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FOOD & DRINK

Top French chef reveals the secret weapon behind his 20 Michelin stars

One of the world's leading French chefs has revealed his secret weapon to maintaining the 20 Michelin stars his restaurants currently boast - social media.

Top French chef reveals the secret weapon behind his 20 Michelin stars
French chef Alain Ducasse. Photo: AFP

Alain Ducasse, 62, is arguably the doyen of France's “grande cuisine”. His eateries currently have 20 Michelin stars, more than any living contemporary, and three of his restaurants have the coveted three-star accolade. 

But just as Ducasse – who now boasts more than 30 restaurants across seven countries – blends tradition and modernity in his menus, he sees tech as a way to finesse the dining experience.

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Alain Ducasse's Macau restaurant. Photo: AFP

It's through social media that he discovered Benoit, his popular New York bistro, was messing up a classic French dish.

“Looking at the customer reviews we realised there was an issue. Everyone was complaining about the roast chicken,” Ducasse tells AFP during a visit to Macau. 

“It was unbelievable,” he recalls, adding that this helped them spot – and fix – the issue immediately.

That Ducasse personally monitors the social media of all his restaurants is indicative of a man who insists on maintaining control over a sprawling inter-continental business.

“Before we opened here we spent three years choosing every detail. I know every object, there was a lot of personal involvement,” Ducasse says of his eponymous restaurant in Macau at the Morpheus, a new 40-storey luxury hotel designed by the late Zaha Hadid that is held together by an eye catching steel exoskeleton.

The last two decades have seen chefs with global status rapidly expand their international footprint, sometimes at a cost.

Gordon Ramsey's culinary empire has had a financial journey of peaks and troughs almost as notorious as the British chef's famous temper – and his career high of 16 Michelin stars is now trimmed to seven.

Fellow British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver saw his UK business go into liquidation earlier this year with the loss of more than 1,000 jobs.

Yet Ducasse – much like the late Joel Robuchon whose restaurants earned 32 Michelin stars during his career – sails on, expanding with no shortage of critical acclaim.

Morpheus, which just celebrated its one year anniversary, earned two Michelin stars within six months.

Ducasse's arrival in Macau was fortuitous.

The gambling hub has been ordered by Beijing to diversify away from casinos and become a more family-friendly destination, leading to a dramatic surge in fine dining given the plethora of well-heeled, primarily mainland Chinese tourists that flock to the city.

It now boasts three three-star restaurants and five two-stars – an astonishing per capita ratio considering Macau is home to just 620,000 people.

Macau, Ducasse says, is now “very competitive. (You) cannot sleep, you have to stay awake”.

Ducasse's first foray into Asia began some 15 years ago in Japan, followed by Hong Kong and then Macau. Later this year he plans to open a restaurant in a glitzy Bangkok mall and a Mediterranean influenced grill in Singapore's Raffles hotel.

But Asian cooking, he says, is something he never plans to take on.

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“I'm not going to be a sushi master because it takes ten years to learn to be a master of sushi. I do not have enough time,” he says.

Customers in Asia, he explains, are looking for the best of French cooking.

The one overseas cuisine he says he feels more comfortable incorporating into his top-end restaurants is Middle Eastern fare – something France understands because of its colonial footprint.

While all of Ducasse's top-tier restaurants are unabashedly French – London's Dorchester, the Plaza Athenee in Paris and the Le Louis XV in Monaco – his restaurant IDAM in Qatar, he says, is an exception to this rule.

“It's an incredible location, we're doing very high Middle Eastern gastronomy,” he enthuses. “With French techniques, it's very interesting as a job.”

Much of his cooking inevitably caters to the one percent – the tasting menu at Le Louis XV clocks in at $410 a head while one of his most famous signature dishes pairs rockfish jelly with a generous dollop of gold caviar. 

But followers of Ducasse's food empire have noticed a shift in recent years to more accessible eateries.

New openings such as Spoon 2 in Paris, Omer in Monaco – even the Singapore and Bangkok ventures – are more brasserie than haute cuisine.

With rising anger about inequality in the West, is Ducasse looking to democratise his cooking.

He rejects this idea and says it's more down to business realities – the sheer amount of time and effort required for the top-end restaurants cannot be replicated ad hoc.

He draws on a fashion metaphor.

“You cannot just multiply haute couture, each time it requires special creations, it's the same with culinary creations and space,” he says.

Those restaurants that bear the full name – like Macau's Alain Ducasse at Morpheus – are what he devotes the most energy to.

He explains: “Everything else is pret-a-porter.”

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FOOD & DRINK

Regional cuisine: What to eat and drink in central France

When travelling through France ordering local dishes and drinks is always a good bet, so we're taking a virtual roadtrip through France, highlighting some of the must-try regional specialities.

Regional cuisine: What to eat and drink in central France

This section of our roadtrip takes in the central part of France, from the tourist hotspots of the Alps and west coast seaside resorts through the less well know (but wonderful) central regions. 

