Alain Ducasse, chef

ADAD_20-07-16- Alain Ducasse & Jean-Philippe Blondet ®pmonetta-8032

Ostensibly, I am sat in the plush promenade of The Dorchester to interview Alain Ducasse about the 10th anniversary of his three-Michelin starred restaurant at the hotel – a milestone that assures the restaurant’s reputation as an institution on London’s dining scene. But it soon becomes apparent that Ducasse is keen to speak about something else entirely.

The influential French-born, Monégasque chef tells me that he has a new vision – not only for his restaurants, but for the wider culture of food and drink. Ducasse says that he is embracing sustainability in a grand way.

“We need to rethink the way we feed ourselves. The planet is able to feed everyone, but we have to rebalance how we consume. People who are overfed have to think about the way they consume, to allow people who are underfed to access resources. This is very important to me.”

In 2014, Ducasse took a quantum leap forward at his three-Michelin starred gastronomic temple at the Plaza Athenée, Paris, introducing a new style of cooking he calls ‘cuisine de naturalité’ – which eschews meat and dairy and puts the emphasis on locally-sourced ingredients.

This was a radical move for such a respected restaurant, particularly in Paris – a city that’s food culture is centred around animal produce. “The idea is to focus on vegetables, grains and fish. The codes for haute cuisine can be seen as produce like foie gras; but we wanted to show that we could do haute cuisine without focusing on meat.

“What we produce at the Plaza Athenée is still beautiful – the level of excellence is very high,” says the chef matter-of-factly, “But it’s key to have less protein, less fat, and also less sugar. We are creating a cuisine that is healthier for us as guests, but is also more sustainable and better for the planet,” he says. “That is my new vision.”

ADPA-Petit epeautre de haute provence a la truffe noire racines kumquats-(c)pmonetta (2)

Removing meat and dairy from the menu was already a bold move, but Ducasse didn’t stop there; he has also installed further initiatives in the kitchen to ensure that the restaurant is as sustainable as possible. “We make sure that we use every bit of produce. Less waste is key. For instance, we use the roots of endives to make stock. We use the leaves from other vegetables to make condiments. We try and use everything – my aim is to no longer have bins in the kitchen,” says the chef, who participated in Dan Barber’s acclaimed wastED pop-up at Selfridges that put the spotlight on the importance of reducing food waste.

Jean-Philippe Blondet, head chef at Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester, explains further. “In restaurants, you see that all the produce is the same size – but we don’t care. If a carrot is a strange shape, it doesn’t matter. If the beetroot is big, we don’t mind. It’s natural.

“What we are looking for is the best produce – the most fresh and organic we can find in the UK. We use everything we buy and put everything we get on the plate, just in a different way.”

“Today, we believe that big portions are synonymous with quality, which is not the case,” says Ducasse. “Big portions normally mean waste, which is a shame.” As well as using every bit of produce that comes into the restaurant to minimise waste, Ducasse’s restaurants also source ingredients as locally as possible, from trusted suppliers that share the same ethos. “In Paris, we work locally and with the seasons; the vegetables are grown in Versailles, a few kilometres away, and they are delivered with an electric car. It’s an economy of proximity.

“The key is to work with produce that is harvested when it’s at the perfect maturity, at their best.” He says that finding the right supplier has long been integral to his work; but the changing food culture has allowed him to embrace the idea more fully. “Sourcing has always been at the heart of what I do. Behind each ingredient is a man or woman who is the link between the produce and us. They allow us to have knowledge of these ingredients as well.

“There is a farmer in the countryside outside of Beijing who produces organic vegetables,” says Ducasse, noting that his sourcing philosophy extends throughout his global stable of restaurants. “It’s remarkable the work he is doing there – everything I tasted was to perfection. He decided to grow everything organically, with the idea of sustainability. He has 47 tunnels, but he doesn’t heat them which leads to less pollution.”

