Can Genius Chef Alain Ducasse Recoup After His Grand Bouffe ?

The heavy double doors of wood and frosted glass opened a bit, and Alain Ducasse peered warily out of the Essex House restaurant that bears his name. Behind him, his Art Deco temple of Brazilian rosewood and Neapolitan silk was in a state of disarray. It was Saturday, the day of the first game of the World Series, and Alain Ducasse at the Essex House, which is closed on weekends, was undergoing a deep cleaning. The restaurant’s tables and harlequin-hued silk banquettes had been moved or upended so that a team of men brandishing vacuum nozzles and polishing cloths could do their stuff. As Mr. Ducasse’s girlfriend and translator, Gwénäelle Guéguen, explained: “Every four weekends, the restaurant is new.”

Mr. Ducasse looked back at the cleaning crew, then at his girlfriend, Ms. Guéguen, who was standing outside the restaurant’s doorway with the restaurant’s new New York-based publicist, Susan Magrino. He said something to his girlfriend in French. “Would you like to go to lunch?” she asked. “He says that he is less aggressive after he has eaten.” Mr. Ducasse gave me a sideways glance to see if his attempt at humor had bridged the cultural gap.

Still, who could blame him for feeling aggressive toward the press? As Mr. Ducasse bid adieu to the men with the whining vacuums and whirling steam cleaners, he could not instruct them to suck up and take away, along with the fallen brioche crumbs and stray wisps of tartufi di Alba, the demi-glace of negativity that has clung to his first months of doing business in New York. In a city that loves its restaurants and has conferred rock-star status to many of the chefs behind them, the arrival of Mr. Ducasse–the only man in history to have earned eight Michelin guide stars for his work in Europe–should have been interpreted as further evidence that New York is the culinary capital of the world.

But something went missing in the translation. Clearly, Mr. Ducasse’s desire was to import the height of French culinary sophistication and quality to New York, but then he went about it like a hayseed from Ohio. Though Mr. Ducasse was no stranger to this city, he landed here without having mastered its language, its culture and, most of all, its press. His declarations that “quality has a price,” that tables would be hard to come by and that, Lord almighty, the press would not be given any special treatment were perceived as arrogant and foolhardy. Within weeks of opening his doors, Mr. Ducasse was not feeding New York. New York was feeding on him.

As Vogue magazine’s food critic and author of The Man Who Ate Everything , Jeffrey Steingarten, who’s been eating Mr. Ducasse’s food since 1978 and is an admirer of the restaurant, put it: “Here’s Ducasse coming to New York and probably doing the worst public-relations job that anyone has done except maybe Firestone.”

Mr. Ducasse has certainly faced bigger calamities. In 1984, months after becoming a Michelin two-star chef, he survived a plane crash that killed the five other passengers who were flying with him. But after 15 operations to repair injuries to his back, legs and eye, Mr. Ducasse battled back to a kind of dizzying productivity.

Now he is working on another resurrection, this time of his considerable reputation in this media-hungry city. Already there are signs that the tide of negative press is turning positive, but this will be an important few days for Mr. Ducasse, given that The New York Times is publishing its food critic William Grimes’ review of Alain Ducasse at the Essex House today, Nov. 1, the day before Mr. Ducasse and few hundred food-industry machers celebrate the publication of Harvesting Excellence , a lavish coffee-table paean to American producers and purveyors.

The last few months have been eye-opening for Mr. Ducasse. Though his considerable pride would never let him admit it, the media’s chilly reception, which was picked up internationally, left him embarrassed; but not long after we sat down in a booth at the Petrossian Boutique & Café, he made clear, via Ms. Guéguen, his perspective on his culinary hazing.

“Everything that touches him makes him stronger,” she said. “So now he’s beginning to be very strong.”

She looked over at Mr. Ducasse, who, out of shyness, perhaps, had positioned himself sideways next to her, looking away. He looked older than his 44 years and exuded an air of immaculateness. His wavy salt-and-pepper hair was perfect. He wore a beautifully tailored dark-gray suit with double pinstripes over a black knit top. The collar of the shirt curled onto Mr. Ducasse’s lapel, the only concession to the relaxed standards of the weekend.

