Legendary chef Alain Ducasse has stretched beyond fine dining. - ©P.Monetta Legendary chef Alain Ducasse has stretched beyond fine dining. - ©P.Monetta

Interview: Alain Ducasse on Running a Successful Restaurant Empire

Chef Alain Ducasse is a businessman who does not like to talk about money. In French culture, especially in the upper echelons of Parisian society, it is considered “le mal goût” (poor taste), to speak of or flaunt one’s money. Yet, he is a multimillionaire securing lucrative licensing deals at hotels around the world and setting culinary standards since 2005, when he became the first chef to have three restaurants awarded with three Michelin stars at the same time.

Critics have lambasted him for creating restaurants only for the superrich (waitstaff at the 2016 opening of Ore at Versailles wore powdered Renaissance wigs). But his recent, more accessible venues run counter to that narrative — which Ducasse himself rejects in his book “Manger Est un Acte Citoyen,” or, to eat is a citizen’s act. In it, he writes, “To eat well is not a question of purchasing power. It’s above all a question of awareness, learning, and behavior. Everyone can learn to choose products of quality, which exist in each price category — to identify the nutrients our bodies need, take the time to eat, and ritualize each meal.”

The fact is, Alain Ducasse is cooking up far more than just fancy French gastronomy. Within the past two years, his eponymous company Ducasse Paris opened a casual globetrotter’s Moroccan-Indian-Asian bistro Spoon 2, launched lunch and dinner cruises on an electric boat called Ducasse sur Seine, opened a café for coffee purists called Coffee Manufacture in Bastille, and most recently unveiled the mid-tier Mediterranean eatery called Ômer (oh, the sea!) in Monaco.

The latter is the most obvious example of demand for lower prices, even in the luxury space. In March, the French real estate-hospitality giant Société des Bains de Mer (SBM) unveiled its new $880 million mixed-use residential development and redesign of the Hôtel de Paris, which features Ômer in its high-stakes bid to recast Monaco, a known tax haven for billionaires, as Europe’s “most exclusive” travel destination.

On the sun-dappled terrace of Ômer, guests can sit comfortably overlooking the French Riviera while paying no more than 58 euro per main dish. By contrast, during the Grand Prix races in May, guests will pay up to 1,500 euros per person (drinks not included) to sit on the terrace of Le Louis XV, which directly faces a portion of the racecourse. It’s see-and-be-seen spectacle at its most ostentatious.

Flash is central to Ducasse’s story. Born in the Occitanie region of southwest France in 1956, he worked his way to Paris, eventually teaming up with Alain Chapel, one of the most influential chefs of his generation, who Ducasse says “remains my spiritual master.” By 1987, SBM had offered Ducasse the job of running Le Louis XV. It was here in 1990 that he obtained his first three Michelin stars.

Without question, Ducasse is a master of his craft. Lesser understood is his business savvy. Here, the chef himself explains the mechanics behind his empire.

[Editor’s note: This Q&A was translated from French.]

The interior of Ducasse sur Seine, Alain Ducasse’s restaurant housed on an electric boat. Courtesy of Alain Ducasse

Skift Table: Spoon 2, Ducasse sur Seine, Coffee Manufacture, and now Ômer all opened within the past two years. What is driving this rapid expansion?

Alain Ducasse: I am yearning to explore various forms of dining, and I organized my teams to realize these challenges. We want and we can! … We also owe this expansion to our clients. [Investors] organize calls for [concepts] and choose us because our offers get the best evaluation.

Skift Table: You became head chef at Hôtel de Paris in 1987, famously put the young Italian chef Massimo Bottura to work there, and accepted Monégasque citizenship in 2008. Why is Monaco so important for you?

Ducasse: Monaco gave me an extraordinary opportunity which really shaped my life. When H. S. H. Prince Rainier III entrusted me to head Le Louis XV, the restaurant of the Hôtel de Paris, he wanted the restaurant to earn three Michelin stars within four years. I actually got them in 33 months. He also let me develop a version of haute cuisine no one ever proposed before in a palace: a cuisine inspired by the Riviera terroir, with humble produce.

We have to remember that, at that time, the restaurants of the palaces offered a very classical cuisine and the Michelin-starred restaurants were all stand-alone businesses, owned by individual chefs. So, it was two revolutions in the same time. In other words, Monaco is where I’ve been given the opportunity to create my own style of cuisine, the basis on which I keep elaborating. Therefore, when H. S. H. Prince Rainier’s son, H. S. H. Prince Albert, made me the offer of Monegasque citizenship, I didn’t hesitate: It is a great honor to express my strong link to Monaco.