Ducasse believes that it’s only a matter of time until a more empathetic treatment of the environment is the zeitgeist. “People everywhere have realised that it’s now a necessity to go in that direction – to be able to feed everyone as well as preserve and protect the planet. It’s important to see these men and women standing for these ideas and facing big companies that are producing massively, and it’s important for us to support this work.”

The tricky part is to have a lasting influence on the culture, in order to create a better environment for ours and future generations. Ducasse sees the world’s finest restaurants, such as Alain Ducasse at the Plaza Athenée (number 13 on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants) and his spot at The Dorchester as arbiters of change. “It is key for me and restaurants like ours to highlight these issues and create awareness. Haute gastronomy is a way to share this knowledge. That’s how I can access the media and really spread the message.

“Much like haute couture with fashion, haute cuisine is necessary for the evolution of the industry. Haute couture will influence prêt-à-porter, like haute cuisine will influence the rest of the food industry,” he says, stating that daring moves from restaurants towards sustainability will have an impact on the wider food culture. “It starts in Paris at the Plaza Athenée, but the influence goes on to other restaurants – to London as well, where we have started to take on elements of naturalité.”

Plaza-Athenee-Alain-Ducasse-au-Plaza-Athenee-(c)-Pierre-Monetta-2

Ducasse’s business empire includes 26 restaurants that currently hold 18 Michelin stars; a Parisian cookery school; training and consultancy and Alain Ducasse Edition, his own publishing company. Through these, Ducasse is dedicated to passing down his expertise. “The main motivation for me is this transmission of knowledge. That’s how I see the evolution. It’s key for me to share my knowledge – of course with the guests – but also throughout the industry; the chefs, this generation and a future generation. It goes through the restaurants, the cooking schools that we have for amateurs as well as professionals, and the publishing house,” he says. Ducasse has recently published a book on these issues of sustainability, Manger Est Un Acte Citoyen – literally, ‘eating is a citizen act’ – so far only available in French.

Ducasse tells me that thanks to good timing on his part, his company’s work puts him at the dawn of a new era in the way we appreciate food. “Innovation is key; but the important thing is not to be too far ahead. You have to anticipate, but you have to find the right time to create these trends. Ultimately, this issue is incredibly important now – and it will be in the coming years.”

As featured in Mayfair Times’ November 17 edition.

Justine Waddell, actress, founder of Kino Klassika

Justine Waddell is a recognisable face to many. Having previously starred in acclaimed period dramas including Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Great Expectations, Justine has in more recent times become a champion of Russian cinema, and is the founder and a trustee of Kino Klassika – the foundation that aims to put the spotlight on Russian-language filmmaking.

(c) Alexander Kissel, Justine Waddell wearing Rubies from Fabergé_s Three Colours of Love

It was while working with Oscar-nominated actor Ralph Fiennes that Justine first became interested in Russian culture. “I kind of have a long and unexpected connection with Russia,” she says, settling into a seat at Little House’s packed bar. “I had done a Chekhov play called Ivanov at the Almeida with Ralph, who was a massive star – The English Patient had just come out. We then toured that play to Moscow, which was a really special experience. It was wonderful to be doing Chekhov there.”

Some years after, Justine was approached about starring in a Russian sci-fi film called Target. “The script read like a great big flamboyant novel. It’s also loosely based on Anna Karenina, which is my favourite novel. Anna is an iconic woman in literature. How could I turn it down?”

Not even the fact that she couldn’t speak Russian put Justine off the project. “I said, ‘I’d love to do it, but I don’t speak Russian…’ And they went, in that typically Russian way: ‘Don’t worry, we’ll teach you.’ I was very English about it and said, ‘Oh, alright, very nice!’”

She says that while learning another language was difficult – particularly one as complex as Russian – it helped her develop an affinity for the country. “It was hard, but it was invigorating. I genuinely fell down the rabbit hole.”