Ms. Guéguen, 27, a fine-boned beauty whom one culinary expert refers to as “the Gisele of the restaurant industry,” complemented Mr. Ducasse in her gray, single-pinstriped jumper, which she wore over a pink button down shirt. The couple met approximately five and a half years ago, on a plane.

Mr. Ducasse ordered a white salmon sandwich with eggplant, caviar and parmesan cheese on rye bread. I asked Mr. Ducasse if, given the chance to start over again, he would have introduced himself to New Yorkers differently. When the question was translated, he was silent for a good 10 seconds. Then came his answer.

“He doesn’t see what he’s done wrong to deserve that kind of press,” Ms. Guéguen said.

On July 26, about a month after Alain Ducasse at the Essex House opened, the New York Post ‘s restaurant critic, Steve Cuozzo, wrote that he’d decided that “what stinks most about this place is that, like old Vegas high-roller ‘gourmet’ rooms that substituted spectacle for substance, it denies money its meaning.” Perhaps even worse, the July 7 edition of the Post ‘s Page Six column quoted financier Steven Greenberg, whose serious patronage of the city’s best restaurants often gets him the kind of treatment that was depicted in the Copacabana scene of GoodFellas , saying: “They don’t have a single person on staff who knows New York City … I seriously doubt many people will return. It’s one of the least fun places to go.”

In the Aug. 14, issue of Fortune magazine, under the headline “Ishtar, the Restaurant,” Rebecca Ascher-Walsh wrote: “Dante, have we got news for you: There’s now a new circle of hell.”

Meanwhile, in his July 12 Critics Notebook in The New York Times , Mr. Grimes offered a sneak preview. “It’s hard not to feel that you are about to sign a document imposing humiliating terms of surrender,” Mr. Grimes wrote about his $1,500 check for four. Mr. Grimes wrote that “My Dinner with Alain” was “not a review . The New York Times would never review a restaurant open only two weeks, and after only one visit.” But he did note a number of his reactions to the service and the food. The veloute of spring peas “made an impression,” he wrote. But the wild salmon was “sandbagged by a viciously acidic peppered vinegar reduction. And for some reason, dishes kept showing up in front of the wrong diners.” He also mistakenly reported that there were 55 waiters for a restaurant that seats 65 people in its interior dining room. To be fair, Mr. Grimes later pointed out in a correction that, actually, there are 15 waiters; 55 is the size of the entire staff.

Mr. Ducasse had lost control of his own story. Nobody at his organization was handling a roll-out strategy. Journalists were merely calling the Essex House and messages were being passed on to Mr. Ducasse. It showed. The June 26 Daily News calculated that the dinner bill at Alain Ducasse equaled 1,064 White Castle hamburgers.

The gates were open and the agenda was set, and it was price.

“Everyone who wrote about the restaurant before it opened talked only about the wretched excess, the apparent luxuries, which disembodied from the meal itself sounded pretty silly and hardly justifying what seemed like an awesome price,” Vogue ‘s Mr. Steingarten said. “Ducasse and his staff should have talked only about the food.”

Many of the details of the restaurant, actually meant to be whimsical touches–the sterling silver carrier that held six choices of bottled water (three flat and three with bubbles), the dizzying choice of knives that anyone who ordered the squab was given, the asparagus holders that looked like surgical instruments and the display board of expensive Cartier and Waterman fountain pens that was presented at the signing of the check–were either ridiculed or deemed pretentious.

By August 9, Marian Burros wrote in The New York Times : “The food world buzzed about the disappointing cooking and the absentee chef. Endless stories mocked the $500 tabs, the wine list with some bottles marked up 1,000 percent.…”

Mr. Ducasse was quoted as saying that “if people will not accept this price, we will go elsewhere.”

Ms. Burros quoted Mr. Ducasse’s friend, André Soltner, former chef of Lutèce, saying that if Mr. Ducasse had indeed talked like that, “he’s kaput, because New Yorkers don’t have to accept that.”

The soft-spoken Mr. Soltner and Mr. Ducasse have since shaken hands and made up. “I didn’t want to say anything against him,” Mr. Soltner said. “I just wanted to say that you have to swim with the current. New Yorkers are smart people. I’m sure it was not his intention but, at the beginning, it sounded like he was giving a lesson to New York.”

