The mirrored entrance to Mix restaurant at the newly opened Emerald Palace Kempinski in Dubai is somewhat unnerving – there’s nothing like being confronted by 100 versions of yourself to induce fear ahead of meeting one of the world’s most decorated chefs. But when I spot Alain Ducasse across the vast restaurant space, the afternoon sun flooding through the floor-to-ceiling windows, he looks fresh and happy and I’m put at ease. It’s no mean feat. Ducasse has been at his new restaurant-cum-nightspot since 7am – this after staying up past midnight at its launch party the night before. “I just choose not to be tired,” shares the chef, who was the first to own three restaurants carrying three Michelin stars each in three cities (London, Monaco, and New York). It would appear that as well as being a chef extraordinaire, Alain Ducasse is also somewhat of a philosopher.
We sit down for lunch at a high table with a full view of the action in the kitchen. He looks right at home, though Ducasse doesn’t work often in the kitchen these days. “It gives me time to talk to people like you,” he smiles. What he means is, time to court media, network, and meet those who help keep the wheels turning.
Ducasse, who has written around 30 cookbooks, is hands-on with all his projects. He worked closely with architect Manuel Clavel to create the new, three-tiered space, which includes a rooftop Chef ’s Table, a gold private dining area with exquisite views of the city skyline, a vast white and mirrored main restaurant with terraces, and a moody lounge. “The idea is to give people the option to choose the experience they want,” he explains.
As we talk, the first of our sharing dishes arrives. Falafel made with chickpea and sweet potatoes roasted with honey and ginger, along with red tuna tataki marinated for 24 hours in a soy sauce and sesame mix. Ever the gentleman, Ducasse gestures to the waiter to serve me first and looks on intently as I take my first bite. Surely he can’t be nervous. As soon as I confirm how delicious the combination of flavors and textures is, he seems content, and we pick up our conversation.
Why did he choose Dubai to open a restaurant? He laughs in a manner that suggests he’s been asked this question before. “Because it’s a very exciting and appealing destination,” he begins. “It’s the first time that we are opening in the UAE. Four years ago, our managing partner showed us the project of Emerald Palace, and we thought it was a great fit – it’s a huge space offering great floors with different experiences.”
Croque monsieur with black truffle shavings and seared octopus are brought to the table. I’m excited to try the octopus and he looks on eagerly as I take a satisfactory bite. Ducasse was born in Orthez, France, and all his menus have Mediterranean flair. “There’s a diverse mix of clientele in the UAE – an array of nationalities,” he says, explaining his menu, which has a Middle Eastern twist. “So, we aim to create a mix of experiences.” He uses the word “mix” a lot when talking about the venue; no wonder it was a hot choice for the name. “We have simple bar food in the lounge and then more formal cuisine in the main restaurant,” he continues. “Then, there are celebrations in the ‘Fabergé egg.’” The restaurant manager is quick to point out, at this stage, that it’s not actually a Fabergé egg.
Regardless, the gargantuan golden egg is the focal point of the restaurant and, spanning all three floors, is certainly a talking point – even if that talking point will likely be, “Is that a Fabergé egg?”
This showpiece is to be expected of an Alain Ducasse restaurant. Each of his 50-plus venues has equally arresting interiors that almost rival the Michelin-starred cuisine itself. Ducasse is humble in comparison. He is one of only two chefs in the world to earn more than 20 Michelin stars throughout his career – he has 21; chef Joël Robuchon has 31. Yet he seems utterly unfazed by it all. “You really don’t feel any pressure from the accolades?” I ask. “Non !” he fires back.
Ducasse looks down at my plate, almost offended that I didn’t try the croque monsieur. I explain that I can’t eat dairy or eggs. “Does it annoy you when you receive customers like me, with intolerances or allergies?” I explain that I’ve often only been able to eat bread and sorbet at many five star restaurants because they won’t adapt their menu. Ducasse is shocked by this revelation. “We’re very good with allergies. All our ingredients are fresh and simple, so it’s easy to adapt the menu.”
From the age of 12, Ducasse wanted to be a chef. “My bedroom used to be above the kitchen so my first memory of food was the smell,” he joyfully reminisces about his parents’ farm in Castelsarrasin, in the Landes district of southwestern France. Despite the unwillingness of his parents, at 16 he started an apprenticeship in a local restaurant. Six years later he was working near Lyon with the famed nouvelle cuisine master Alain Chapel, who helped mentor the young chef. Another six years and Ducasse was awarded two Michelin stars at La Terrasse in the Hôtel Juana in Juan-les-Pins, signaling the start of a star-studded career. It’s an idyllic tale peppered with moments when he almost quit along the way. “People don’t realize how difficult a job it is. It takes so much hard work to be a successful chef. It’s very physical with long hours,” he shares. Ducasse almost floats above the negativity these days. Being the sole survivor of a plane crash in the Alps will do that for you. “From that point, I decided to value the everyday and not get so stressed,” he explains of his 1984 brush with death, when the Learjet he was flying on crashed into a mountain. “There is always a solution.” I agree, and tell him that millions of food fans are grateful he hasn’t thrown in his apron, just yet.