With Kino Klassika, Justine aims to showcase Russian cinema – often state-sponsored – as art. “We try to create a space where people can experience films not as entertainment, not as propaganda, but simply as pieces as art.” She says that the work of Russia’s greatest filmmakers is worthy of being appreciated in such a way. “What’s really interesting is that the Hollywood studio system became about entertainment – and early post-Revolution Russian filmmaking was very much about innovation, experiment and what the medium could do and how it could educate. I think that’s what marked Russian filmmaking from the beginning, and really makes it worthwhile to try and share.”

The latest season, which centred on the centenary of the Russian Revolution, has just wrapped up – culminating with a screening of one of the most ambitious films in Russia’s history, October, the masterpiece by Sergei Eisenstein – accompanied by a live orchestral score courtesy of the London Symphony Orchestra. “It’s the film that got Eisenstein into trouble. It’s a deeply experimental film – very satirical and biting. It’s very caustic. October is a sophisticated film and it’s really pushing what film and editing can do; but that moment of experimenting disappeared with that film,” says Justine, noting that October was the first film accused of formalism by Stalin. “I think that’s what we were marking when we screened it at the Barbican with the LSO.”

Justine tells me there are two reasons why Russian cinema hasn’t become as prominent as filmmaking from other regions. “Firstly, there’s the difficulty of language – Russian is a different alphabet, it’s not a Romantic language. Also, there’s the legacy of the Cold War. We forget that 30 years ago, the world was split into two quite distinct regions of the world. That definitely impacted on the way that cinema was allowed and constructed to travel,” she says, noting that films by some of Russia’s greatest still found their way across the globe. “What’s interesting about cinema is that you can never put it in a box. Especially now. That’s what’s so exciting about new technology and all of the things we’re going to be able to do with new technology to get at content that was impossible to reach before.”

Kino Klassika aims to continue to bring Russian-language cinema to the rest of the world with a diverse programme of screenings, exhibitions and publications. “Kino Klassika is beginning to travel,” says Justine. “We have a Dziga Vertov programme at the Centre Pompidou in December with Antonio Somaini, who is a great European film and cultural historian – we’re really excited about collaborating on that; Thames & Hudson have also published a remarkable book by Naum Kleiman, the world’s leading Eisenstein scholar, which is a book of the director’s drawings. We connected the publisher with the author to make that book happen, which took three or four years. Martin Scorsese has written the forward to that, so that will be a big deal.

“Next summer, we have a collaboration with the Russian film journal, Séance; Lenfilm (the famous Russian film production company); and Catriona Kelly, Professor of Russian at Oxford University, called Nevaland – a pun on the River Neva – which is about the history of St Petersburg on film. It will be the first time that we’re working in Russia.”

Ultimately, the goal is to keep the standard of programming high to continue to attract those otherwise unfamiliar with Russian film. “What’s important for us is to continue the level of curatorial excellence that has been achieved so far. It’s very exciting.”

As featured in Mayfair Times’ November 17 edition.

Travel feature, Milan

Fondazione Prada - Bar Luce 3

Milan, though boasting a hefty reputation as a bastion of art and design in Europe, is often overlooked as a destination for a weekend break. The city is often claimed to be gritty and unpolished; but while Milan has a more industrial feel than some other Italian cities – which in itself is no bad thing – it proudly stands as the one of the most culturally fascinating cities in the azure isle.

Milan is a city of aesthetes. From the worlds of fashion (it’s a bonafide sartorial hub); design, in which it is an international pioneer, particularly for furniture; and art, where the city showcases a new generation of artists as well as revering the Italian masters such as Caravaggio and Verdi and global names displayed in the many excellent art galleries dotted around the city; Milan is a powerhouse when it comes to the art of making things look good.

Where to sleep

Senato Hotel Milano is a boutique hotel that has been making waves in the design world, being shortlisted for a Wallpaper* Best Urban Hotels award. Milan-based architect, Alessandro Bianchi, has overseen the whole hotel – from the structure to the furnishings – and created a bold but refined interior. Largely set in monochrome, offset with the use of warmer tones provided by brass, velvet and wood, the former five-story neo-classical private residence is the definition of chic – the ideal spot from which to explore Milan’s unparalleled style scenes.

