The starry chef takes on coffee and chocolate.
There are several significant differences between those who seek perfection in their chosen line of work and those who merely claim to be best in their field, to aim to be truly excellent at what they do, and settle for that as their overall goal. One obvious difference is in terms of commercial success, an attribute that sadly seems to avoid so many perfectionists in so many different fields.
Alain Ducasse is a chef who has achieved excellence in many different aspects of French cooking. At the very top, he has managed to acquire more Michelin stars than any other French chef. But for me, a long time admirer, he has really come into his own with the clever acquisition of numerous, long-established bistros around Paris that had fallen on hard times. He began this with Aux Lyonnais, then continued with Rech, specialising in seafood, that first opened its doors in 1925, and then continued this affection with Allard and Benoit.
This was an extremely clever ploy. Not only do these bistros act as ambassadors for the Ducasse name, acting as less expensive outposts, but they also serve as stepping stones for the many chefs and waiting staff that he currently employs. As well as being technically excellent, Ducasse, now 62, is perhaps the most commercially astute chef in the world.
So it was interesting, to put it bluntly, when Ducasse started taking an interest in coffee and chocolate. Not that he had been uninterested in these two critical aspects of being a top French chef. Chocolate and coffee are often the final ingredients of any meal and therefore constitute many customers' most long-lasting 'takeaway memories'. But Ducasse became interested in what each has in common, most notably their roasting.
Four years ago, Ducasse set up his own coffee-roasting atelier in Paris's 11th arrondisement and after that he established several shops. In October 2018 Ducasse was seduced into opening a cafe in London in the rejuvenated Coal Drops Yard of King's Cross.
In many ways the new London site, which occupies two smallish former railway arches (Le Chocolate sells chocolate while Le Café has seats and functions as – guess what? – a cafe), is very typical of Ducasse. Both arches are absolutely pristine – and cleanliness is a prerequisite for any chef – and both are cleverly situated close to the entrance of this new destination. Also, although prices are higher than the nearby Caravan or Redemption Roasters (as they probably deserve to be because of higher raw material and labour costs), their prices are much lower than the designer sweatshirts on offer in the shops nearby.
Earlier this month Ducasse was in London and I, and half a dozen other food writers, went along at 9 am to meet him. He said a few words and then did something very typical. He sat down at the corner of the bar and did not say very much at all for the next 90 minutes.
This was very much his style. He knows that although his name is above the front door in the cafes, bistros and restaurants from Paris to Hong Kong and the US that carry his name, he cannot do more than supervise in his search for excellence. Others, who have trained under him or under those he has trained, must step up to the mark and perform. So, in a slight variation on a well-worn joke, Ducasse handed us over to a Frenchman, a Mauritian and a Pole.
Olivier Fellous was the well-dressed Frenchman, the general manager of Le Café, who acted as MC. Veda Viraswami is the Mauritian and chief roaster, while it was Jacob Klucznik who did all the hard work. Born in Poland, Klucznik acted as the bearded, aproned but not tattooed, 'cafelier', the name the Ducasse organisation has created for this role. With coffee coming from as many diverse countries as wine, and containing 2,800 different aromatic components, it does deserve proper attention.
One point that Fellous sought to emphasise right at the outset was the transparency of everything used in the cafe. All the crockery used is clear glass with the handles having a pronounced D for Ducasse; all the jugs that are used for making the coffee are transparent; the counter is shallow so there is no place for the cafelier to hide; and even the top-of-the-range La Marzocco espresso machine, which sits on a prominent corner by the entrance, has been specially built so that its inner workings are exposed by a transparent outer casing.
First up was a marriage of coffee and chocolate, a small espresso served alongside a small square of Madagscan chocolate. Then Jacob turned his skills to filter coffee, using beans grown in Panama that had made their way originally from Ethiopia, which he heated to 91 ºC. This was a small-batch speciality coffee that grew at the relatively low elevation of 700 metres, as opposed to the much higher levels of over 2,000 metres in countries such as Yemen. With these we were served their madeleines straight from the oven.
Then came what was, for me at least, a new drink, cascara. This is the outer husk that contains the coffee bean that has been dried so that it looks very like a dried cherry. But once crushed in a beautiful pestle and mortar, these husks are then topped with hot water and after a few minutes they begin to release their very definite coffee aromas. This is a drink that many believe could turn the vast number of tea drinkers around the world on to coffee, particularly when it is served cold over ice.
For our final drink, we were back on the more familiar ground of a cappuccino, although in taste and texture this was in name only. Fellous began by asking which of us took fresh milk, which he said came from a farm in Normandy, or preferred their drink made with almond milk. The almonds, he continued, came from Sicily and were, like the coffee beans, roasted in Paris although for only four minutes as opposed to the 12 to 14 minutes it takes to roast the coffee beans.
Our cappuccino, made from beans grown in Kenya, was extremely smooth and extremely rich, more like a dessert. It proved to be an excellent finale and probably spoiled us for the more mundane cappuccinos that we will now have to settle for. Although somewhat more expensive than the competition – at £5 as opposed to the £3 elsewhere – this price did not include the madeleine, the square of chocolate or the neatly wrapped piece of chocolate to take away – that Jancis thoroughly enjoyed later.
Alain Ducasse Le Café and Le Chocolat
Unit 15, Bagley Walk Arches, Coal Drops Yard, London N1C 4DH; tel +44 (0)20 3668 7753
Open seven days