Alain Ducasse isn't the easiest person to track down. When he's not flying back and forth between New York, France, and Monaco, he's overseeing his Michelin-starred and critically acclaimed restaurants (Le Louis XV in Monte Carlo, Alain Ducasse at the Plaza Athénée in Paris, and Alain Ducasse at the Essex House in New York), stopping at more than a dozen other eating establishments he has created (like the Spoon outposts popping up all over), and directing a 526-property hotel company, Châteaux et Hôtels de France. Travel + Leisure caught up with Ducasse on a very short break in France's Basque country to ask him what makes a great hotel restaurant, where to find the best food markets, and how he got his start in the hotel business.
1. Where are you now?
I am in the Basque country of France in the village of Bidarray (a 30-minute drive from Biarritz) enjoying the view of the mountains and a landscape filled with sheep. This is near where I grew up, and it feels like a home away from home. Last year, I bought a small café-restaurant here, Auberge Iparla, that serves traditional Basque food. The only other place I would rather be is Moustiers-Sainte-Marie in Provence, where I could sip from a glass of Pastis on a hot summer day. I love the sound of ice cubes clinking against the side of the glass while cicadas buzz insistently in the background.
2. What is the concept behind Mix, your new restaurant in New York City?
I teamed up with Jeffrey Chodorow, my partner in the Sanderson Hotel's eatery Spoon+ [in London], to create a bar-lounge-restaurant that blends the tastes of North America's Atlantic Coast with those of the French Mediterranean. It's a culinary bridge between the continents.
3. Do you have a favorite food market?
Wherever I am, I always try to visit the local farmers market. This is where you find the real soul of the region. It is hard to choose just one, but three of my favorites are the farmer's market in New York City's Union Square; the food market in Tunisia's capital, Tunis; and the food market in Biarritz, in the heart of French Basque country.
4. What was the best experience you have ever had in a hotel?And the worst?
The best experience was at the Inn at Little Washington in Virginia; its meals and accommodations are exquisite, and the room service is incredible. The worst: a charming hotel in Brittany that failed to deliver a wake-up call, ensuring a late start on my way out of town. To top it off, the car broke down en route to the airport.
5. What do you look for in a good hotel restaurant?
I am, above all, a curious and incorrigible gourmand. I seek out simple and flavorful cuisine. I love to discover and taste everything, such as the simple pleasure of a marvelous piece of fruit. Food that is made with joy and enthusiasm is always well-received. Service is also important. The failure to smile, an inhospitable reception, is unforgivable. After all, a ready and gracious smile is the easiest thing to offer. Conveying that joie de vivre is essential.
6. You are the chairman of Châteaux et Hôtels de France (CHF). How did you get started in the hotel business?
In the nineties, I bought a 17th-century country house in the village of Moustiers-Sainte-Marie, located near the beautiful Gorges du Verdon in Provence, with the aim of using it as a private retreat. I was enchanted by the place, but as the restoration proceeded, I decided that such a treasured place deserved to be shared. La Bastide de Moustiers opened its doors in 1995, offering guests friendly but fully professional service, a bountiful cuisine, and a cozy atmosphere (there are only 12 bedrooms). Then followed l'Hostellerie de l'Abbaye de la Celle in 1999, an 18th-century, 10-bedroom mansion, adjacent to a 12th-century abbey, located between Cannes and Aix.
7. How many properties are in CHF? Are there plans for expansion in Europe or abroad?
CHF consists of 526 castles, hotels, and restaurants, 149 of which are designated as "Bonnes Tables" (Excellent) and "Grandes Tables" (Superior). This past year we have created a new group, Bistrots & Brasseries de Tradition, that reinforces the idea of a regional cuisine highlighting the great traditions of French culinary heritage. In 2001, we also opened our first sales offices in the United States, in New York and Houston. After having launched distinguished properties in Corsica and Réunion in 2002, CHF welcomed its first Swiss property in 2003: L'Hôtel Palafitte à Neuchâtel. This year, CHF strengthened its international standing through an association with the Historic Hotels of America. With more than 200 establishments throughout the United States, Historic Hotels offers an ideal way to experience the U.S.A., with uniquely appealing properties that offer distinctive characteristics similar to those in our group.
8. How do CHF properties differ from others?
Each of our properties is fully a part of its region, and yet clearly positioned as a contemporary inn. We know of what we are capable; we are modest, we offer cuisine that gives praise to natural produce, to the tastes and colors of our regions, at fair prices. When a traveler seeks a place, a residence that has the personality and character of a region, he is also in need of finding a simple and bountiful cuisine that is in harmony with its locale. It is more than an overt luxuriousness or starchy service. The two-part promise of our properties consists of, one, hospitality as part of a spirit of discovery of the riches of France and, two, the quality of the various cuisines that form an integral part of the geography of our distinctive regions.
9. Do you have any advice for someone who wants to start a career in the hotel industry?
Be ready to work very hard, put yourself fully in the service of the customer, and bring pleasure to him during the time when he is under your roof. Do your work with respect and a generous nature.
10. What are the ingredients that go into making a successful hotel or inn?
Authenticity; generous cuisine based on local produce; nicely decorated, comfortable accommodations; and a truly friendly approach are for me some of the key aspects for the making of a successful hotel. The keywords should be: hospitality, quality, service, generosity.
Interviewed by Mario R. Mercado