The quiet garden, where guests can take breakfast, is typical of Milan’s hidden palazzos; while the unusual black marble square shallowly covered with water – a reference to the Naviglio Grande canal which once flowed through this stretch of the city before being confined to the south side of the city centre, which is home to tucked away artist studios.

A perfect bolthole for a city break, the rooms are pleasingly minimal, with crisp white sheets and walls contrasted against gold accents like the gingko biloba leaf lamp and thoughtfully-chosen furniture pieces in deep emerald.

What to see

From Senato Hotel, perched on the edge of the trendy Brera district, it’s a cinch to see some of the best cultural sites Milan offers. Your first stop should be the famous Triennale di Milano, a leisurely walk across town and into the picturesque Parco Sempione, adjacent to the 15th century Sforza Castle. The museum puts the spotlight on Italian and world design, such as the current pop-inspired exhibition studying design for children, running until February 2018, which features giant, cartoon sculptures that put adults back into the shoes of kids; alongside contemporary art from a variety of mediums.

Another must visit is Fondazione Prada, the architectural space-come-gallery that sees artists including Louise Bourgeois and Robert Gober redefine the Instagram-worthy gold townhouse, set in the centre of the former distillery, with thought-provoking installations. Running until January 2018 is an immersive and haunting virtual reality installation from four-time Academy Award-winning director Alejandro González Iñárritu. Booking for big name exhibitions like this are necessary. Stop for coffee at the Wes Anderson-designed Bar Luce – the director’s whimsical pastiche on Milan’s traditional cafés.

Where to eat

As Milan is a city of aesthetes, it’s no surprise that the artistic approach to design extends further than the walls of its museums and galleries.

For a lunchtime bite with visual clout, book yourself into Spazio Milano, housed on the top floor of the Mercato del Duomo, opposite the stunning Milan Cathedral – the largest church in Italy and the third largest in the world. With views overlooking the intricate detailing of its many Gothic spires, Spazio is a striking spot to devour bowls of expertly-made pasta, prepared by trainees from three Michelin-starred chef Niko Romito’s cookery school. But the architectural eye-candy isn’t just outside; the sun-soaked white room, softened with rustic wooden tables and chairs and brought to life by a central ficus tree and hip Italians enjoying leisurely lunches is a joy in itself.

One of the most interesting marriages of food and design can be found at the restaurant Carlo e Camilla in Segheria, housed in a former sawmill in the city’s happening Navigli district. Headed up by chef Luca Pedata under the direction of Carlo Cracco, one of Milan’s most prominent cooks, the restaurant consists of communal tables in a stripped, industrial space, softened by the use of vintage plates, intelligent lighting and a buzzy, warm atmosphere. The very best seasonal ingredients and knowing winks to Italy’s culinary heritage dominate, with an adventurous menu offering diners a taste of modern Milan. The cocktail bar, housed in an open warehouse within the same complex, sees bartender Filippo Sisti mix forward-thinking drinks that make use of cooking techniques, to achieve concoctions you may or may not remember the next morning.

Senato Hotel Milano, Via Senato 22

Triennale di Milano, Viale Alemagna 6

Fondazione Prada, Largo Isarco 2

Spazio Milano, Il Mercato del Duomo, Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II

Carlo e Camilla in Segheria, Via Giuseppe Meda 24

 

As featured in Mayfair Times’ October 17 edition.

Q&A: Martyn Nail, executive chef, Claridge’s

Dolce Gabbana Xmas Tree, 2013, Claridges

As Mayfair institution Claridge’s launches its very first cookbook, we chat with executive chef Martyn Nail about capturing the hotel’s heritage while embracing the future – and why it was such a long time coming.

When did the idea for the book come about? 

