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Friday, June 16, 2006

TOKYO FOOD FILE

FOOD FRANCE

Ducasse brings young talent to Japan


Special to The Japan Times

As one of the world's top chefs, Alain Ducasse needs little introduction. Over the past two decades, few people have done more to develop and spread the gospel of French haute cuisine.

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Alain Ducasse during a recent interview with The Japan Times

Having attained Michelin three-star status by the age of just 33, he later became the first chef to run two three-star restaurants simultaneously. In 2001, he boosted that total to nine, with his eponymous New York restaurant, Alain Ducasse at the Essex House. In recent years he has parlayed his culinary genius into global gastronomic pre-eminence, with operations as far afield as Hong Kong, Lebanon, Tunisia and even Mauritius.

He has also been busy making his mark in Tokyo. Last year saw the opening of not one but two Ducasse restaurants -- the elegant, luxurious Beige, at the apex of the Chanel Building in Ginza; and Benoit, in Aoyama, serving his chic, refined take on Mediterranean bistro cuisine.

Although primarily associated with the rarified pleasures of haute cuisine, Ducasse is equally passionate about all aspects of France's culinary tradition. There is a wealth of variation between the foods of, say, Provence and Alsace, or Brittany and the Basque country. He has even opened his own bakery/grocery in Paris to stock the products that reflect this great diversity, be it farmhouse cheeses, artisanal olive oil or rustic breads.

This deep passion underlies another of his initiatives -- a program to introduce and encourage creative young chefs who are working with their local traditions far from the culinary and media mainstream. Over the past three years, more than 40 such chefs have been given the opportunity to cook at the Hotel Plaza Athenee, the Ducasse gastronomic stronghold in central Paris. By all accounts, it has been a resounding success.

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Chef Olivier Nasti at his Chambard restaurant in Alsace, France

Now he has brought the program to Tokyo. During 2006, five young chefs from different parts of France are presenting their creative interpretations of their respective regional cuisines.

The program is called Food France -- an Anglicized version of the original French name, Fou de France, which sounds similar but means "crazy for France" (and, by inference, its food). Each of the six-day residencies is taking place at the French Kitchen, inside the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Roppongi.

The second event in the Food France series, starting next week, will feature chef Olivier Nasti, who runs the Chambard restaurant in Alsace. Ducasse characterizes Nasti's cuisine as "dynamic -- very interesting. He keeps the Alsace tradition, but with a wonderful sense of modernity."

On a recent visit to Tokyo, Ducasse spoke to The Japan Times about the Food France program and his drive to spread the word about contemporary French cuisine.

What were your reasons for starting the Food France program in Paris three years ago?

I wanted to send a strong message that there's much more to French food than just three-star restaurants and well-known chefs. If you go around the various regions of France, there are so many brilliant chefs under the age of 40. They love their regions, but they are also creating very contemporary cuisine -- a cuisine not for yesterday or tomorrow, but relevant for today.

When I set up this program, I could see that these young, talented chefs were deeply involved in their regions. They do not ignore the past, they know their own culture, but they are also integrating new techniques and new influences from other countries. They are quite open-minded, but without forgetting their origins.

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Four of Nasti's creations
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These chefs represent the new generation. I really wanted to tell the world that this generation is arriving and you must pay attention to them.

Is this a recent phenomenon in France that you wanted to introduce to people in Paris?

Worldwide, cuisine is in evolution. There is dynamic cuisine coming from Spain, Italy, England, the United States -- from many countries. French cuisine is also evolving. We are not sleeping in the past, we are moving forward -- not only my cuisine and that of the top chefs, but even when you go into the countryside, there are many talented chefs who are very active. This is a phenomenon spreading in France as well.

French cuisine still has an image of being stuck in the past -- that it's too heavy, too expensive, too formal, too selfish. However, things are changing, and quite rapidly. I'm showing you what I'm doing in my own restaurants, but I also want to show what those young chefs can do. I don't just want to say it: I want to prove it. This is why we have come to Japan.

So why did you bring this to Japan, rather than any other country -- the United States, for example, or England?

