Vegging with M. Ducasse

THE legendary chef settles into his plush chair in the Dorchester’s tea salon with his iPad tucked under his arm and some tissanes before him.

He looks the picture of scary Gallic grandeur in his chef whites, his little round glasses perched on his nose, his mouth pursed.

A pleasant feeling, then, knowing that we are here to discuss (among other things, like his enormous, growing empire) vegetables. Humble little specimens of the type that you or I have plucked from the garden (okay, from the shelves at Sainsbury’s) a million times.

Why vegetables? First of all, Ducasse has launched something called a cookpot at his restaurants, including his three-Michelin starred venue at the Dorchester: an expensive but incredibly delicious assortment of local veggies cooked in a special white dish (the cookpot itself, designed to bring out the flavours of the slow-cooked legumes, is sold at the Dorchester shop). “The cookpot,” reads the reverent press release, “symbolises the culinary philosophy of Alain Ducasse; it is an emblematic dish that sums up the very essence of his cooking.”

Sounds a bit over the top, doesn’t it?  But there was nothing disingenuous in Ducasse’s answer to my question about the best cookpot he’d ever tasted (they are adjusted to reflect the vegetables of the season and place but the general model is vegetables layered over white mushroom “duxelles”).

“It was last week in Osaka,” he enthused in French (then translated). “It was incredible. It had pumpkin, turnip, mushroom, carrot, and beautiful potatoes, of a very interesting consistency. It was the first time I’d tasted such a texture.” That Ducasse – master of Paris’s most revered restaurants – can enthuse about a new kind of potato texture is deeply cheering.

Beyond the cookpot craze there is a deep respect for vegetables. They’re healthy, best sourced locally, involve farming and a generally organic approach to life, and if done well are sensational.

“Twenty years ago vegetables were a garnish,” says Ducasse. “Or for sick people. Now they’re taking centre stage. The planet does not have an infinite supply of resources – we can’t eat meat and fish forever.” Demonstrating a typically French outlook, Ducasse says: “The role of the chef is to make people more aware; to switch to a healthier way of life.”

Of course, we’re not talking about hippy chefs on communes preaching the wonders of eating hemp. Isn’t there something new and strange about passing vegetables off as Michelin-star cuisine? “It’s not new to me,” says Ducasse. “At Louis XV [his three-star Monaco restaurant], we have Les Jardins de Provences, a totally vegetarian menu. Twenty two years ago we were selling it to between 5 and 8 per cent of people; now it’s between 15 and 20 per cent.”

Ducasse points out that contrary to common thinking, vegetables require considerable attention. “When you find them they’re not very tempting. They’re grubby. You have to cook, clean, trim, and prepare seven vegetables for the cookpot. They’re the very best, and you slow-cook them in the right moisture, broth, temperature. It takes skills and heart.”

Ducasse appears to embrace the vegetable dream at home too, and speaks lovingly of his family being vegetarian (I think he means fans of vegetables) and of his gorgeous garden.

And what does a grand Frenchman make of the way British food has come along in recent years? “Ha! You English think we are arrogant but we are not. The British cuisine today is what it should be. In the 70s it was so old fashioned. Now, well, English cheese is fantastic. Every week I import stilton from Neal’s Yard to Alain Ducasse at the Plaza Athenee.” A proud moment for us indeed.

Finally, what is his secret of enduring success? “Working faster and better. I’m never satisfied, never resting, always in motion. French people can be traditional, but not me. I’m always travelling, getting inspiration. Sitting at a table in Kyoto and eating is good for my head. I’m always a little ahead, not too much, and never behind.” I’ll raise a celery heart to that.

Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester, Park Lane, W1K 1QA, 020 7629 8866.