New doc trails chef Ducasse on global quest for new flavors

This image released by Magnolia Pictures shows chef Alain Ducasse in a scene from the documentary, "The Quest of Alain Ducasse." (Magnolia Pictures via AP)

NEW YORK — In the new documentary “The Quest of Alain Ducasse,” the esteemed French chef steps off a small plane in the middle of the Gobi desert in Mongolia. As he stands pondering the vast emptiness, a motorcycle suddenly appears, as if out of nowhere, carrying two men. The bemused chef chuckles: “There are customers everywhere.”

For Ducasse, 61, that seems to be a fundamental truth — and a driving force. The man oversees a veritable empire, with 27 restaurants across the globe, and 19 Michelin stars among them. From his first three-star triumph as a young upstart at the Louis XV in Monaco, to his haute-healthy, no-meat Paris eatery at the Plaza Athenee, to his recently opened restaurant at the opulent Versailles palace, where a special royal dinner costs 1,000 euros, he seems on a nonstop mission to expand. In September, he’ll open a new restaurant on an electric boat floating along the Seine.

There was a time when Ducasse, who grew up on a farm in southwestern France, spent most of his hours behind the stove. Now, he seems to spend most of them in the air, crisscrossing the globe, tasting new menus, seeking new flavors. In an interview at a New York gathering marking the release of the film, he politely deflected a question about how many frequent flyer miles he’s amassed. But he did remark that he’d recently traveled for 20 hours to the mountains of Peru, just to taste a cup of coffee.

“It was very good coffee,” he noted, with typically deadpan delivery.

His constant travels, as portrayed by director Gilles de Maistre, have a very different goal than, say, those of the late Anthony Bourdain, who sought to explain cultures to his viewers through food. For Ducasse, the goal is to gain inspiration for his restaurants. He gets much of it from Japan. “It’s my only quest,” he says in the film, sampling a heavenly slice of fresh tuna in Kyoto, “tasting things that I haven’t tried yet.”

Foodies — especially those with an affinity for haute cuisine with a healthy twist — will no doubt find much to enjoy in the documentary, which follows Ducasse around the world for about two years leading up to the opening of Ore, his Versailles eatery (it’s in select theaters and also on video on demand).

Director de Maistre says it took him quite some time to convince Ducasse to do the film. “After a while, he got used to me,” he says. His goal, he adds, was simple: “I wanted to see the world through his eyes, his vision of gastronomy.”

Critics have noted that the film does suffer, though, from narration that occasionally sounds adoring — even worshipful. Some viewers might also have wanted more of a look at Ducasse the man, away from his work. We never see his family, or what he does in his spare time — if he has any. There is, however, one poignant personal scene when the chef reflects upon the most harrowing moment of his life, a 1984 small plane crash in the Alps that killed several colleagues. Only Ducasse survived. “It wasn’t my time,” he says.