Ducasse's sensual new cooking vessel
I started to write this blog post with an admission that I don't get starstruck so easily. Then I thought of Eric Ripert, Tom Colicchio, Alice Waters, Lidia Bastianich and Ruth Reichl, and realized that I couldn't really say that. When I met each of them, I got more than a little flustered. It didn't always show, but it was true.
So you can imagine when Alain Ducasse's people asked whether I'd like to meet him in the kitchen at Adour in the St. Regis to see what what one of the most famous chefs in the world has been up to, well, it was a pretty easy answer.
Turns out, he has developed a new signature dish. Literally. Ducasse worked with designer Pierre Tachon for more than 18 months to create the Cookpot, a white porcelain-covered dish with extraordinarily beautiful curved lines. But don't go looking for the link here to a store where you can buy one. For now, at least, the Cookpot is something Ducasse envisions as a way to unify his more than 20 restaurants around the world in celebration of local, seasonal vegetables.
"Eating vegetables is not a punishment," Ducasse told me last week in the kitchen at Adour, where he spoke sometimes in English and sometimes in French, getting translation help from his communications and marketing manager, Sonja Toulouse. "The Cookpot is partly an effort to have a signature vegetable element on every restaurant's menu."
There are many practical considerations to the design. It's porcelain to withstand high temperatures and also to hold heat at lower temperatures. And it's slightly curved in on itself to encourage recycling of the evaporation, as in a braising pot. There's a tiny hole in the lid to allow some moisture, but not much, to escape.
But it's also about celebrating Ducasse's philosophy. While we watched one of his team members at Adour demonstrate a dish in the Cookpot, Ducasse talked about doing something that's better for the planet by cutting down on meat consumption. It's an attitude he's taken particularly strongly to at his new restaurant, Spoon, in Paris, and it's something that's all the rage in the States with "meatless Mondays" and the like.
He also sees the Cookpot as a vehicle for cooking with feeling: putting emotion into a meal as you make it. (In that vein, I thought, you could've swapped his quotes with those of Carla Hall and wouldn't have been able to tell the difference. News flash: Alain Ducasse cooks with love.)
Ducasse likes to talk about the Cookpot's "sensuality" (he joked more than once that "I didn't say 'sexuality' "), and it's true that the aesthetic is of something that cradles and caresses the food. In fact, the thing strikes me as very feminine, almost womblike, which makes sense as Ducasse's inspiration for it (and much of his cooking) comes from that of his grandmother, who would send a young Alain into the garden every day at noon to pick the onions, leeks and new potatoes that would become lunch.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about the Cookpot was how simple the recipes for it are. The basic one, across all the restaurants, calls for mushroom duxelle and at least seven local, seasonal vegetables. At Adour, a chef ran a garlic clove over a fork and onto the bottom of the dish, drizzled olive oil around, smeared on half-cup or so of mushroom duxelle, then layered morels, peas, snap peas, ramps, asparagus spears, spring onions, squash blossoms and zucchini on top. All the vegetables were perfectly trimmed and cleaned, of course. On went salt and pepper, a drizzle of olive oil, a pat or two of butter and a mere half-cup or so of vegetable broth. Into a 350-degree oven it went for 30 minutes, then rested for another five, until Ducasse himself lifted the lid and we all inhaled.
He let me eat right out of the pot, then asked for my spoon and insisted on composing a bite for me of all the vegetables, perfectly cooked (especially for those like me who tire of vegetables so crisp they might as well be raw) and tasting of spring. I was starstruck anew.
-- Joe Yonan
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