The following is just our personal recommendation for some of the areas we’re passing through – please leave your suggestions and foodie tips in the comments box below.

Savoie/Haut-Savoie – Extremely popular for winter sports, the French Alps are stunning all year round and a summer trip for hiking, cycling or water sports is also highly recommended. The long, cold winters and the popularity of sporty holidays means that many Savoie specialities tend towards the hearty, filling, cheese-based and calorific – fondue, raclette and tartiflette.

What to order: It has to be fondue – but this is really a winter dish. Although some tourist spots sell it in summer it’s best enjoyed after a hard day hiking or skiing while watching the snow swirl around outside your window. The basics of a fondue are always the same – a big pot of melted cheese and some bread to dip in – but there are many varieties based on cheese type. We prefer a mixed-cheese option to get the full flavour spectrum, in the spirit of going local let’s order the Fondue Savoyard.

To drink: Wine! Old Swiss and French grannies will tell you that drinking water with fondue can be fatal, as it causes the cheese to solidify and stick in your stomach. As far as we know this has never been proven with science, but it’s definitely true that a crisp white wine is perfect to cut through the rich, fatty cheese.

Opt for a local vin jaune for the perfect partner.  

 
 
 
 
 
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Lyon – you might think that the whole of France is a foodie destination, but to French people Lyon is the ‘foodie capital’, and for that reason it’s a highly popular staycation destination with the French. Definitely check out the ‘bouchon’ restaurants which specialise in the best in local cuisine. 

What to order: Brioche de pralines rosé. There are so many delicious Lyon savoury specialities that it’s hard to pick one so we’ve gone for a sweet treat here. Pink pralines (nuts in a sugar coating) are the city’s signature sweet and while they’re great on their own, for an extra indulgent treat you can get brioche (sweet bread) studded with pink pralines. A slice (or two) with a pot of coffee is quite possibly the world’s best breakfast.

And to drink:  Beaujolais. Stick with us here, there’s more to beaujolais than the much-derided beaujolais nouveau (although that is getting better these days). The wine appellation extends almost to Lyon and is home to hundreds of small vineyards all making beautiful wines, many of whom are taking up production of vins bio (organic) or vins naturel.  

 
 
 
 
 
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READ ALSO: Bio, natural or biodynamic: 5 things to know about French organic wines

Auvergne – central France tends to get missed by many tourists, which is a real shame because much of it is stunning, as well as being quieter and cheaper than the coastal areas. The area is dotted with mountains and (extinct) volcanoes which give it a really dramatic character.

What to order: Auvergnat cuisine is quite meat-based, although the region is also known for good cheeses. To combine the two into one meal, we highly recommend aligot – a type of silky, creamy mashed potato with lots of stringy cheese stirred in – topped with a sausage. Have this at a restaurant with a glass or good wine or buy it from a street stall and go watch the town’s famous rugby team. Either way, the experience will be sublime.

And to drink: Volvic. Those volcanoes that we mentioned earlier give the name to one of France’s most famous mineral waters – Volvic. The water is apparently filtered through six layers of rock for five years, so give your liver a rest and sample some.

 
 
 
 
 
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Corrèze – moving west takes us into Corrèze, one of France’s most sparsely populated départements and one that even some French people would struggle to point to on a map. Transport is not all that easy unless you have a car but if it’s well worth the effort to visit this hidden but lovely corner of France.

What to order: Savoury dishes often feature mushrooms (especially ceps) and chestnuts and freshwater fish such as perch are also popular but we’re going to pick a dessert – clafoutis. The baked fruit flan is hugely popular across France but is traditional in Corrèze – in the classic form it’s made with cherries, but lots of different fruit options are available.

And to drink: They grow a lot of nuts in Corrèze and as well as eating them, they’re often made into digéstifs as well. If by this stage of the roadtrip you are feeling a little heavy, try an after-dinner liqueur to help you digest (although, despite the name scientists claim that a digéstif doesn’t actually help digestion).

 
 
 
 
 
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Île d’Oléron – We’ve now reached the west coast, and just off the shore of the Vendée are two beautiful islands. Île de Ré is known as the ‘French Hamptons’ because it’s such a popular holiday destination for rich Parisians, while its smaller brother Île d’Oléron is less high profile but equally lovely.

What to order: This area is the centre of France’s oyster production and if you take a trip around the island (or on the mainland) you will see hundreds of oyster beds. Virtually all local restaurants serve them, but you’ll also see them piled high at markets, where the stallholders will shuck them for you if you’re afraid of losing a finger in the process.

And to drink: The island is known for its white wines which pair perfectly with oysters. Stop off at the market for a quick glass (and an oyster or two) when you’ve finished your shopping or buy a bottle, plus a platter of oysters and have a picnic. 

 
 
 
 
 
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Head to our Food & Drink section to find guides to the regional specialities of southern and northern France.

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