09/04/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT
Ask for water at Restaurant Alain Ducasse at the Essex House in New York City, and a waiter will appear bearing six bottles, inquiring if you prefer one from Italy or Scotland. Your squab breast needs salt? Scoop some fleur de sel—a $20-a-pound delicacy raked from beds on France's Atlantic coast—from a custom-made china dish. Time to sign the check? Choose a pen from a tray of Mont Blancs, Cartiers and Guccis.
Of course, when you see the tab, you might wish this hyperluxe restaurant also provided a dish of smelling salts. With a menu featuring $28 pea soup, entrees up to $80 and a six-course, fixed-price feast for $160, dinner for two can easily exceed $500—especially once you crack the red wax seal on the wine list. These eye-popping prices made Alain Ducasse at the Essex House the nation's most expensive French restaurant when it opened in June—and touched off a scorching backlash against the U.S. debut of owner Ducasse, 43, one of the world's most celebrated chefs. The New York Post called Ducasse "the most arrogantly launched eatery in the history of the world," while FORTUNE magazine dubbed it "Ishtar, the Restaurant." As for the food, while Zagat Survey founder Tim Zagat deems it "extraordinary," many other reviews have been surprisingly tepid. "We're not so easily fooled," wrote New York magazine's Gael Greene, calling a prawn dish "simpering baby food" and a $76 veal chop "certainly not twice as good" as other restaurants'.
Ducasse, a brisk man who favors handmade suits, defends himself indignantly. "Excellence has a price," he says in French through his translator and personal assistant, girlfriend Gwénaëlle Guéguen, 27. "For the space, time, the best ingredients and atmosphere, this is fair." Famed Chicago chef Charlie Trotter concurs, pointing out that unlike competitors, Ducasse doesn't turn over his 65 seats. "You book the table, and it's yours for the evening," he says. "Look at what you're getting in terms of the luxury you're surrounded by. It's worth it."
Well-heeled food lovers seem to agree and regularly jet around the world to sup at his Restaurant Alain Ducasse in Paris and Le Louis XV in Monte Carlo, twin temples of haute cuisine that have made Ducasse the first chef since the 1930s to boast two three-star ratings from France's benchmark Michelin guidebook. "He's very talented and knowledgeable with food but with a larger ambition," says Laurent Gras, a onetime protégé who is now executive chef at Manhattan's Peacock Alley.
Ducasse's growing empire also includes one-star restaurants in Paris and Monaco, a chain of eateries as far away as Tokyo called Spoon Food & Wine, a kitchenware line and a string of cookbooks, endeavors that together grossed $30 million last year. Ducasse, who has homes in Paris, Monte Carlo and Manhattan, "works more than anyone I've ever known," says Monaco haberdasher Georges Feghaly, who designs the suits for Ducasse's staffs. "Sometimes I think even Gwénaëlle has to make an appointment."
That CEO-style approach draws heat from critics who think a chef's place is in the kitchen. "Not even Robo-Chef could juggle three ambitious houses so far apart," wrote New York's Greene. "I have confidence in my employees," Ducasse retorts. "When other chefs are on vacation, it's not them in the kitchen. But I'm one of the few that admit it."
Ducasse's passion for food goes back to a childhood on his family's farm in the southwestern French village of Castelsarrazin. His parents raised ducks and geese for foie gras; his grandmother made the meals. "The aroma drifted up to my room, things like roasted chicken, blanquette de veau and cèpe mushrooms," recalls Ducasse.
After apprenticing in kitchens around the country, he became a two-star chef in 1984 at age 27. That same year, disaster struck: A small plane he was traveling in crashed into an Alpine mountain in a storm. Of the six on board, Ducasse was the only survivor. He endured 15 operations to repair leg, back and eye injuries. "I suffered greatly but was no longer afraid of taking risks," he says. Indeed, he took over Monaco's Louis XV, brashly vowing to win the owners three Michelin stars. He made good—and in 1998 repeated the feat with his Paris restaurant.
Nor was he afraid of courting a woman 16 years his junior. After meeting Paris-born Guéguen before a flight from Paris five years ago, the divorced Ducasse (he has a teenage daughter, Audrey, with ex-wife Michèle) asked the then 22-year-old architecture student to have coffee in the airport. "I thought he was cute and funny," says Guéguen, admitting she "didn't really care" when one of his traveling companions told her, "Don't you realize he is the best chef in the world?"
Now he just has to make a city full of feisty New Yorkers care, even as competitors gloat about how reservations at Ducasse, supposedly booked solid for months when it opened, are now easy to get. But Zagat, for one, predicts Ducasse will succeed. "Certain people," he says, "like to be able to say, 'I'm taking you to the most expensive restaurant in New York.' "
Lisa Kay Greissinger in New York City and Peter Mikelbank in Paris