No international food event in the 1990s has generated more culinary electricity than the Monte Carlo birthday blowout staged three Septembers ago by chef Alain Ducasse to honor Craig Claiborne, dean of American gastronomic letters. The guest list--comprised mainly of top-seeded European and American kitchen-and-restaurant pros, including such "sacred monsters" as French chefs Paul Bocuse and Roger Vergé--bristled with more stars than a Pentagon war room crammed with top brass. For 48 hours the persistent buzz was that, beyond the homage to Claiborne, a momentous rite of passage was symbolically unfolding: the baton of haute cuisine was being passed from the long-enshrined to a new and youthful leader. Without warning we'd been privy to the birth of what is now widely identified as the "generation Ducasse."
That same year, Ducasse, aged 33, became the youngest chef ever to be awarded the Michelin Guide's supreme three-star rating for his masterful work in Monaco at Restaurant Le Louis XV in the Hotel de Paris. Inaugurated in 1864, this grande dame of Riviera hotels is one of four owned and run by Societé des Bains de Mer ("sea-bathing society"), a company whose other holdings include the legendary gambling casino of Monte Carlo (a roulette chip's throw from the hotel's dining terrace), strings of luxury boutiques and a network of sporting and leisure services such as boat rentals, golf, tennis, motor sports, and underwater exploration.
The stated mission of S.B.M. is to marry "the luxury of the past with the technology of the future." Nowhere are these elements more effectively interwoven than at Le Louis XV, where S.B.M. appears to have dropped as big a bundle as an oil sheik at the casino's baccarat tables on a bad night. Out front, the operatically Baroque dining room and flower-decked terrace would still make perfect period backdrops for les grandes horizontales--the Gigi school of gorgeous courtesans, who, at the turn of the century, religiously made the Monte Carlo winter-season scene with their princely lovers. At the back of the house, vast new kitchens glow with the platinum-credit-card sheen of a spare-no-expense spacecraft. Nearly 90 cooks labor to service the hotel; 20 have been hand-picked to produce the Louis XV menu. From his command post, Ducasse can oversee them all at their stations via a central video-surveillance system. And aside from every high-tech innovation a modern chef could covet, S.B.M. has furnished him with the means to cook in timeless old European ways: roasting over aromatic wood fires; grilling on spits or twirling cords, and long, languorous braising in earthen casseroles made from the red clay of Provence.
Forget the silver spoon, Ducasse was born with foie gras in his mouth--on a farm run by his parents in the Landes countryside. The luxurious livers were their premier product. His boyhood knowledge of the soil helps explain the speed with which he's able to pick out the most flavor-laden produce for his powerfully scented cuisine. Journalists repeatedly call him a genius, but he shies away from the hype. When pressed, he cautiously describes his cooking as "rustic Mediterranean--for me the best cooking is 'women's cuisine,' the old home cooking--that's where everything good always comes from." Yes, sure, but in his case the grandmotherly tried-and-true has been transmogrified by sensory awareness and technical wizardry that could come only through apprenticeships in the kitchens of established three-star mentors, including Vergé and the late Alain Chapel, Ducasse's culinary father figure.
We devoured our most recent tour de force Ducasse meal while waiting to catch a ship in the harbor below. It amused him to devise a nine-course tasting lunch cooked by Sylvain Portay, now chef of New York's Le Cirque. He timed the meal to get us to the pier at the precise moment of departure. If by "rustic," Ducasse means spaghettini with flash-sautéed infant vegetables and crushed black truffles to bind them or grilled duck breasts au poivre with grilled foie gras and a double garnish of caramelized and shaved raw apples, why contradict?
At Le Louis XV, wines of rare or recent vintage are retrieved from a cellar hoarding 250,000 bottles. To sip with house-made chocolates, a Winnebago-sized liqueur cart hauls a cargo of extraordinary brandies from table to table. A knotted-thuya-wood showcase displays 500 astutely chosen cigars. And while the price for all this can indeed run high, we've yet to hear a complaint that the experience wasn't worth every franc. As a matter of fact, in typical Ducasse afterglow, two friends of ours who'd been keeping close company for five years decided over dessert, to their mutual surprise, to get married.
-- Michael Batterberry is the founding editor and associate publisher of Food Arts magazine.