Header image: Alain Ducasse au Plaza Athénée Executive Chef Romain Meder with Chef Alain Ducasse
It’s a movement that’s been gaining steam in fine dining stretching from Paris to Hong Kong: three-Michelin-starred restaurants extolling the use of fresh, local ingredients to make simple, nourishing, heavily plant-based fine-dining experiences.
Some call it haute vegetarian, some call it organic futurism – Alain Ducasse calls it “naturalness”. The preeminent chef is leading the way towards changing the face of haute cuisine, creating a gateway that allows this simple idea to filter down throughout the entire restaurant industry. With the chef’s global presence of 28 restaurants, his is an empire with plenty of clout towards the way the world views fine dining. The chef’s philosophy has always been one of respecting tradition through refinement and innovation, and with this movement, he is able to perfectly keep with the times as well as see a way into the future of food.
The notion of naturalness is described by Alain Ducasse au Plaza Athénée in Paris as “naturalness cuisine is respectful of our planet’s resources. In the face of nature, cuisine is modest and adapts itself.”
The chef’s evolving natural philosophy centres around organic cereals, sustainable fish and vegetables. The vegetables used at Plaza Athénée are all grown in the Queen’s Garden at the Château de Versailles; perhaps this is half the reason why they taste so incredible, having only travelled the short distance of 10 miles to get from soft soil to elegant dining plates. The produce they use is humble but of the highest quality. The fish all comes from small boats, with the fisherman well versed on seasonality and the fragile nature of the seas’ resources. The expertise poured into the cuisine for which Ducasse is known remains razor sharp as a marriage of unpredictable flavours and textures appears on every plate, each executed precisely and bedazzingly.
We asked the renowned chef what naturalness means to him, and his reply was both simple and profound: “To reconnect eaters and nature. The agrobusiness made us forget our link with produce. We have to rebuild it. By sending positive messages to people, by making them realise that eating healthily will give them more pleasure – not by lecturing them.”
Alain Ducasse au Plaza Athénée
We asked the chef if it’s difficult to be environmentally friendly in a haute-cuisine environment. Ducasse said, “No, it’s not. In fact, it’s just a decision we take. The best example of naturalness is the cuisine we propose at my restaurant Hôtel Plaza Athénée in Paris. I wanted to demonstrate that we can make haute cuisine only with environmentally friendly products: vegetables, fruits, cereals and fish from sustainable fishing. That was, for sure, a bet. We won it though! Our policy is twofold. On the one hand, we source products from environmentally aware producers wherever they are located. On the other hand, we drastically limit leftovers. For instance, fish bones or skins are used to prepare broths. Vegetable peelings are also used in one way or another.”
Chef Ducasse says he feels a certain obligation to lead the sustainability charge without preaching. “We propose; we don’t impose. Yet it’s true that I am convinced we do have a responsibility. When eating at a restaurant, people are happy to discover new tastes. [It’s] up to us to also suggest [to] them new ways of eating, a new approach to products and cooking.”
The importance of maintaining a relationship with his suppliers sits at the core of his cooking philosophy. “My executive chefs and I can put a face on each product we work with. It requires something very simple: human respect. Taking time to know the person who works hard to deliver the best. I grew up on a farm, and I know what breeding, cultivating, picking fruits and vegetables mean. And I also know that before cooking there is nature.”
And it’s not simply the planet that benefits from the notion of naturalness; it’s an idea meant to be a healthier dining experience through the use of fewer ingredients like butter and cream than are traditionally used in European haute cuisine – creating harmony with nature and health while still pulling off a mind-blowing dining experience. They do this at Plaza Athénée by seamlessly melding the idea of nature with attention to detail in every material and design, showcasing the expertise of the craftsmen in a way that echos the work of the chef in the kitchen. The opulent surroundings are incredibly luxurious, with subtle nods to nature – the pattern of a mushroom gently providing the backdrop, the organic curves of the furnishings, the neutral whites, the shell-like gloss on the impressive tableware.
Left to right: sea scallops from Erquy with brioche of Comté and cauliflower; lemon from Nice with kombu and tarragon
Back in the 1970s, the movement of “nouvelle cuisine” aimed to lighten up French cooking. It’s now going three steps further with an environmental element that looks to seasonality and local sourcing rather than the exotic alongside simple flavours that don’t require meat.
Ducasse said, “The green trend is massive. I remember the first veggie menu I propose[d]. It was in 1987, at Le Louis XV, my restaurant at the Hôtel de Paris in Monaco, and I called it Jardins de Provence. At that time, we were probably selling it once at each service, at the best. Today, the veggie option has become a must. There is no revolution in food. The food we will eat in the near future will basically resemble [what] we eat today, with probably a bit more of such or such products. The restaurants, though, will keep on evolving with a larger and larger diversity of offers and, most importantly, a more casual atmosphere.”
Left to right: vegetable medley; BBQ roasted lobster with beetroot and blackberries
Ducasse is taking the idea outside Europe with his recent opening in Tokyo – Esterre – debuting with the naturalness menu. He says there is much shared between the two continents. “European cuisine learned a lot from Asian cuisine since the 70s: dish aesthetics, short cooking, etc. Today, Europe pays great attention to agricultural techniques: development of organic farming, drastic decreasing of pesticides, regulations to protect halieutic resources, etc. Asia is [also] putting these topics on its agenda.”
It’s become a notable trend in places like Hong Kong for high-end dining to place importance on local sourcing, with rooftop gardens grown by fine-dining restaurants popping up around the city, as well as pledges to cut down on food waste along with the growing demand for vegetable-focused dishes. Shane Osborn’s Michelin- starred Arcane offers an exquisite vegetarian tasting menu, for instance.
In Asia, dining out is more popular than any other activity – more than film, sporting events or theatre – and because of this, there’s an incredibly discerning dining crowd here. Perhaps this is why the region has caught on so quickly to the level of sophistication needed to tell a tale of flavours from fruits, vegetables and grains rather than relying on a choice cut of meat to work around or the old-school building blocks of long-simmered meats to create a flavour bomb of a dish. The awakening that meat can be optional when creating gastronomic excellence is an idea still working its way into the collective consciousness, and it makes absolute sense that meat tastes infinitely better when it’s an occasional indulgence.
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