Last summer, the world's reigning French chef, Alain Ducasse—he of the multiple Michelin stars and the celebrated restaurants in Paris, Monte Carlo, London and Tokyo—opened his first Manhattan restaurant, Alain Ducasse at the Essex House. The buzz was all about how high the prices were (a $160 prix fixe) and how hard it was to get a reservation (the restaurant has a single seating each night for 65 people). It looked like the only way I would ever taste Ducasse's food was if I made it myself. All right, then. I came up with a plan: I would try to buy the same ingredients Ducasse uses, dig up his brand of pots and pans, knives and plates, pick some recipes from his books and get my wife and daughters to join me in preparing a do-it-yourself Ducasse dinner. And for the pièce de résistance—or perhaps the coup de grâce—we'd invite Ducasse over for the meal. He'd have no trouble getting a reservation chez nous.
I wasn't afraid of cooking for a culinary demigod. I've found over the years that chefs are pretty easy to please when they're off duty; after all, the reason they're in the business they're in is that they like food. The tough part, I thought, would be the same thing I find problematic with a lot of great chefs' cookbooks. The recipes are easy—but only if you have a platoon of culinary-school graduates chopping hard-to-get and harder-to-afford ingredients into atoms. Would my wife and daughters be a suitable substitute?
I sat for a few days in our little cabin up in the Adirondacks, thumbing through Ducasse's books, and after much page turning and mental tasting, I began to feel a menu coming together. First, a steak: The recipe I chose, from the 1998 Ducasse Flavors of France, called for a sauce made with a reduction of sour cherries and cherry vinegar combined with an equally reduced red-wine-and-beef stock.
"Aha," I can hear you say. "Cherry vinegar? Where do you get that?"
A peek at the back of the book revealed substitutions for unusual ingredients, and an early-morning visit to the supermarket yielded everything else the recipes called for. I returned to the cabin, unpacked and began to reduce stockpots of ingredients to little saucepans' worth of sauces for a practice run. Working alongside me, my 15-year-old daughter, Lucy, made Ducasse's jasmine crème brûlée and learned that the delicious custard would require second-by-second monitoring when she put a blowtorch to the top. (On the first try, she charred it.) Her 10-year-old sister, Lily, helped me strain the sauces and plate the pan-seared shell steak.
Once we were back home in Brooklyn, it was decided that my wife, Melinda, would do the starter, Ducasse's tomato confit tart with young lettuces. I would concentrate on the steak with sour-cherry sauce and a daunting-sounding but relatively uncomplicated dish of sole in fig leaves with vanilla bean, Sumatra pepper and a confit of fig and lemon. The fig leaves threw me for a second, but I live in an Italian neighborhood, and Carmine, my greengrocer, reminded me about Tony Didio's tree on Second Place. Tony got up on a stepladder to snip off the broadest leaves.
Our preparations occupied most of the weekend; there was always something bubbling on top of the stove or roasting inside it. I made the sauces, Lily made a trial pear bread, Melinda roasted tomatoes and assembled a practice tart. Monday morning we packed up our goods and headed to a Manhattan loft about midway between Ducasse's restaurant and our house and began the countdown. Lily mixed up her batter and folded in her honeyed pears. Lucy's ramekins went into the oven, followed by Melinda's crusts. Meanwhile, I put all the ingredients for the fish and meat courses onto little plates, which I covered with plastic wrap. (I've learned, from watching chefs, the tremendous virtue of getting ready in advance: mise en place, as the French say.)
We began work about 9:30, and for the next several hours we barely looked up. By 2:00, when Dana Cowin of F&W arrived, everything was ready enough that we could chat semi-relaxedly. We hardly noticed when, a few minutes later, Ducasse eased into the kitchen, accompanied by his companion, Gwénaëlle Guéguen, a glamorous Bretonne who made me think of a French Lauren Hutton. Her fashionable Courrèges outfit and his suit, tie and crisp white shirt struck a more serious note than my polo shirt and Mickey Mouse apron.
I wondered if I was in for a going-over from a no-nonsense big-shot chef;I was relieved when Ducasse removed his suit jacket and glided around the kitchen muttering what I took to be grunts of approval. As we began to chat, he insisted that we speak French, a language I feel rather than really know. But I was game, and Ducasse quickly dropped the persona of serious chef. He was enthusiastic and, best of all, he was hungry.
Melinda cut her tomato tart, wincing at the sounds of the crust cracking where it wanted to rather than along the neat lines her blade was suggesting. Hey, no problem—we heaped the mesclun and tomato confit on top, and nobody knew the difference. It tasted great and Ducasse chowed down. Whew!
I was up next. When I removed my sole-and-fig-leaf bundles from the oven, I decided to leave the fish sitting on the leaves because they looked so nice and rustic; I plopped a roasted fig on one side of each and a roasted lemon slice on the other. This is a very Ducassian dish. Rather than layering taste upon taste, the approach is minimal—not sushi-minimal, but not complicated. If you added anything else, the light sweetness of the fig and the roundness of the vanilla would be overwhelmed. Here, they are left alone to work their shy sorcery on the light and delicate white-fleshed fish.
"Fig leaves!" Ducasse was surprised. "Where did you find those?"
"You can get anything in Brooklyn," I answered.
So far the chef had neither tsk-tsked nor given that Gallic heaven-help-us raising of the eyebrows that signifies chefly displeasure. His basic criticism was "More salt, more pepper," but most chefs will say that about anything they taste.
The next course was the steak. I was curious as to whether, away from his kitchen, Ducasse would first spoon the sauce onto the plate, the way fancy restaurants do, or slice the steak and spoon the sauce over it, the way normal people do. So I told him I'd like to know how he would serve it. That was all he needed to hear—give a chef an opening and the next thing you know he'll have an apron on and a spoon in his hand. True to form, Ducasse shook and stirred my sauce, tasted, added salt, tasted, added pepper, tasted, added salt again. Meanwhile, I seared the steak in the pan and sliced it. Ducasse plated it and then spooned the sauce over the meat, just like a short-order chef putting pan gravy on his meat loaf down at the diner.
At last dinner was ready. We sat. We ate. We finished everything.
"Lucy, your crème brûlée," I barked in chef-like fashion.
Lucy ignited her little blowtorch and crisped the tops perfectly. She placed the finished desserts on a larger dish, leaving room for Lily's pear bread. Emboldened by Ducasse's seasoning foray into my steak sauce, I poured off some of the honey, butter and juice Lily had cooked her pears in before she folded them into the dough. I dumped the liquid into a saucepan, threw in some salt (eliciting a "Good idea!" from Ducasse) and added some lemon juice. With Lily's collaboration, I spooned the lemon sauce over the pear bread, and the kids served up the desserts. We all fairly licked our dishes clean. If I counted right, Gwénaëlle, who had forgone her meat, polished off three of the creamy desserts.
"Very good," Ducasse declared as he put on his jacket.
"It's the ingredients," I answered. That's what chefs say in an interview when nothing else comes to mind. But I knew the recipes had something to do with it too.
Peter Kaminsky's next book, The Elements of Taste, written with Gray Kunz, is due next fall from Little, Brown and Company.