I love Japan very much. The Japanese people are food lovers. They have a deep interest in culture, and a long history. And they pay great attention to the quality of their food products, the ingredients. These are points of great similarity between France and Japan.

In addition, these chefs come from provincial areas. They are not ignoring their roots, but they are also trying to evolve their cuisine. They have a real philosophy. And maybe this can also inspire Japanese chefs as well.

We definitely feel people in Japan will be open to this kind of event. Japanese chefs have a long history. They have great technique; they have their path and a true culture. But even so, I feel they are not trying to move forward. I think that is very important, because changes are happening very rapidly now.

The Food France program is bringing six chefs to Japan this time. Who selected them, and what were the criteria?

When I started the event [in Paris], I created a committee responsible for choosing the chefs. I didn't want to be the only one to pick them. This committee selected the 43 chefs who have participated over the past three years.

I myself chose the chefs who are coming to Japan, to demonstrate the great diversity of French cuisine. I wanted to have chefs from various regions of France, to introduce their respective cultures, to introduce various kinds of ingredients and to show the Japanese people a variety of different cooking styles.

Another factor influenced the selection: I also wanted chefs who are able to accommodate Japanese tourists who want to visit these chefs to see them in their own environments. This can help to create a deep cultural exchange.

Do all the chefs run their own hotels?

Yes, all of them have rooms to accommodate guests, even if it's not a lot. Some only have five rooms. Japanese tourists visiting France don't only want to go and eat -- they like to be able to stay. So that was part of the selection criteria.

The Food France event is taking place at the French Kitchen (in the Grand Hyatt Hotel). Why aren't you using Beige or Benoit?

Beige and Benoit may look large, but actually they are very small. It's difficult to organize this sort of event, so it's better to work with a partner. A hotel is much better equipped to accommodate this kind of event, especially as it's the first year.

Also, if I had this at one of my restaurants, then people would say I'm just trying to promote my own name. That's not my intention. For the first year, it's important that Food France is an independent project.

Obviously, Japan has embraced French cuisine. That's clear from the success of your restaurants here in Tokyo. What would you say France has taken from Japanese cuisine in return?

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Alain Ducasse chats to David Bellin (second from right), the executive chef of Beige in Tokyo, and Jerome Lacressonniere (right), vice-executive chef in the kitchen of the Ginza restaurant.

I don't think French cuisine has been influenced by Japanese cuisine. But there are very good things -- the sensibility, the details -- that Japanese chefs have and that French chefs have not yet mastered.

French cuisine and Japanese cuisine have a long and similar tradition. They're not like Italian food, which is more like la cucina di Mama -- trattoria cooking, more informal. In France, there's a codification, a rigor and discipline and a hierarchy. It is this French model that has been adopted in professional cuisine.

Obviously it will depend on the success of this year's program, but can we expect future versions of Food France in Japan?

It's the chefs who will decide that. Food France is the magic between the individual chefs and the people who attend.

In France, we initially intended to do it for two years, but it was so successful we decided to extend it to three years, and we are now onto our fourth event. But we're going to stop after this, because it's a lot of work, a lot of organization. And it's also getting to the point where a political aspect is coming in. There has been strong pressure to pick individual chefs.

Ultimately, I hope all the chefs that participated in Food France -- and all those that didn't -- become more independent, and that they develop a real philosophy and will become really creative. Only the future will tell.

Four more Food France events are scheduled this year: Olivier Nasti, chef of the Chambard restaurant, in Alsace (June 19-24); Eric Guerin from La Mare aux Oiseaux in the Loire Valley (Sept. 11-16); Benoi^t Witz from l'Hostellerie de l'Abbaye de la Celle in Provence (Oct. 23-28); and Arnaud Lallement from L'Assiette Champenoise near Reims in Champagne country (Dec. 4-9).

They will each serve set-menu lunches (8,400 yen) and dinners (15,750 yen). All events will be held at the French Kitchen, Grand Hyatt Hotel 2F, 6-10-3 Roppongi, Minato-ku. Reservations required: (03) 4333-8781 or (0120) 588-288; further information online at www.foodfrance.jp


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