The word ‘Provence’ effortlessly conjures up a sense of romance. Woodsmoke and the scent of garlic; huge, regimented fields of purple lavender; bottles of throat-catching olive oil, and bubbling pans of tomato-heavy chicken stew.
Chef Alain Ducasse – although born in Orthez in the south-west of France – knows the cuisine of the region better than most. And what he loves about it, he says, is its “simplicity and spontaneity”.
“As in any culinary tradition, Provencal cuisine reflects a terroir,” explains the 63-year-old restaurateur over email (his English is not quite fluent), “the nature and the culture of people living there. Yet it does it with probably a higher degree [than many other places] – with a certain flair.
“Provencal cuisine genuinely expresses the soul of the country. The tastes of the local produce is more intense, the recipes are altogether humble and supremely elegant, the recipes, transmitted [through history, largely] by women, are fantastically diverse.”
The chickpea, he continues, “may well embody this spirit of Provencal cuisine: a very humble product which can be magnified by the right recipe. Many dishes are made with chickpeas or chickpea flour, for instance the socca, a delicious speciality of Nice.”
A thin, pancake or crepe, socca is made using only chickpea flour and water, with a little seasoning; you can’t get much simpler. Unless perhaps you’re cooking red mullet on Provence’s Mediterranean sea shore. “The recipe?” questions Ducasse. “Do nothing! Grill it gently, without scaling or cleaning it!”
Of course, Ducasse, who became the world’s first chef to own restaurants carrying three Michelin stars in three cities (New York, Paris, London), does somewhat elevate Provencal cooking, particularly at his restaurant and inn, Hostellerie de l’Abbaye de la Celle, which has just celebrated its 20th anniversary.
“It’s a love story,” says Ducasse of the l’Abbaye. “When I discovered it, in 1999, I instantly felt in love with the garden and its century-old chestnut trees and the harmony of its 18th century architecture. I immediately thought about creating a restaurant there with a few rooms.”
An hour’s drive from Marseille (someone from the hotel is often able to collect you from the airport in an electric car), along the north curve of the Saint-Baume mountain ridge, the l’Abbaye is pale yellow, fringed with olive-green shutters, and adjoins a 12th century Benedictine Romanesque abbey.
Home to just 10 rooms, a Michelin-starred restaurant, as well as a conservation vineyard and a kitchen garden you could easily eat your way through if left to your own devices, it’s a pretty delicious place to spend a weekend.
At the core of its ethos and menu – as with Ducasse’s wider businesses – is an awareness of sustainability and seasonality. “Proposing dishes with more vegetables and cereals and less meat is very important,” notes Ducasse. “In parallel, we are very demanding of our producers. They have to work according to sensible environmental principles, respecting seasonality.”
At the dawn of a new decade, looking forward to l’Abbaye’s next 20 years, Ducasse is not filled with new resolutions as such, instead, he stands by “the resolutions I make to myself every morning: to create something new for my contemporaries.”
Ducasse was raised on a farm, before becoming an apprentice chef aged 16 and going on to train under legendary chef Roger Vergé. He went on to hold more than 20 Michelin stars throughout his career and is now not just a man, but an entire culinary enterprise, with restaurants, cookery schools and consulting positions in his name.
It all comes back Ducasse’s family farm though. “I remember my grandmother asking me to go to the kitchen garden and pick ripe vegetables. I remember the drops of white juice dripping from the lettuce stalk when cutting it,” he recalls. “I remember the smell and taste of the roast chicken my grandmother was preparing every Sunday for the whole family. I remember the chocolate cake I dared to make for Christmas when I was 12.”
Of his career achievements though, he says his most significant is “the creation of naturalité (naturalness). This is a very radical and innovative approach we developed at my Hôtel Plaza Athénée, in Paris. No meat – just vegetables, cereals and fish from sustainable sources.”
It is “a thought-provoking cuisine in a prestigious venue; a demanding cuisine in a glamorous three Michelin-star restaurant”, he says.
You might think it would be a tricky proposition, trying to keep a handle on his many restaurants while retaining the essence of each, like at l’Abbaye. But Ducasse explains that each focuses on a single idea – to offer people “a moment of pure happiness”.