A Tale of Culinary Reconciliation, Beside the Eiffel Tower
PARIS — A couple decades ago France suffered a severe shock. A Spanish restaurant called El Bulli, on the Catalan coast north of Barcelona, led a culinary revolution so bold that French cuisine suddenly looked stilted, a self-satisfied tradition stuck in a cloying bed of butter and cream.
In an article the French have never forgotten, Arthur Lubow wrote in The New York Times Magazine that “Spain has become the new France.” Chefs opined that classic French cuisine had run out of gas. It was a country, one esteemed Spanish restaurant critic suggested, where chefs go “to learn what not to do.” How could a veal blanquette or an entrecôte with morels and cream hold a candle to white bean foam with sea urchins or spherical melon caviar?
That was in 2003. Ferran Adrià, working with his younger brother Albert, turned his restaurant in the Catalan seaside town of Rosas into a gastronomic gem so sought after that annual requests for tables rose into the millions, few of them satisfied.
The world wanted to taste Mr. Adrià’s conjuring of unlikely fusions and lightness. Kitchen and laboratory merged. Escoffier yielded to essences. Sauces were aerated rather than reduced. Beet foam and basil jelly were the new hollandaise and velouté.
The pendulum, however, always swings too far. El Bulli, overwhelmed, closed its doors in 2011. The great Catalan and Basque culinary flowering that left France licking its wounds passed its zenith. Other countries — Peru, Denmark, Japan — became the objects of gastronomic fascination.
France, like Aesop’s tortoise, proceeded down its path shaped by superb ingredients, immemorial professionalism, demanding tastes, great wines, rigorous finesse and, where necessary, “enough melted butter to thrombose a regiment,” as A.J. Liebling once put it. After all, that’s what frogs’ legs demand — and not just any butter: the unctuous otherworldly thing of beauty that is French butter.
“For a while, the Spanish did better than us,” said Nicolas Chatenier, a prominent culinary consultant. “They had a message. We did not. It was a sobering call to adjust old knowledge to contemporary circumstances. Food, you must understand, is French soft power.”
Nobody has wielded that power more effectively than Alain Ducasse, 65, the exacting and restless French chef raised on a farm in the southwest of the country. At 33, he became the youngest chef ever to be awarded three Michelin stars (at the Louis XV in Monaco) and has since accumulated 29 across his 30 restaurants in Europe, Asia and the United States. Mr. Ducasse, always on the move, is an entrepreneurial perfectionist.
“One problem? Two solutions,” he likes to say, not always the reflex in a country that sometimes seems less inclined to get to yes than to no. Now Mr. Ducasse has come up with an ingenious scheme that seems to lay to rest the French-Spanish trauma with a full-circle elegance.
He has teamed up with Albert Adrià, long the junior partner in the El Bulli journey and today a Barcelona restaurateur, to create a 100-day pop-up whose menu marries French, Spanish and other cuisines with an emphasis on sustainable ingredients. The menu offers no meat. Fish and cereals are prominent, but not to the exclusion of a rich Brillat-Savarin cheese with shaved Alba truffles on a light meringue. Above all, there is a quest for the innovative, surprising balance of unlikely ingredients.
Called ADMO — an acronym of Adrià, Ducasse, Romain Meder (formerly Ducasse’s executive chef at the Plaza-Athénée) and Les Ombres, the restaurant where the pop-up is housed — the experiment is the first ephemeral eatery of such ambition in Paris, set in a room that offers one of the city’s best views of the Eiffel Tower. Desserts are by Jessica Préalpato and Mr. Adria.
“This is a European act, a civilizational act through haute cuisine,” Mr. Ducasse, who is a deft marketer as well as an unusual gastronomic talent, suggested.
Mr. Adrià, 52, said he had no hesitations. “Coming to Paris at the invitation of Alain Ducasse was more a risk for him than for me!” he said. It was a chance, decades after the Spanish culinary revolution, to “share, talk, exchange ideas and secrets, and look at how gastronomy has evolved into a global language.”
As he spoke in the kitchen days before the ADMO opening this month, he tasted the ingredients for a black-quinoa-nut-miso-and-cacao galette to be served with an aperitif.
“Less butter, a little more miso, go easier when you fry the nuts!” he instructed a scurrying nine-member team brought from Spain.
The Spanish revolution, Mr. Adrià reflected, was a liberation from France. It guillotined the notion that great cuisine was necessarily French in its fundamentals. His brother would travel regularly to France. Early menus at El Bulli, with saffron-mussel soup and roast leg of lamb, were derivative.
“Then we began to ask ourselves why we were not using our local ingredients — razor clams, sea urchins — and why we were steaming vegetables and adding butter, when our mother always used olive oil,” he said.
A freewheeling exchange of ideas produced some unusual dishes at ADMO. Mr. Adrià has a Mexican restaurant in Barcelona. He suggested the mole sauce that accompanies cauliflower roasted with brown butter, set off by a confit of monkfish liver and black sesame paste. The cooking techniques here are largely French, the ideas Spanish-Mexican.
“This dish really brought us together,” Mr. Meder said.
Merging kitchen staff with different protocols and techniques has not always been easy, especially given the complex mix of ingredients.
Quick-cooked razor clams find themselves in a tangy verbena butter flavored with a buck’s-horn plantain extraction. Cod skin is cut into soba-noodle-like strands that float in a broth of mushroom and Galician sea urchin. Sea cucumber from St. Tropez is accompanied by garlic confit, chickpeas and caviar.
“Some of the American guests seem to find the texture of the sea cucumber a little difficult,” Mr. Chatenier said after the restaurant’s opening this month.
At 380 euros, or about $430, for the 13-course dinner menu, or about half that at lunch, ADMO puts the “haute” in haute cuisine. The recommended libation for several of the courses is a 2008 Dom Pérignon Rosé Champagne, served at different temperatures for different dishes.
For Mr. Ducasse, whose air of amused detachment belies a ferocious attention to detail, this is just the latest of many ventures that in recent years have included new businesses in ice cream and chocolate. He is driven. At 28, he was in a small plane that crashed in the Alps, killing the other four people on board and leaving him writhing in the snow for hours before being rescued.
“After that you believe you have a destiny and you want to control it,” he said.
Mr. Ducasse says he never doubted the resilient appeal of French cuisine. “It’s an obsession, something in our DNA,” he said. “The expertise in finding the right reduction, the right temperature, the right seasoning, the right preparation, and the right wine to accompany it all.”
What distinguishes Mr. Ducasse is the single-minded pursuit of expansion that has led some critics to say he is stretched too thin, and his simultaneous interest in the flawlessly executed simple dish alongside extremes of refinement.
The black boudin sausage or roast pork at his moderately priced Aux Lyonnais bistro in Paris, under its new chef Marie-Victorine Manoa, excites him as much as ADMO, which will close March 9. Even at ADMO, a paddle of butter on rice flour bread served halfway through the meal is a clear Ducasse touch, a comfort-food pause.
“OK, so now the Scandinavians are serving the perfect plate of peas,” he said. “So what? What’s next?”
Mr. Ducasse likes the Italian word “aggiornamento,” which he sees as the continuous adaptation of tradition. In the end, ADMO is less a French-Spanish fusion restaurant than an intricate culture-hopping haute cuisine.
France did not disappear, after all, from the culinary super league. It reconciled with its Spanish tormentor. It learned to make cod skin noodles even as its frog’s legs still swim in butter. Perhaps that’s soft power in 21st-century guise.