A Chef Takes His Food Higher Than Ever Before
Saturday, May 31, 2008
PARIS -- When French super chef Alain Ducasse won the contract to operate an upscale restaurant in the Eiffel Tower, he faced a multitude of challenges. How to maximize the tiny space and capitalize on the views? How to complement the structure and capture its sense of history? And most important, how to match the, well, Frenchness of it?
"This is the most visited tourist monument in France, and there had to be a harmony between the structure and what's inside," Ducasse, 51, said during a recent tour of Le Jules Verne restaurant, located 410 feet above ground on the second platform of the Eiffel Tower.
Currently one of the highest-rated chefs in the world by the revered Michelin Guide, Ducasse refurbished the 25-year-old establishment, which in recent years had degenerated into a tourist trap where food was an afterthought. He reopened it in December after months of preparation and experimentation.
"Everything is pure French -- French wine, classical, contemporary French cuisine, there's even a French single-malt whiskey," he said. "The view, the food, the design had to be in perfect harmony. It's not revolutionary. But it shows the evolution of French tastes."
The key was to bring a modern, innovative flare to a quintessentially French icon, or as Ducasse put it, infuse "an old traditional building with a new taste."
Ducasse and one of his top protégés, chef Pascal Feraud, began 16 months ago with 250 proposed recipes from across France. After refining the techniques and ingredients, they pared the list to about 25 dishes for the menu.
"What we want to achieve is a contemporary interpretation of French food -- not futurist, nor retro, but contemporary, to go with the Eiffel Tower in its time," Ducasse said.
Take, for instance, the creamy pea soup with spider crab and caviar: It's no coincidence that the delicately frothed soup mimics the light and airy girders outside. The "Tower Bolt" desert is a thick, six-sided bolt made out of dark chocolate on a praline base with a milkier chocolate screw in the center.
For the most part, the food aims to put a modern twist on the classics -- roasted veal blanquette, suckling lamb with baby artichokes, pan-seared turbot with a Champagne sabayon sauce.
In keeping with the totality of the French experience, if the food doesn't give you a heart attack, the bill will. That pea soup? $83 for a small bowl. The lamb dish runs $118, about average for a main course, and desserts set you back $38.
Ducasse currently holds 15 gastronomic stars from Michelin Guides at 11 restaurants in four countries, including the United States, where he has opened two restaurants this year in New York. Come September, he's to have one in Washington, too, at the St. Regis hotel on 16th Street NW.
He was the first chef to have two three-star restaurants (Michelin's highest rating) in a single country (France), and the first to have three-star restaurants in three different countries at the same time (France, the United States and Japan). He has authored 16 books, and his company, which owns another 10 restaurants and four hotels, employs about 1,500 people.