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Why Alain Ducasse thinks of food as a tool of activism

Alain Ducasse, a pioneer of the farm-to-fork movement in haute cuisine, recently launched the first Ecole Ducasse for culinary arts in India

Chef-entrepreneur Alain Ducasse
Chef-entrepreneur Alain Ducasse

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Chef-entrepreneur Alain Ducasse is not given to verbosity. But there is a sparkle in his eye and a flow to his words when he starts talking about sustainability—a subject he is passionate about. Ducasse believes there’s a need to design menus that are in harmony with nature. He had, in fact, outlined “the power of food as a tool of activism” in his 2017 book, Manger Est Un Acte Citoyen, and is a pioneer of the farm-to-fork movement in the haute cuisine space.

Ducasse, who was in India earlier this month for the launch of the first Ecole Ducasse campus in the country, showcased his commitment to plant-based menus by launching Sapid in Paris last year with a 95% vegan and low-carbon menu. This April, he started a vegan burger kiosk, Burgal, in Paris’ Bastille district, with a focus on local ingredients such as zucchini, parsnips, carrots and lentils. In the Ducasse culinary universe, these are part of the New Earth Food segment, which respects both the soil and the producer of the ingredients.

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Ducasse, who helped create food for astronauts in 2006 and is now supervising the cuisine of the first ice-breaking ship, terms his philosophy “naturalité”. “Sustainability is a must-have. It is important to understand the need to eat less animal protein; or that you need to take into account the period of reproduction of fish species while creating a menu. If we don’t incorporate these ideas, the future of our planet is bleak,” says Ducasse, who is French by birth and is now a naturalised citizen of Monaco.

It is this notion of conscious cooking that Ducasse hopes the next generation of chefs will learn at the Ecole Ducasse campus in India. Launched this month in collaboration with the Indian School of Hospitality, the culinary institute in Gurugram, Haryana, offers undergraduate degree, diploma and certificate courses for aspiring chefs, entrepreneurs and managers in the hospitality industry.

It will be part of the network of schools founded by Ducasse in 1999, with campuses in France, Philippines, Brazil and Thailand. Ducasse, who has been reflecting deeply on the shared heritage of India and France, maintains India has one of the greatest culinary traditions and hopes to give it a greater global voice. “The idea is to create the hospitality professionals of tomorrow,” he notes.

Last year, he prefaced a cookbook, titled Les Routes Des Epices and written by colleagues Hisanobu Shigeta and Ikhlef Ali-Cherif, about the centuries-old spice trade between Europe and India. “Those links have sustained through the years. This trip to India is a memorable one, as I have travelled back on the spice route to its origins in India,” he says.

The chef has interpreted these connections at his Paris restaurant, Spoon, in the Palais Brongniart that offers a flavourful journey inspired by the spice route. “Don’t expect to find traditional recipes there. The menu is an interpretation of all that our chefs learnt from their trips to India. In 2013, we sent one of our team members to learn from chef Hemant Oberoi. And we want such conversations to take place more frequently. Now, we will have exchange programmes between campuses in India and France so that the students can learn from one another,” says Ducasse.

The legendary chef doesn’t harp on his laurels—which are both numerous and significant. Ducasse received his first three-star Michelin rating at the young age of 33, for Le Louis XV in Monaco. “He is the only chef to have ever run four restaurants with three Michelin stars simultaneously,” author-journalist Vir Sanghvi wrote recently in Hindustan Times. “Nouvelle cuisine had been about technique. Ducasse shifted the focus to ingredients. He started the trend of finding the best ingredients and cooking only with them. After Ducasse, it is the first question every serious chef will ask.”

At Burgal, on till at least the end of this month, “you can get a burger at a cost of €7.5 (around 618),” notes Ducasse. “As a chef, you should have the capability of catering to a large number of people, be it through haute cuisine or street food.”

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Last year, he parted ways with Plaza Athénée, where his celebrated eponymous restaurant was located. A June 2021 article in the Robb Report magazine noted that the fine-dining space was famous for “shaking up the world of haute gastronomy with a game-changing concept that took meat off a fine dining menu (in 2014) while focusing on pillars of sustainable, healthy and ethical consumption”.

Research and development are an integral part of what Ducasse and his team do. In 2006, he worked with the European Space Agency and French National Centre for Space Studies to create food to commemorate special events at the space station. “We were the first ones, in partnership with food firm Henaff, to be accredited by (US space agency) Nasa to feed astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS). Today astronauts from any nationality can pick up our catalogue to choose from the dishes,” says Ducasse.

Now he is supervising the cuisine of the ice-breaking ship Le Commandant Charcot, operated by the cruise company Ponant. “This offers a different kind of constraint than that of the ISS. I find challenges attractive. R&D gives scope to think about how to achieve all that can’t be done today. We are going to take all the best practices from such initiatives and bring them to the Ecole Ducasse campuses. At the end of the day, it is all about passing on the knowledge,” he says.

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