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Alain Ducasse has accumulated more Michelin stars than nearly any other chef alive, spreading his savoir faire to dozens of restaurants across the planet while also operating several cooking schools, a cacao plantation, a caviar farm (yes, that exists) and even propelling his haute cuisine creations up to the International Space Station.
There’s nothing the man hasn’t conquered, at least in terms of our taste buds, and after watching Gilles de Maistre’s hagiographic documentary The Quest of Alain Ducasse, it’s easy to understand why. Relentless in his pursuit of perfection as he globe-trots from one two- or three-star establishment to another, Ducasse never stops. He’s constantly tasting, inspecting, cajoling, smelling, catching trains, buses and planes — on a transcontinental Air France flight, he even climbs into the cockpit to survey the pilots’ meals — forever in pursuit of the ultimate new dish (the “quest” of the film’s title) as he keeps his international empire afloat.
As far as we can tell, it’s Ducasse’s combination of expert kitchen craft, unflinching tenacity and what the French call ouverture d’esprit, or open-mindedness, that has led him to the top of the world foodie chain. Yet de Maistre’s film never gives us a clear enough picture of how exactly he got there, vaunting his many accomplishments without grounding them in the terroir of modern culinary history. What is his signature dish? Why did he decide to become a cook in the first place? Does he prefer his salmon poached, roasted, broiled or pan seared?
A brief discussion with American chef Dan Barber (of Blue Hill fame) does provide some insight into Ducasse’s trajectory, including an anecdote about the night Ducasse took over a restaurant in Paris from the legendary Joel Robuchon — the only French chef to rack up more Michelin stars than Ducasse — and opted to serve a basic meal of meat and potatoes rather than challenging the master at his game. Brief reference is also made to a plane crash in which Ducasse was the only survivor, but we learn few details about it.
Instead, de Maistre (who also served as cameraman) trails the chef on a whirlwind tour that includes stops in upstate New York, Brazil, China, Mongolia, London, the Philippines, and Japan, where he indulges in the local cuisine like a veritable fanboy. These sojourns are intercut with Ducasse’s ongoing effort to launch his latest high-end eatery: a restaurant called Ore, located in a renovated wing of the Chateau de Versailles. A lot seems to be riding on this place, whose opening is attended by former French President Francois Hollande, and the one time we see Ducasse lose his cool is when he berates a waiter for pouring champagne in front of the clientele.
Otherwise, this Quest goes off so smoothly that it often feels like a promo video for Alain Ducasse Inc., with lots of travelogue imagery backed by a puffed-up score from Armand Amar (The Concert) and a fawning voiceover that describes the chef as an “explorer, philosopher, artist,” a “culinary genius” and a “gastronomic hero.” If Ducasse is somewhat renowned for the simplicity of his dishes, for the way he can blend a few homegrown ingredients to achieve the perfect amalgam, then de Maistre definitely lathers the man with too much sauce.
That’s unfortunate, because there’s surely a lot to glean from such a master, who seems to have inspired an entire generation of chefs — including Italian maestro Massimo Bottura, appearing late in the film to explain how he learned a valuable lesson from Ducasse when working under him at Le Louis XV in Monte Carlo. Yet beyond a few scattered insights, Quest mostly remains on the surface of someone it portrays as a kind of culinary Prometheus, all the while failing to justify why that should be the case. It’s like a tasting menu that never really turns into a full meal.
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Culinary Cinema)
Production company: Outside Films
Director: Gilles de Maistre
Screenwriters: Eric Roux, Gilles de Maistre
Producers: Gilles de Maistre, Stephane Simon
Executive producer: Catherine Camborde
Director of photography: Gilles de Maistre
Editor: Michele Hollander
Composer: Armand Amar
Sales: Pathe International
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