Alain Ducasse is renowned for the quality of the ingredients he uses, so when he hosted a market at Paris's Plaza Athénée hotel to showcase his favourite suppliers, Michael Raffael went along to find out how the three-Michelin-starred chef selects them.
On a balmy spring day earlier this month, Paris's Plaza Athénée hotel held an unlikely market. It made over its inner courtyard, decking it with food stalls under red awnings. Crowds from the city's well-heeled 8e Arrondissement, together with media crews, flocked to sample the produce that the hotel's headline chef, Alain Ducasse, uses in the kitchens.
Nothing was for sale, but the samples were stunning: wild strawberries, micro vegetable dips, hams, mini steaks, foie gras, Provençal goat's cheese; the bedrock of the restaurant's cuisine.
Two roads lead to the holy grail of a third Michelin star. The Ferran Adrià-Heston Blumenthal axis puts creativity on a pedestal. Ducasse pays an unparalleled attention to the quality of his raw materials. It's what earned him the accolade at Le Louis XV restaurant in Monte Carlo. It eased the Dorchester to earn three Michelin stars in under three years. It's a key component at the Plaza Athénée.
The market echoed one Ducasse held back in 1990 while he was still working on the stoves at the Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo, which helped him to launch his first book. This, though was something different; more of a matchmaking exercise. His cuisine acts as a link between two groups that don't often meet. He aimed to bring them together.
"I wanted to put my clients in close contact with producers by choosing those who reflect what we do best," Ducasse explains.
His two restaurants at the Plaza Athénée alone list around 90 specialist suppliers.
"I wanted to show off some of the best," he says. "They are the roots of what we do. I wanted to thank them; to pick those who either through individual excellence or their loyalty to us we most admire."
Collectively, they make up a pretty colourful ratatouille: farmers and butchers, food detectives barely out of college, even an ex-tight-rope-walker.
Pascal Beillevaire has been supplying Ducasse from his farm for 22 years. "During that times he's grown and now runs 14 shops because he's managed to apply his skills without jeopardising standards," Ducasse explains. "He still works with the morning and evening milk, turning it into butter and cream."
Cedric Casanova starred as a high-wire artist for the Cirque du Soleil before changing careers. Half-Sicilian, he brought back 100 litres of oil from his family's groves, sold it straight away and hasn't looked back. He has a shop, La Tête Dans Les Olives, that sells oils and olives from the 20,000 trees on five estates that he also manages. Christophe Moret, executive chef at the Plaza Athénée, discovered the oil by chance. He was eating in a trattoria in one of Paris's less fashionable districts, tasted it and tracked it down.
According to Ducasse, chefs in his restaurants can source their own producers. It's logical in a brand that hasn't stopped growing.
"The butter at Aux Lyonnais may be the same as at the Plaza Athénée, but not necessarily the chicken," he says. "One is going to select a Poulet de Bresse, but a free-ranging Poulet des Landes is much more suited to a bistro menu."
"In any case, imagine what it would be like if all my restaurants tried to shop from the same list. There wouldn't be enough of some things to go round."
Devolving responsibility is a platform central to Ducasse's style. It's possible because, in an industry notorious for wastage, his staff remain loyal. "Christophe [Moret] has been with me 18 years; my restaurant manager 12," he explains. Jocelyn Herland at the Dorchester was number two in Paris before moving to the Dorchester. In key posts his chefs almost pick themselves before they're appointed.
The same fitness for purpose applies to the choice of suppliers. Lots of hopefuls knock at his door; some find themselves in a relationship. "I've known my asparagus grower in the Vaucluse since 1980. Actually, I worked with his father first," says Ducasse.
Robert Blanc sells his green asperges deVillelaure in four sizes: Bourgeoises, Demoiselles, Fillettes and Pitchounes. Grown on a three-acre plot, they are the earliest of France's home-grown crop. He's not the sole producer. At a dinner hosted by the hotel on the eve of the market, the finger-sized asparagus served with a mousseline sauce and truffle reduction originated on the farm of chef-turned-market-gardener, Jerome Galis. His market stall displays white and violet asparagus as well as green, and the bianchetti truffles that are in season in spring.