Many of the stars of New York’s culinary world–men like Daniel Boulud or Le Cirque 2000’s owner, Sirio Maccioni–grew up in the countryside of France or Italy before becoming the power brokers of urban culinary oases. But their ascents were spent in the kitchens and front rooms of New York restaurants, where they learned about its social hierarchy and its press from a safe distance.

Le Bernardin’s chef Eric Ripert, who talks to Mr. Ducasse often, said, “It’s a big challenge for a foreigner to come here with a reputation. Success is much more than pure talent.” Mr. Ripert had the benefit of learning from one of the original stars of the New York culinary scene, Gilbert Le Coze, at Le Bernardin. When Mr. Le Coze died, Mr. Ripert eventually took over the kitchen. “As a Frenchman, we have the reputation of being snobs and the reputation of being rude,” he said, “But you evolve and you change. Probably today I am much more American than French.”

Then he said, “When I came here, I was lucky–I was just an employee.”

Mr. Ducasse, on the other hand, came to New York a three-star Michelin man, selling a luxury dining experience that was alien to most New Yorkers.

He serves dinner only on weekdays and lunch on Wednesday and Thursday, and there’s only one seating, which means that anyone who gets a table has it for the duration. It also means that Mr. Ducasse must charge more. His cuisine, Ms. Guéguen said, is a kind of “culinary haute couture … his own personal interpretation of what nature gives him … contemporary, but with a classical, precise technique that uses the freshest local produce.” Now, any chef worth his salt in New York uses the freshest ingredients available, but Mr. Ducasse has particular demands–such as requiring his squab to be strangled–that mean purveyors charge him more.

But not everyone in New York culinary circles buys what Mr. Ducasse is doing. “I’m a friend of Alain Ducasse. He’s a good chef,” said Le Cirque’s Sirio Maccioni, “but now I don’t know any more if he’s a chef. My mentality is that a chef or a restaurateur have to stay in their own restaurant”–even though he was calling from his restaurant in Las Vegas. (Mr. Ducasse’s response is that he spends the “necessary time” there.)

“I think he made a mistake of saying, ‘I give you the table for the night,'” said Mr. Maccioni. “People like to go to restaurants when they are always full. When they go out, they go out for something a little more than only the food.” But Mr. Maccioni also said, “I think it’s positive for New York to have somebody like Ducasse.”

Back at Petrossian Boutique & Cafe, Mr. Ducasse, who is taking a Berlitz course, took a break from his sandwich to be translated. “We’ve been shot pretty early on,” he said, “rather than give us time to understand and for them to understand us as well. But we believe we’re here for a long time, because quality always pays. And we’re not taking people for fools.”

Nevertheless, by August, sources familiar with the situation said, Mr. Ducasse and Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc., which manages the Essex House, knew they needed media assistance. Ms. Magrino’s firm was hired in September.

Still, I wondered, given Mr. Ducasse’s reputation, why didn’t he do a little more investigation as to how he should introduce himself to New York? Ms. Guéguen turned to Mr. Ducasse. French was exchanged. “Whenever I ask him a question about his strategy,” she said, “he responds that ‘we just come and do our job.’ It’s not being pretentious. It’s just being naïve, maybe.”

Mr. Ducasse finished his sandwich and looked at me out of the sides of his glasses. His lips were pursed in a fashion that could be interpreted as either a smile or a grimace; he is as hard to see through as the frosted doors to his restaurant. I remembered reading a newspaper clipping somewhere that said Mr. Ducasse was an “enterprise” that employed 650 people, brought in annual revenues of $26.7 million and included some 11 restaurants. In addition to his two three-star establishments, Restaurant Alain Ducasse in Paris and Restaurant Le Louis XV-Alain Ducasse in Monaco, there is also a series of Spoon restaurants that bear his imprimatur; a couple of inns, including L’Hostellerie de l’Abbaye de la Celle; a school, the Alan Ducasse Formation, and the Châteaux & Hötels de France, a 534-member hotel chain where Mr. Ducasse has served as president since February 1999.

