Film Review: The Quest of Alain Ducasse

Gorgeous doc features multi-starred celebrity chef/restaurateur/entrepreneur Alain Ducasse on a world journey driven by his passions for food, knowledge and perfection.
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Filmmaker/cinematographer Gilles de Maistre’s The Quest of Alain Ducasse—simultaneously to be served on a number of platters, er, platforms—is more elegant road trip than study of a master chef’s techniques, tips and kitchen m.o. Afforded that all-important access and the intimacy provided by his own shoulder-held camera, de Maistre travels with Ducasse over the course of several years to both familiar and new destinations. The goal is to capture the master’s insatiable curiosity to know everything about food and assure the perfection he demands of his world restaurants and business ventures.

Viewers need not worry about baggage checks, searches and the like on visits to such diverse places as Paris, Mongolia, Monaco, the French Alps, Brazil, Italy, London, China and Japan, as Ducasse, always with retinue in tow, goes on the hunt for new tastes and flavors (and there is a difference between the two).

At 33 the youngest chef to catch Michelin’s three stars, Ducasse is now decades later one of the top global Michelin star-catchers ever (with more than 20). Equally obsessed with detail and perfection, he micromanages the embrace of his high values in his global restaurants and businesses—whether his world-renowned eateries (in Paris’ Plaza Athénée, Monaco’s Hotel de Paris, London’s Dorchester, Tokyo’s Beige, etc.) or simply a high-end cream-puff business in Japan. His curiosity sends him (and the doc) to exotic places like Mongolia and a remote Chinese sturgeon farm where he insists he finds the best caviar in the world. Ducasse also goes deep into the vast Versailles gardens for tiny plants and tries street food on forbidding Asian streets. (Spoiler alert for foodie snobs: Avoid the the Ducasse interview included in the film’s press notes where he expresses “as much pleasure in eating gummy, gelatinous chicken feet in a casual Chinese restaurant.”)

Such globetrotting mania does not include familiar food-doc time with Ducasse hovering, toque on, over steaming pots in his kitchens. These days and apparently for a while now, he is more the roving entrepreneur, private jet at the ready. So foodies of the nitpicking variety might be disappointed by the doc’s lack of chef secrets. His notion of what he calls “glocal”—i.e., bringing local food to dishes but never losing their French DNA—is intriguing but does need a little garnishing. The doc does offer a multitude of food close-ups that will assuage many appetites, as will the travelogue cinematography, including many lovely aerial shots and sumptuous interiors.

The film is loosely structured around the years-long buildup to Ore, Ducasse’s latest crown jewel that recently opened at Versailles (the first such restaurant establishment at the famed palace). The doc frequently cuts back to this ambitious work-in-progress, with Ducasse characteristically watching over everything as opening approaches—selection of dishware, architectural details, and of course the menu. (Which famed King Louis once in residence will inspire the dinners?)

But Ducasse is mindful of others, including the have-nots. He runs an Institute that teaches street kids how to get into the food business. He helps his former assistant and now world-class Italian chef Massimo Bottura and his “Refettorio” project by cooking for destitute residents of Rio’s favelas. He visits small French farms to feed his insatiable curiosity about all things food.

Missing here are explorations into some major dramas of Ducasse’s past. In one of de Maistre’s occasional sportscaster-like voiceovers, he explains that Ducasse doesn’t discuss his private life. Most notable is the too-brief mention of the tragic 1984 plane crash that left Ducasse the sole survivor among six passengers. Also skipped are dramas surrounding some of his New York ventures.

Dramas aside, the doc is time beautifully spent. When the Quest bill is tallied, it's more leisurely after-dinner cordial than full meal. But how nice it is.

Click here for cast and crew information.