Ducasse doesn't see himself as an altruist, but recognises businesses like his have responsibilities.
"Sourcing is a task that's getting harder," he says. "We want to maintain relationships and to do that we have to pay fair prices that will allow a supplier who may well be close to the edge to earn a reliable living."
The majority of those dealing with Moret operate on a nano-scale. One of these, Rene Pellegrini, was well into his fifties when he became a maître affineur, a master cheese ripener. As a young man he had helped to set up the AOC for Banon, the goat's cheese that comes wrapped in chestnut leaves. He condemns the so-called Banons wrapped in green leaves. They should be the colour of autumn and contain a cheese that drools out of them, he explains.
He has worked to revive La Brousse du Rove, a fresh cheese made in cornets from the Rove goat that lives semi-wild in the uplands of Provence, feeding on herbs rather than pasture. Part-Corsican, Pellegrini ripens brocio made on the island with the whey from the traditional pecorino-style cheese.
Michel and Bénédicte Bachès hold an esoteric collection of 800 varieties of organic citrus fruit. In shape, style, texture and even taste, they look as though they've been invented for episodes of Star Trek. The chimere, for instance, a cross between a bitter orange and a cédrat (citron), is gnarled and mottled on one side and smooth on the other. "Lemon caviar" contains tiny juice pellets in a kumquat-sized shell. Les mains du Bouddha (Buddha's fingers) are yellow, smooth clusters of fruit.
Like the Japanese yuzu that the couple also grows, the cédrat family's peculiarity is the perfume of its zest, which is varied, vibrant and exciting. In contrast to their exoticism, lemons that the Bachès supply have a juiciness and intensity that's on a different level from the routine fruit most kitchens buy.
Alexandre Drouard and Sam Nahon were fresh out of business school when they set up Terroirs d'Avenir. Acting as private eyes for restaurateurs, they source artisan products. They located the last genuine producer of jambon de Paris, a boned ham that's gently poached with herbs and vegetables. Another dry cured ham from the south west that looks and carves like Jamon Iberico, probably because the pigs eat beech mast and acorns, mixes firm muscle with melting fat.
In two years, these slow food followers have given a new value to "food-dropping" (the foodie equivalent of name-dropping) - a fashionable Franglais word that describes the foodie enthusiasm for novelty. Thanks to their research, a cabbage isn't a cabbage unless it's a "choux de Pontoise", for example.
Setting aside the hype, they've helped to revive interest in the traditional champignons de Paris, grown underground in an abandoned quarry; blonde lentils and disappearing fruit varieties.
From a sideways view, the Plaza Athénée's market acts as Ducasse's own slow food movement in miniature. He doesn't suffer from delusions of grandeur - "Three Michelin star restaurants don't make an empire" - but he has set a benchmark for his peers.
He bases his cuisine on a clear hierarchy of values. Some 60%, he says, is down to the quality of the raw materials at his chefs' disposal, while 35% is down to technique.
"It's about knowing the craft, applying it with accuracy, learning how to season, to recognise what tastes good," he adds. The final 5% is talent.
This does not lead him to criticise or condemn his peers, who have embraced the charms of molecular cuisine. Rather he sees it as a useful contribution to the body of cooking. He will not undermine its exponents for having different priorities.
What Ducasse has shown is that his approach is replicable. It's not formulaic in the sense of a McDonald's restaurant, but it is possible to reproduce his brand under the right conditions. When he became head chef at the Hotel de Paris in the 1980s he could access as much fine produce as he needed from southern Provence.
How have things changed? "There's not less choice, but there's less quantity [of suppliers] relative to the business we do," he explains. His chefs have to work harder to find not just a supplier with an unique ingredient or product, but one who can deliver it on time and at a consistent level.