You would have thought that someone at Mr. Ducasse’s organization would be keeping an eye out for the Steven Greenbergs of New York.

I asked him: “What would you say to someone like Mr. Greenberg, who claims to have had a mediocre meal at your restaurant?”

Ms. Guéguen got a funny look on her face. She fielded this one herself: “Don’t come back,” she replied.

Ms. Magrino spoke quietly but firmly. “We need a clarification on that,” she said. “You’re kidding.”

“I am kidding,” said Ms. Guéguen, smiling.

Mr. Ducasse looked pained, but his answer indicated that he was getting the hang of this game. “Cooking is not an exact science and that can happen,” he said. “You can’t judge a restaurant on one meal. And hopefully, one day he’ll come back and become foodies of this restaurant.”

“If a woman thinks that her fish is not cooked enough,” Ms. Guéguen said, “he will cook her fish more, but he will not change his philosophy. He will not change the prices,” she said, because he will not accept lower quality in either products or attention to detail.

But Mr. Ducasse has introduced a new “compose your menu” plan that is designed to give patrons more freedom. For $145, Ducasse diners get an amuse bouche, their choice of two dishes from the menu, dessert, friandises & gourmandises. Add an additional dish and it’s $160. But lest anyone think Mr. Ducasse is nudging prices down, he pointed out that his special tartufi di Alba menu, which features the rare white truffles in five of the eight courses, is $250.

And now diners are no longer given the opportunity to lift the house pens at bill-signing time. “All of the pens were stolen,” said Ms. Guéguen. “So we didn’t buy any more. Now, the maitre d’ has his own pen.”

Twenty-four years ago, Mr. Ducasse, born to goose and duck farmers in the French village of Castelsarrazin, went down in a small plane, which crashed into an Alpine mountain during a storm. While he was recuperating in the hospital, Mr. Ducasse said he realized that “if you are not useful, you are nothing.” He spoke of having a mental “cupboard with drawers.” Before his accident, he said, he had certain people in the top drawer, people he liked and who liked him. As the top-drawer folks stopped coming, Mr. Ducasse moved them down in the cupboard. At the end, he said, the cupboard was bare, save one friend.

When Mr. Ducasse returned to work, he said he could see people changing their behavior. There was something else on Mr. Ducasse’s mind. He had to prove to himself, he said, that if he was the only one who survived the crash, he would make sure not to waste the life that he had.

In 1987, hired by Le Louis XV in Monaco, he insisted his contract with the hotel state that if he did not deliver three stars within four years, he could be fired. It took only three years and, at 33, Mr. Ducasse became the youngest chef to win three Michelin stars. In 1996, Mr. Ducasse took over the legendary chef Joel Robuchon’s place at the Hôtel Le Parc in Paris, put his name on the place and, seven months later, became the first chef since the 30’s to operate two three-star establishments.

So forgive Mr. Ducasse if he’s being cool about the reception he’s getting from this city. His girlfriend said, “He fell from the sky and he is still here. So what is his risk from somebody hitting him on his head?”

It’s been a few days since anyone gave Mr. Ducasse a good whack in the toque. Indeed, things may be turning for him. Gourmet reviewer Jonathan Gold wrote in the November issue: “At this time next year I suspect Ducasse will be the best restaurant in the United States–each meal here has been much better than the last–but like any new machine this complicated, it is taking a while to roll into gear. The humanity, the pleasure of the restaurant is just beginning to show.”

Gourmet , of course, is edited by the Times ‘ former food critic, Ruth Reichl. And if you turn to the Nov. 1 Times , you can see what the current one, Mr. Grimes, thinks of the place. On Nov. 2, Mr. Ducasse will celebrate the publication of Harvesting Excellence . The city’s chefs and restaurateurs and food writers will turn out. Mr. Greenberg’s even been invited. Whoever does turn out will pat Mr. Ducasse on the back and make a guess as to how he’s really feeling behind that frosty, meticulous facade. And will wonder whether a New York outpost of his Spoon will replace 44 at the Royalton and further entrench him in the city.

“Perhaps. Maybe,” Mr. Ducasse said, without a translator. Then he smiled the smile of a man who had fallen to earth. And harvested it.