We Chat With: Chef Alain Ducasse of Adour and Benoit

"Take time to walk around in the markets—touch, smell and look at the products. Savor slowly the first bite of the dish. At the end of the day, cooking is much more than techniques: it's an art de vivre.

[Photographs: Brent Herrig]

It has a little to do with his being French. It has a lot to do with his being a master chef, a multi-book author, a culinary-school founder, a restaurant owner (many times over), and one of the most Michelin-starred chefs in the world. Chef Alain Ducasse is definitely accomplished; he's part of the especially-elite in our serious eating world, having seen the food scene expand over four decades and watched trends come and go while he keeps evolving in his own kitchen.

Chef Ducasse travels over 200 days of the year, keeping an eye on his restaurants and schools and attending more culinary events than one would believe existed. We got in a quick chat and a few snaps of the celebrated chef while he popped into town to check on Adour and Benoit. As expected, he was all class.

You've become a teacher and authority figure to countless chefs. When do you think people started looking to you for mentorship? What were the early lessons you tried to teach? I never deliberately planned to take the lead, and I think it would have been wrong of me to approach things that way. When you believe very strongly in something and behave accordingly, then people around you will likely be interested in what you say and do. I just always try to keep in mind that these younger chefs will do as they please and if I can impart some experience and ideas, all the best.

You've helmed several culinary programs. What techniques or mindsets do you focus on in your culinary programs? Techniques are not the most difficult to teach. The attitudes chefs take are much more important. The message we try to convey in our programs is, "be curious." Learning doesn't stop at the end of the training session. It should fuel the curiosity, a craving for discovering new ideas, new products, new culinary habits and new ways of working.

In 2010 you started "15 Femmes en Avenir," offering 15 underprivileged women paid culinary instruction in your kitchens with potential for full-time employment. What, personally, called out to you about that project? There are talents everywhere and I believe it is important they are recognized, no matter the financial stipulations. For these women living in underprivileged suburbs, haute cuisine was not on their radar, but their motivation and energy were fantastic, and it was important for us to ignore clichés and preconceptions.

What core values in the kitchen did you feel they most needed to learn and master? Patience and discipline were the most difficult for these women, which is not surprising since cooking demands a lot of both.

You mostly work with trained chefs; what surprised you about teaching this particular group that you didn't expect? Many of them didn't even know French cuisine and had to learn the basics that most young chefs adopt early on. This was a stimulating challenge for us because it forced us to lay everything out step by step for the group of women.

Your career has spanned four decades. How do you continually keep up with current styles, discoveries and demands? My main source of inspiration is the way people live. When I prepare for an opening of a new restaurant, for instance, I spend a lot of time getting to know the mood and mindset of the city. Another source of inspiration are the products and the producers in the region. To a large extent, a cook's talent is all about showcasing the quality of the ingredients that are used in each dish.

What lessons do you feel are classic that might be lost somewhat in current trends that we should still take time to learn? Time. Take time to learn and train, time to walk around in the markets, touch, smell and look at the products. Savor slowly the first bite of the dish. At the end of the day, cooking is much more than techniques: it's an art de vivre.

For those of us who are not trained chefs but who want to appreciate and explore cooking in our own kitchens, what do you think the basis of our technique or focus should be? How should we learn it? There are two pitfalls beginners frequently fall into. One is to overcook: meat, fish, vegetables, everything. The other is making things more complicated than they need to be. My recommendation is to simplify as much as possible! I hope my book, NATURE, provides some of these useful culinary principles.

You've obviously seen many trends come and go throughout your career. Do you believe New York City moves through culinary moments too quickly? Is there something we have yet to take seriously? I can't imagine New York any other way. I believe that beyond the culinary trends, there is a simple truth: before cuisine, there is nature. What really counts is the quality of the products you put on your plate, day after day. This is something I take very seriously.