Today, Le Louis XV is still the nursery of my executive chefs: Most of the ones I put at the helm of my restaurants work and learn my cuisine here.

Skift Table: Le Louis XV is a seasonal business, as is all of Monaco. Is it your most profitable restaurant? Are profits reinvested into your existing restaurants, or used to create new ventures?

Ducasse: Even though its peak season is in summer, Monaco is fortunate enough to enjoy a steady level of activity all year round. From a more general perspective, each of our restaurants finds its own profitability level. The case of the top-end restaurants is slightly specific. It can be compared to haute couture or Formula One: They are like laboratories where we mold the future of the industry. The costs are very high, be it for produce, staff, decor, or tableware.

However, I’m very proud to say that, farther than our contribution to the reputation of their hotels, our partners appreciate the profitability we deliver.

Skift Table: Ômer takes us on a culinary tour of the Mediterranean (Greece, Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt, and Tunisia). What is your main objective in creating Ômer?

Ducasse: To give our clients a broader view of Mediterranean tastes. The Mediterranean coasts offer a gorgeous variety of flavors, all with a common inspiration made of spices, humble produce from the earth and from the sea, yet with an immense variety of recipes. Moreover, they all share also something essential: Cuisine is a way of life. It’s all about commensality and sharing.

Skift Table: What makes a restaurant concept right for the Ducasse portfolio?

Ducasse: It’s more to be found in the way of doing than in the “concept” itself. A restaurant must tell a story to clients — even more than storytelling, it’s a matter of story-feeling. And obviously a story which is consistent with the venue, the city, and people’s lives.

This definition is, on purpose, very broad and open-ended: I don’t want to limit myself. Where I’m uncompromising, relentless, and detail-obsessed is about the “how.” Once we’ve decided the category in which we want to compete, we must be the best in this category, be it in haute cuisine, bistros, or more popular establishments like the one we opened in Les Halles [Champeaux, a brasserie] or at Paris La Défense [a casual restaurant called Bib & Guss]. A great idea is nothing if it is not perfectly executed.

Skift Table: What are a few fundamental elements that must always be present in a Ducasse venue?

Ducasse: I already mentioned one: the perfection and consistency of each and every detail which makes the soul of the restaurant. Another one is obviously the cuisine which gives the fundamental impulse. The casting, i.e., the choice of team members, is also key. They have to metabolize the idea behind the restaurant and have the heavy task of making it live day after day.

Then, there is something very difficult yet crucial: Make the restaurant evolve. Opening is not the most difficult. Keeping the restaurant attractive is much less easy.

Skift Table: Are you ever concerned that the business will become too big to manage? How do you maintain quality and excellence, while still expanding?

Ducasse: There is no secret recipe. The only way to manage the growth is delegation and control.

Skift Table: Who are your main investors now? And who financed your businesses early in your career?

Ducasse: I own the majority of Ducasse Paris. Among our investors — primarily private family offices — we have a strategic partnership with Elior Group. The group is an investor in Ducasse Paris, and we develop consulting together as part of the partnership.

Skift Table: You are a legend of traditional cuisine Française, but you also use modern techniques and tools. What role does technology play in fine dining? How do you see this evolving?

Ducasse: In one or two generations, kitchens have greatly evolved, which is very positive for the comfort of the staff: better air extraction, temperature control. New instruments also appeared: cooking in a vacuum and in low pressure, extractors. They all have a role to play, and we use most of these new technologies. However, a good knife or a mortar are irreplaceable. And ancient techniques like brining or open-fire cooking give extraordinary results.

Skift Table: Your newer restaurants (Rech, Spoon 2, Champeaux) reflect a more relaxed accessibility not found in Versailles or at Hôtel Plaza Athénée. Are you intentionally pushing your brand in the direction of openness?

Ducasse: As I said, nothing is forbidden. It’s true that some new establishments, particularly in Paris, are more accessible. But, at the same time, less than one year after their opening, Alain Ducasse at Morpheus, in Macau, got two Michelin stars. I’m involved in the entire spectrum, and I’ll keep exploring this entire diversity.

Jennifer Parker is a writer and reporter based in New York City, covering culture, travel, and the travel industry. Her work frequently appears in esteemed publications such as Bloomberg Pursuits, Saveur magazine, Watch Journal, and the Washington Post.

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