Alain Ducasse wants to train 'chefs of tomorrow' in new Abu Dhabi school

French chef speaks exclusively to The National about his UAE connections, from cooking for Sheikh Zayed to mentoring young cooks

Chef Alain Ducasse at his new culinary school, which opened in Abu Dhabi on Thursday. Photo: Khushnum Bhandari / The National
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In 1991, fresh from securing three Michelin stars for his restaurant in Monaco, chef Alain Ducasse received an invitation from the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, Founding Father of the UAE, to showcase his culinary skills by preparing a meal in Abu Dhabi.

More than three decades later, he is opening a school in collaboration with Erth Hospitality in the historical Al Hosn district, registrations for which open today.

The chef of tomorrow is a cook and a baker, Ducasse tells The National during a chat on the rooftop of the Cultural Foundation in the capital, where the new Ecole Ducasse outpost is located.

Looking spiffy yet relaxed, Ducasse says he researched the weather in the capital and knew “today was going to be a perfect day”.

Ducasse, who has notched up 21 Michelin stars across his restaurants since cooking for Sheikh Zayed in Abu Dhabi, says the capital has changed drastically. “It's not an evolution,” he says, gazing at the skyline. “It's a revolution.”

Continuing on his theme about the “chef of tomorrow”, Ducasse continues: “Above all, he or she should be a major player in the eco-responsibility landscape.”

Meat is no longer the centre of gravity for dishes, and sugar is not the cardinal point in baking
Alain Ducasse, chef and educator

It's not a statement made on a whim.

Although technical excellence, especially centred on French cuisine, is at the heart of the school's mandate, the renowned chef is more concerned about breeding well-rounded cooks who are “engaged in the social and cultural currents of the times”, he says.

At his schools, students don't just learn the techniques of flambeing a stake or the principles of the sous vide method. They are also educated about wider concepts of anthropology and economics, as well as delving into responsible sourcing and other sustainable practices.

“Cooks are more than just people who wear an apron and work at the stove; they also carry a humanist message embodied in intelligent cooking that resonates with our times,” Ducasse explains.

At the Abu Dhabi studio, for example, there is a two-day course where participants learn about farm-to-table cooking, from how to choose ingredients from the local market, to how to cook and prepare them for an elevated dish.

This is to be expected from Ducasse, who has been known for challenging haute cuisine with his penchant for using humble ingredients, from seasonal vegetables to staple cereals. Born in the Landes region of south-west France, Ducasse grew up and was educated at a farm, before going on to work under the tutelage of legendary chefs Michel Guerard, Gaston Lenotre and Roger Verge.

He carries on this approach to date, and doubles down saying: “Meat is no longer the centre of gravity for dishes, and sugar is not the cardinal point in baking.

The Abu Dhabi government has a strong will to develop its gastronomy
Alain Ducasse

“Protecting the environment is currently a major priority and will remain so in the decades to come. Today’s chef plays multiple roles, being fully on board this mission and mindful of the mark we leave behind, which means choosing suppliers who operate sustainable production, for example.”

The environment aside, Ducasse believes people should eat healthier, and chefs, he says, play a big part in promoting this lifestyle. This is perhaps why he has been so passionate about culinary education. The first Ecole Ducasse opened in 1999, and has since grown into a network of schools and studios across France, India, Thailand, Philippines, and now, the UAE.

“The Abu Dhabi government has a strong will to develop its gastronomy, and Erth, with its ethos of sustainability, is the perfect partner for us here,” says the chef, who has dined at the recently appointed Michelin-starred Emirati restaurant and “loved it”.

The school, which was launched in partnership with Erth Hospitality and the Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi, offers classes for both amateur home cooks and professional chefs, and the first batch will commence on December 27.

There are dozens of classes for interested students to browse through, including one for amateur cooks on how to prepare a Ramadan feast (Dh740 for four hours). There are also classes for children aged six to 12 (Dh425 for two hours).

The set of professional lessons, which start in January, includes a two-day class focused on learning how to cook Ducasse's signature dishes from his Michelin-starred restaurants, among other haute cuisine courses.

His advice to young aspirants, who could potentially be students at Ecole Ducasse Abu Dhabi, is simple: “To always work hard”.

Above all, chef Ducasse says, remaining curious is one of the most important qualities of a successful chef.

Updated: December 21, 2023, 3:39 PM