As a one-off event, the market at the Plaza Athénée was a triumph. Parisians dipped their fingers into a cornucopia of produce, proving that France, at its best, is still hard to beat. Whether we'll see a similar event at the Dorchester Collection's Park Lane flagship well, that's an exciting thought.
TIPS FOR CHOOSING A SUPPLIER
- Find a product that suits your menu. For example, Ducasse uses a top-quality Poulet de Bresse at the Plaza Athénée, but at Aux Lyonnais, he opts for a Poulet des Landes, which is more suited to a bistro menu
- Pay a fair price to maintain a good relationship with your supplier. Small suppliers in particular may well be operating close to the edge
- Find a unique ingredient or product that will differentiate your menu
- Make sure your chosen supplier can deliver on time and at a consistent level
PICK OF THE BUNCH
Les Comptoirs d'Epicure René Pellegrini sources and matures the finest Provençal goat's and ewe's milk cheeses, in the process saving the unique Brousse du Rove from extinction. He goes directly to the farms to buy the fresh curds and matures them in his cellars at Apt in the Vaucluse.
Les Comptoirs d'Epicure
Tel: 00 33 06 79 44 25 email@example.com
La Finca Her office is in France but Rolande Most's 10-acre farm is near Malaga. There, her wild strawberries are hand-picked (using three fingers only) and exported daily. The size of a little fingernail, they are sweet, perfumed and juicy. She is the darling of Parisian chefs and many of Spain's too.
Société La Finca
26 Avenue Caffin
94210 La Varenne Saint Hilaire
Tel: 00 firstname.lastname@example.org
Bénédicte and Michel Bachès grow 800 varieties of citrus fruit organically. They are obsessive about colour, texture, sweetness, acidity, bitterness, size and shape of their fruit, most of which would be a mystery to chefs. They bring a new dimension not only to the pastry chef's craft but also that of creative chefs.
Michel et Bénédicte Bachès
Tel: 00 33 04 68 96 42 email@example.com
ALAIN DUCASSE'S SUPPLIERS
Jean-Pierre et Susanne Blanc Les Asperges De Robert Blanc
La Bastide des Piboulettes
Tel: 00 33 04 90 09 82 54
Yves-Marie Le Bourdonnec Le Couteau D'Argent
4 rue Maurice Bokanowski
Tel: 00 33 01 47 93 86 37
FOIE GRAS AND DUCK AND GOOSE FILLETS
Sandrine et Maurice Lesgourgues Maison Paris
52 Chemin Pénin
Tel: 00 33 05 58 89 31 20
Gautier Brunet-Moret Produits Noirmoutrins & Vendeens
33 Allée des Soupirs
Tel: 00 33 02 51 35 97 64
Cédric Casanova La Tete Dand Les Olives
2 Rue Sainte Marthe - 75010 Paris
Tel: 00 33 09 51 31 33 34
Jean-Claude Huguenin Société Huguenin
75 rue de Strasbourg Bat E5
Tel: 00 33 01 56 70 60 60
SDAB Mareyage "De la Mer à l'Assiette"
Patrice Lorillon et Anne Kervagoret
SDAB Mareyage Bretagne
ZA de la Gare - 29670 Taulé
Tel: 00 33 02 98 79 06 20
TRUFFLES AND ASPARAGUS
Jérôme et Nathalie Galis Etablissements Galis
10 bis Chemin Bouqueyran
Tel: 00 33 04 90 29 76 63
VEGETABLESDidier et Sandrine Pil Le Potager Petit Moulin
SCEA « Le Petit Moulin »
49650 Allones - Maine et Loire
Tel: 00 33 02 41 38 86 77
WINES FROM SOUTHERN BOUGOGNE
Eric et Christine Buatois La Cave des Cordeliers
59 Grande Rue
Tel: 00 33 06 85 05 45 42