“You have to educate your palate” . Alain Ducasse is the world’s best-known French chef, and has fought to uphold the value of taste for decades. As he sees things, giving children a culinary education is a civic responsibility.
You have often talked about forging your taste as a child growing up on your family’s farm in the Landes region of France. How can children living in cities today develop their palates?
It’s true I am incredibly lucky to have spent my childhood in direct contact with nature’s bounty. We had a hands-on experience of lettuces and tomatoes at home. They would grow in their own part of the vegetable garden, and would be ready to pick at a specific time. It was a far cry from the bland, plastic-wrapped products you can get in stores today.
Adults are responsible for developing their children’s sense of taste. And parents most of all, of course. It is important to encourage little ones to taste and try different things, and to introduce them to cooking without making it a chore. Eating should remain a pleasure. School cafeterias also have a considerable duty in terms of teaching taste. I think they have made such amazing progress over the last few years, by offering an increasingly wide range of organic products, for example.
You founded the Collège Culinaire de France, an association that unites chefs, farmers, and winegrowers, and recently published Manger est un acte citoyen* (“Eating is a civic duty”). What are the new challenges currently faced by the campaign to promote taste you have led for decades?
For a chef such as myself, the question of taste is a daily concern. As well as the initiatives you mentioned, the most crucial challenge is the one I face every day with my teams in our restaurants. Every day we are confronted with very real questions about supply, seasonality, recipes, and preparation. And each of these implies the question of taste and the best way to showcase it while remaining faithful to its essence.
The art of blends is an essential part of cooking. What was the best blend you never expected to work?
Blending flavors is a very delicate subject. Combining different flavors can quickly lead to confusion, whereas I am convinced flavors should always remain understandable and identifiable. In my work as a chef, I strictly limit the number of ingredients used in each recipe. When I make a tomato and raspberry condiment, for example, it is precisely designed to add just enough acidity and sweetness to the vegetables it is served with. This is also why I combine cherry and celery with squab; the blend brings out the best in each of the ingredients. What I mean to say is that none of these blends is random.
Are you still discovering new flavors? What was the last one?
I don’t think we have time to list them all! I’m driven by my curiosity. I find myself just as amazed by baby vegetables in the Jardin de la Reine at the Château de Versailles, as by fields of chickpeas in the Haute-Provence region or by tasting the juice from cacao beans. These discoveries are so stimulating, and what’s more they give us perspective on our own palates.
EXERGUE: Combining different flavors can quickly lead to confusion.
*Alain Ducasse, Christian Regouby. Ed. Les liens qui libèrent.