Talks About Transmitting Knowledge and Savoir-Faire
Back in New York after the wonderful dinner at the French Embassy organized by the Washington Regional Chapter, Chef Alain Ducasse offered French Heritage Society Executive Director Greg Joye the privilege of interviewing him in his New York bistro, Benoît. They discussed his passion for patrimoine and for the transmission of techniques and savoir-faire which helps ensure the pertinence of culinary heritage both in France and much further beyond.
If we may, let’s start with your beginnings. From your excellent website I read that, when asked the question, “Head of Kitchen, Head of Business… How would you best describe yourself?”
My pivotal center is cooking. I am a happy chef! My cerebral home is a union between the Southwest, where I come from, and the Mediterranean, a place that seduced me from a very young age. But I am also a curious and emancipated cook, my roots carry me but do not tie me down. I travel a great deal and am always on the lookout for new discoveries.
Could you tell us about how your youth in the environment of your family in the Southwest, so legendary for its culinary specialties, affected and nurtured the passion that has brought about your astounding career?
I grew up on a farm in Gascony. My grandmother used to cook for the whole family. She frequently sent me to the kitchen garden to pick the vegetables she needed to prepare the meal. This left a deep imprint in my mind, “cooking starts with nature”. What nature offers dictates what you cook. We would never have thought about eating tomatoes in December for one simple reason, there is no tomato in the garden in winter. Once you’ve been impregnated by this respect of nature at such an early age, you never forget it and it drives your approach for the rest of your life.
How has this basis, your “roots”, as you call them, helped you in terms of your approach to not only cuisine, but to this culinary heritage that you are so dedicated to sharing with others, both in and well beyond your own home country?
The fundamental lesson I just described remains true regardless of the place or time. Wherever I go I ask myself what nature can provide locally. It can be the products of the sea as well as from the land. Everywhere I spend a lot of time and I must say with great pleasure, visiting the open-air markets and meeting with producers. The products I see are my irreplaceable fuel for creating my recipes.
What in particular from these roots has helped “carry” you?
Here I must mention another fundamental experience of my years learning with great figures of French cuisine, like Michel Guérard, Roger Vergé and, above all, Alain Chapel. I acquired alongside them the techniques and more than that an attitude vis-à-vis what cooking means. Let me give you an example. I opened recently a restaurant in Doha. When I was exploring the products available in this region, I found the camel. Needless to say, I had never prepared camel before in my life. Yet I do have a method of how to prepare meat, the various techniques to use according to the type of meat and the result you are looking to achieve. In this case, I created a “camel version” of the Rossini by applying a French technique to a local product. This is how I feel I am “carried” by my roots. In other words, my roots do not anchor me, do not stop me from travelling, they accompany me wherever I go.
Can you tell us what influenced this philosophy and what people or experiences in your young life contributed to the development of these qualities you possess?
That’s a difficult question since I am not very good at being introspective! I’m certainly indebted to my predecessors. First and foremost, I think of Paul Bocuse who, when it comes to contemporary French cuisine, dramatically changed the script, broadening chefs’ horizons to a global scale. I also think about Alain Chapel who taught me that cooking is much more than just a recipe.
When you answered the question in Proust’s famous Questionnaire, you said that your motto is: “Savoir-faire, faire-faire, et faire-savoir.” Please elaborate on this, as it seems that you hold education and the transmission of your knowledge and know-how in very high importance. You said, when asked about your restaurants, “How do you manage to make these places come alive?” You answered: “I delegate and I trust while controlling everything, of course! For me transmission is a fundamental value. I have the duty to share my knowledge with the future generations of chefs. I must transmit flavors, techniques, and motivation…”
Can you expand upon how you think educating about the past is pertinent to the present, to both professionals and to the general public, in terms of history and patrimoine, whether it be built or intangible heritage such as cuisine (as we know that the “gastronomic meal of the French” entered into UNESCO’S list of intangible heritage in 2010)?
Elizabeth F. Stribling, Chairman of the Board, expressed: “There is an absolute necessity of connecting the past to the future”. This statement is true for the evolution of our heritage as it is for our cuisine. You don’t progress if you don’t know where you are coming from. There is a risk of misunderstanding. Some think that with an understanding of the past you can become confined to it. This is not what I take away from it. My knowledge of the history of cuisine is a springboard which propels me faster and further into the present.
When you say “Savoir-Faire & Faire-Faire” it could make one also think about cultural exchange as well as transmitting know-how. Two more answers to Proust’s questionnaire that you gave were:
Your Favorite Hobby?
Discovering local foods from the four corners of the earth.
Your Dream of Happiness?
Meeting new people every day.
French Heritage Society’s members share the same love of discovering new places, learning from others, and meeting new people, including custodians of great cultural heritage such as owners of historical monuments, etc. It would seem that your desire to share and transmit the love of culinary heritage and the art form is similar to that of our members and of owners of historical treasures.
Can you tell us how you think these similarities might be complimentary; meaning how cuisine and its own heritage and evolution and its pertinence in people’s lives today is similar to that of built heritage? And could you expand upon the importance of preserving these, while striving to champion the pertinence of patrimoine in today’s world?
This is very true in all areas - cuisine and architecture yet also every other form of art. In fact we all, as human beings need to have some understanding of where we come from to deal with the present and shape it. Again, we mustn’t forget or get stuck in the past. The real challenge, as you said, is to make the past relevant for our contemporaries. This is a very powerful trend in today’s cuisine, revisiting ancient recipes to make them meet contemporary expectations.
What notable historical figure(s) do you most admire, including past chefs, and why?
As a chef, I am particularly interested by Auguste Escoffier, who was a fantastic precursor of modern cuisine. Not only was he a great chef but he was also a pioneer in cuisine management.
What similarities do you share with these people?
I would never imagine putting myself in the same category as these types of people. Let’s just say that they are proof that the past can and does inspire the present.
What about the Americans and the French do you appreciate? What are some of their mutual traits? What would you consider to be some of their differences that are complimentary?
Talking about an attitude vis-à-vis the past, there is an important difference. When a French person says “C’est l’histoire” (It is history) he means this is an explanation of the present. When an American says, “It’s history”, he means this is over, it has no impact whatsoever on today’s issue. Each time I listen to the French taking history as a pretext to not change, I feel myself drawn to the American outlook. And each time I hear an American ignoring the past, I am inclined, as is the case with the French, to remind him or her that one cannot undo one’s heritage. You’ve got to love these cultural differences because they make the dialogue richer and more exciting. History teaches us just how deep the French-American relations run. History stirs it up to make it that much more profound.