The stars of the culinary universe were decked up and on their best behavior. Alone in a sea of polished black shoes, the white sneakers of René Redzepi, chef of Copenhagen’s Noma, inched toward the red line that marked where he should stand. Alex Atala of Brazil obediently crossed his arms in front of his chest, revealing bits of a tiger tattoo. France’s Joël Robuchon — who was hailed as “chef of the century” back in the 20th — stepped aside to make room for Michel Guérard, one of the founders of nouvelle cuisine. And as photographers suspended in a cherry picker overhead instructed everyone to look up, Alain Ducasse — quite possibly the only person in the world capable of bringing these and a couple of hundred other great chefs together for a photograph — raised his eyes and smiled shyly.
Needless to say, this wasn’t just any picture. Together with two cocktail parties, a specially built market exhibiting the best Mediterranean ingredients and a gala dinner complete with three royals and four different kinds of Champagne, the photograph was part of a celebration honoring the 25th anniversary of Ducasse’s restaurant Le Louis XV. Held from Nov. 16 to 18 against the gilded backdrop of Monte Carlo, the weekend offered the invited chefs — who together hold some 300 Michelin stars — the chance to socialize, eat and drink, and take in a bit of Mediterranean sunshine. But it was also an exercise in soft power. In a food world that has moved on to embrace mad-scientist Spaniards and foraging Danes, the celebration served as a gentle reminder of the pleasures and significance of French haute cuisine.
With perhaps excessive modesty Ducasse says the celebration was meant merely to mark the occasion by showing off the local bounty to chefs from 25 different countries. “Our intention was really just to share the flavors and colors of Mediterranean with our friends and colleagues from all over the world. We wanted to put the focus on the beautiful ingredients available in Monaco in mid-November.”
(VIDEO: 10 Questions with Alain Ducasse)
At a market set up on Saturday in an open-air salon overlooking the sea, a hundred of those ingredients, from fat Menton lemons to truffle-studded cheeses, were on display. Cooking lunch for 400 guests, a dozen of the invited chefs had the opportunity to work with them firsthand. But all the glistening rockfish and purple spiny artichokes in the world weren’t as exciting as the people sampling them. After the great Pierre Troisgros tried a bit of his lentil miso soup, David Chang, of New York’s Momofuku restaurants, was positively giddy. “That guy is such a hero,” he says.
Still, it is no secret that, as culinary tastes change and new modes of cooking rise to the forefront, classic French cuisine no longer plays the dominant role it once did — a fact evident in the success of people like Chang and Redzepi, who cook in dramatically different styles from their host. At a press conference held earlier in the morning, a British journalist asked Ducasse how he responded to the assertion that French cuisine was stuck in the past, content merely to live off its reputation. “No comment,” was the chef’s initial reply, though he later returned to the subject. “There is no conflict between chefs of different countries when it comes to good cuisine. But please leave France a little bit of leadership. We’ve been doing it longer.”
In the past 25 years, Ducasse certainly has been a leader within the culinary world. In 1986, Prince Rainier asked the then relatively unknown chef to take over the restaurant Le Louis XV, though he added a caveat: Ducasse had to earn three Michelin stars within four years. He did it in less than three and has since gone on to earn another 18, including three for his restaurant at Paris’ Plaza Athénée, and another three for the short-lived Alain Ducasse restaurant in New York. Indeed, as important as he has been for elevating Mediterranean ingredients, Ducasse — with restaurants in Osaka, Hong Kong, London and St. Petersburg — is equally significant for having expanded the roles of the chef to include that of globetrotting businessman.
Those two key influences help explain why so many important chefs — more than one of whom referred to Ducasse as “the godfather” over the weekend — came from far away to celebrate his anniversary. At the gala dinner that night at the Hotel de Paris, they got a vivid reminder of how he achieved his status.
Within the kitchen, the atmosphere was of intense concentration. “We had to be very focused to make sure everything was perfect,” says executive chef Franck Cerutti, who oversaw the meal. “We knew that all the great chefs in the dining room were like us, that they would see any flaw.” But in the ornate Belle Epoque dining room, all was refinement and grace. Over the course of the evening, white-gloved waiters poured olive oil pressed two days earlier for the 400 guests (including Prince Albert II and Princess Caroline of Monaco), shaved small mountains of white truffle on spelt-and-artichoke risotto and cut still warm individual hazelnut cakes into precise pieces at the table.
But it may have been the first course that most impressed Redzepi, whose Copenhagen Noma currently tops the list of World’s 50 Best Restaurants. Reaching into the amuse-bouche, which consisted of a glass filled with precisely trimmed baby carrots, radishes and fennel and an accompanying bowl of vinaigrette, he pulled out a thin slice of turnip. It was intensely flavorful and cross-sectioned so perfectly that, although nearly translucent, it still retained its shape. “You think about what goes into doing this for 400 people,” he says, shaking his head in mild disbelief. “And you realize, it could only happen here.”