch.
For pudding, Ducasse heats up a spoonful of chestnut honey in a pan, then adds peach and plum halves, strawberries, blackcurrants, a vanilla pod and a sprig of thyme. After 10 minutes or so on the hob, he puts it in an oven, covered with foil for a further 20 before serving. I am astonished that something cooked with such ease can be this satisfyingly sweet and flavoursome. Ducasse claims it's all about the produce. I suspect it's a bit about the chef, too.
But I'm also aware that, had I been eating these dishes in the restaurant next door, it would have cost me around $400. "I've had criticisms of my prices for years," he admits. "Haute gastronomy is like haute couture: the materials are so expensive, it requires so much rigour. It's expensive, but it's the right price. And I have bistros that are not expensive."
This is true: the Ducasse empire now incorporates 25 restaurants, including two bistros in Paris. Unlike Gordon Ramsay, Ducasse seems to have a knack for expansion without over-stretching. He has authored numerous books, as well as setting up two cookery schools and a social enterprise foundation that offers training programmes for would-be chefs from deprived backgrounds. Ducasse Inc is a global business worth tens of millions of dollars. Which is a lot of trolleys.
As he stands in his kitchen, a glass of dessert wine in his hand, surveying the fruits of his labour, I ask what his grandmother would say to him now. He smiles, sips his wine, then replies: "She'd say: 'He's done all right, the little one'."