Alain Ducasse, born in the Atlantic département of Landes in 1956, is one of the twin giants of French cuisine. Joel Robuchon might have seven more Michelin stars than him, but Ducasse’s restaurants in Monaco, Paris and London have three stars each, an achievement no other chef has matched. He is also a cook of two halves. He trained with Roger Vergé, the inventor of cuisine du soleil, a deceptively simple style steeped in the intense flavours of Provence. Yet his restaurants are better known for elaborate, high-flown classicism than the simplicity of his youth.
These two sides of Ducasse’s culinary imagination—the weighty ambition and complexity that won him his constellation of Michelins, and the straightforward platefuls of southern French cooking—can be seen in his books. Running to 1,080 large-format pages, the scarcely liftable "Culinary Encyclopedia" (2004) contains more than 700 recipes, aimed at the sort of cook who sees a barding needle and sliced white truffle as essential kitchen stand-bys. His more recent "Nature: Simple, Healthy and Good" (2009) makes a volte-face, declaring: "It is time to come back to the bare essentials." Though he made his fortune with exclusive haute cuisine, Ducasse recognises that good ingredients simply treated is a form of democratic excellence we can all enjoy.
TABLE MANNERS Drawn from the in-house manuals of Ducasse’s posher outlets, the demanding recipes in the "Encyclopedia" are expressed with the terseness of the professional kitchen: not one of the many recipes for lobster explains you are dealing with the live creature. "Nature" is more approachable, wholesome (it includes helpful advice from the nutritionist Paule Neyrat) and tempting for all but finicky gourmets.
KEY INFLUENCES Classic haute cuisine dominates the "Encyclopedia", where Ducasse makes an icy acknowledgment of contributions from colleagues "who put their heart into living up to my standards". But "Nature" leaves the restaurant and gets out into the countryside. It draws on dishes from Ducasse’s south-western homeland, such as Basque baked eggs, and sweet onions with raisins and semolina, and from his apprenticeship in Provence: chickpea crêpes or the slender Niçoise pizza known as pissaladière. The restraint of many of these dishes, for which "just a drop" of oil will often suffice, shows the marks of an early spell Ducasse spent with Michel Guérard, deviser of the minimalist approach known as cuisine minceur.
FAVOURITE INGREDIENTS The "Encyclopedia" relies on rich underpinnings: lobster (44 dishes), sea bass (27), foie gras (14). Making a 180-degree turnaround from fatty luxury to crunchy simplicity, "Nature" gets its flavour from the Mediterranean vegetable plot: onions are the basis of 39 dishes, tomato 22, fennel 21.
TYPICAL DISH Young yellow hen on the spit doesn’t sound too complicated. Except the "Encyclopedia" instructs you to insert slices of truffle under the skin, then stuff with cooked bacon, chicken livers and foie gras, and serve with "chard ribs" covered with alternating slices of marrow and truffle. In "Nature", grilled langoustine with lemon "takes only two minutes".
WHAT WORKS From "Nature", the aubergine and goat’s cheese clafoutis—a kind of a flan without the pastry—has become a regular in the Hirst household. From the "Encyclopedia", simpler dishes such as cream of mussel soup, mushroom risotto and truffled eggs sunny side-up (though you’ll need to have 60g of white truffle to hand) will taste great.
WHAT DOESN'T The "Encyclopedia" includes a recipe for ortolan confit even though trapping the tiny birds has been illegal in France since 1999.
COOK HIM BECAUSE His scope, precision and professionalism are outstanding. And his mastery of French provincial cooking goes all the way from peasanty staples to the new and the light.