In Paris, the brief communiqué released on May 17 had the effect of a pot boiling over in a busy restaurant kitchen. Addressed to members of the press, especially food writers and restaurant critics, it read tautly, like a carefully crafted cease-fire declaration.
Still, it dropped like a bomb. French chef Alain Ducasse’s three-Michelin-star restaurant at the Dorchester Collection’s Hôtel Plaza Athénée, in Paris, will be closing on June 30 after a 21-year run.
The Internet promptly churned with Schadenfreude and speculation about what had caused the divorce between the flashy luxury hotel on the Avenue Montaigne and the man who’s arguably the most celebrated chef in France; a query to the hotel’s P.R. representative was answered with a firm “No comment.” Ducasse has his hands full elsewhere; he currently operates 34 restaurants around the globe, and collectively they’ve earned him 21 Michelin stars. He plans to continue directing the eponymous restaurants of two other Dorchester Collection hotels: the two-Michelin-star table at Le Meurice, in Paris, and the three-Michelin-star table at the Dorchester hotel, in London.
“For the man, it’s a snub. For French haute cuisine, it’s an earthquake [which] will probably mark an important moment in the history of French restaurants,” says Franck Pinay-Rabaroust, the editor of Atabula, a popular French food Web site, and others agreed.
“I can’t say I’m surprised,” says one major Paris food writer. “Even before Covid, the gastronomic landscape in Paris was rapidly changing, with a pretty obvious move away from the pro forma idea that’s prevailed since the 1980s, that every luxury hotel in Paris has to have a two-or-three-star haute cuisine restaurant. The Shangri-La closed its two-star restaurant, L’Abeille, last year, and when the Hôtel de Crillon was renovated, they turned the beautiful space of Les Ambassadeurs, the two-star restaurant overlooking the Place de la Concorde, into a bar and banished the restaurant to an awkward room on the central courtyard. The fact of the matter is that the traditional clientele of well-to-do Francophile Americans and Europeans has been declining for a long time, and the hotels now want restaurants that generate more turnover with lower overhead while delivering the ‘good time’ a new generation wants.”
“For the man, it’s a snub. For French haute cuisine, it’s an earthquake.”
Another Paris chef is more circumspect: “I admire Ducasse for daring to try and change the formula of a French haute cuisine restaurant, which is what he did when he introduced la naturalité, or dishes based on pulses, grains, vegetables, fruit, and fish, in 2014. But the Plaza Athénée wasn’t the right place for it. Their demographic comes to Paris for caviar and foie gras, not to eat quinoa porridge or chickpeas with sturgeon marrow. This concept was too cerebral and too austere for the hotel, and it was exorbitantly expensive for what it was, too.”
The concierge of one of the other major luxury hotels in Paris agrees: “Hollywood and Bollywood types and high-tech royalty want to go to Septime, La Maison, and other fun, buzzy places they’ve seen on Instagram.”
This hipness factor also explains the rumor that Ducasse’s replacement is likely to be spotlight-loving, media-savvy chef Jean Imbert, 39, who first became known to the French public after he won the 2012 edition of Top Chef, the popular television show that pits chef against chef in gastronomic mock battles fought with whisks and pepper mills.
More recently, Imbert collaborated on two restaurants with singer Pharrell Williams, To Share, in St. Tropez, and Swan and Bar, in Miami. “The Plaza Athénée is gunning for a free-spending younger crowd who post their entire lives on social media. They live in an endless loop of self-promotion, and the hotel loves that,” says the Paris concierge.
And what’s next for chef Alain Ducasse? He’s expanding and releasing three new commercial products—branded chocolate, coffee, and ice cream—and he’s opening a new restaurant in Versailles as well as three more in Paris, including a cantina called Sapid (Latin for “taste”) on Rue de Paradis that he describes as “modern and urban.” “It will make naturalité-inspired cuisine available for all,” says Ducasse. “I’m much more interested by the future than by anecdotes from the past. ”
Alexander Lobrano is a writer and restaurant critic. His latest book, the gastronomic coming-of-age story My Place at the Table, will be published in June