Absorbing and cinematic, “The Quest of Alain Ducasse” offers the documentary equivalent of a memorable meal at one of the eponymous chef’s three Michelin-starred restaurants. Gorgeously shot for the big screen by multihyphenate Gilles de Maistre, it thoughtfully explores what makes the globe-trotting chef-businessman tick while following him over 18 months as he prepares to open the luxury restaurant Ore in the Palace of Versailles, visits his own establishments around the world and those of his food suppliers and samples food of all kinds. Magnolia Pictures nabbed the U.S. rights; arthouse distributors worldwide should savor the opportunity.
Regarded as an innovator for having transformed the French haute cuisine dining experience into honest and simple food where the diner’s pleasure is paramount, the 61-year old Ducasse now manages an empire that includes 24 restaurants in eight countries, run with 1,400 partners representing more than 40 different nationalities. The peripatetic Frenchman with Monégasque citizenship visits his establishments every three months, tastes what’s cooking and urges his staff to surpass themselves. Whether luxury dining spot or bistro, his restaurants are all about locally sourced, high-quality ingredients, prepared according to the seasons.
Although he no longer cooks in a restaurant kitchen, we occasionally see Ducasse in his chef’s whites, masterminding big public events such as the wedding of Prince Albert II of Monaco, and state dinners for then-French president François Holland. The antithesis of a loud, screaming TV chef, he respectfully greets all of his staff people and is a model of professionalism, precision and discipline.
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Under the intimate gaze of de Maistre’s discreet camera, Ducasse always appears calm, cool, centered, an exceptional manager and mentor and remarkably tireless. Despite this public face, one gets the sense of the very private man who required more than a year to be persuaded to participate in this project. Clearly, there must have been some ground rules regarding his personal life since de Maistre’s voiceover narration barely mentions Ducasse’s wife and children, whom he says he encountered a only few times over the course of filming.
Having grown up on a farm in southwestern France, eating more vegetables than meat, and where every meal was essentially farm-to-table cooking, Ducasse is passionate about sustainability and using responsibly sourced raw ingredients. He puts it simply, “Before cooking, there is nature.” He tells a story about offering President Hollande a dinner for heads of state during one of the Paris climate change conferences, in which he would have served a meal costing less than 20 euros per person. Although Holland was in favor of the idea, the Elysée establishment didn’t go for a menu consisting solely of vegetables, seeds, sustainable fish and roots.
Another of the many ways Ducasse makes a contribution to sustainability is through his culinary training program in Manilla. There, Ducasse Education Philippines partners with the Tuloy Foundation to create the “youth with a future” program, providing scholarships for young people to attend the training program. He attends a graduation ceremony and tells the students he hopes they’ll become chefs in one of his restaurant kitchens.
Ducasse is also a big supporter of Italian chef Massimo Bottura’s “Refettorio Gastromotiva” project. The basis of the initiative is that nothing should be thrown out and that people can be fed well with even a few ingredients. It’s a concept that calls for creativity in Rio, when Ducasse and his colleagues have nothing but sardines, manioc and bananas at their disposal.
So, what drives the socially conscious chef? Certainly, a desire to push the boundaries of his art, to be continually creative and to educate others through his cookbooks and culinary institutes. But more than anything, it’s his never-ending curiosity. He thrives on learning and sampling new things. Surprisingly, given that he was the sole survivor of an airplane crash back in the 1980s, Ducasse still loves to travel. And he still loves to try new and different foods, although, smartly, never while flying.
Crafted and assembled with considerable intelligence, polish and sensitivity, “Ducasse” benefits from a gripping, almost thriller-like score from Armand Amar.