M: It was probably three or four years ago. Meredith was a guest in the foyer and I was walking through. She asked if she could have a copy of my book. I said that we didn’t have one, and she said, “Well I’d love the recipe for your chicken pie.” I said that I would dig it out. Then she bumped into our general manager and mentioned the idea of a book. She connected with me and the subject went from there. We thought about it and put some things together – then various people were saying, ‘come on – where is it?’ So in the latter part of last year, we realised that we needed to stop talking about it and that there was quite a lot of work to do.

But where do you start when the hotel is 189 years old? Some of these things have been here forever – the chicken pie for instance. As I said as a little headnote in the book, a previous chef in the 1950s tried to take it off the menu, and he was told it was him or the chicken pie. It’s still here – it’s something that’s just stuck with the place. Some have become favourites, like the lobster risotto, and some are of the moment, like the dessert trolley.

In a way, the business of the hotel has gone like London has. It was a quiet little tea room; a busy restaurant – it’s always been a busy restaurant; but over the past 10 years its grown and grown and grown in popularity.

Why was this the time to bring out a cookbook for Claridge’s?

M: I think it was probably overdue. There are so many aspects to Claridge’s. It’s not just pictures of food; there are incredible details from around the hotel we wanted to capture. We were going to caption all these details, but actually, part of the fun is to say, ‘where is that?’ There’s so much detail and so much history… If walls could talk! We came across all these old menus for one-off events, which we printed in the book. It’s fantastic that, for one, they are still here; and second, that once you think about what was behind them, who went and why it was here, it tells you even more about how special Claridge’s is.

How did you decide which recipes made the cut?

M: It was a bit like picking your favourite child! The book is structured by the time of day, because the hotel is always open. It literally is 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. You’ve got recipes for scrambled egg, some little recipes for biscuits – as after all, it would be lovely for someone to come in and say, “I’ve done those biscuits and they were exactly the same as you do them.” All the recipes were tested, which was really important, because the scale of our recipes didn’t work when we cut them down; we realised that actually, it’s not that simple. It was necessary. Then you go to things like our croissant recipe, some of the pastries – and they can be very layered, very laboursome. You go, ‘Looks lovely’ and move on. But in a way, when you come to one of the finest hotels in the world, I think that’s absolutely what you would expect. It has to be.

What are you favourite recipes or stories in the book?

M: The chicken pie is timeless. Lobster risotto is very popular – it’s lovely to see it framed in history. We do soufflés for events for 12 to 200 – no-one really does that, so we’ve got a soufflé in there because we do it so well. You’ve got to be pretty mad and confident to do that. We’ve also mentioned a few of our guests as well – families we welcome back, and now their children, their grandchildren and great grandchildren. They’re part of the place. One sadly passed away recently; he came here on his 5th birthday. He was with us earlier this year, and he was 97. What a life! To have been coming to Claridge’s for 92 years of your life. That is very special.

Who is this book for?

M: Of course, the first answer that came to my head was ‘everybody’ – it’s a must have! But I think it goes into so many different categories. Firstly it’s a cookbook; secondly, it’s Claridge’s – so it elevates it into another world. But it’s also about luxury, style, deco – and it’s also just a beautiful coffee table book.

When did you first get into food?

M: I grew up in Winchester, Hampshire. My grandmother was a great cook. They had an association with Highclere Castle, and their grandparents were from that area and they helped out there; so they were sort of in service. My father just threw that out a while ago when Downton Abbey was on! But I would sit on the draining board and peel plums – probably eat two and stone one. She would make roast chicken; lemon meringue pie; rice pudding with the skin on top. And I just enjoyed it. I thought I’d be a vet, but I wasn’t going to do years of ‘all that’. So then I went to catering college. It was enjoying it early on – falling in a bowl of cake mix and enjoying it on that domestic level that got me hooked.

Claridge’s: The Cookbook is published by Mitchell Beazley.

As featured in Mayfair Times’ October 17 edition.