In the opening narration of his documentary The Quest of Alain Ducasse, director Gilles de Maistre positions the titular chef as a heroic figure, “an explorer, philosopher, artist, and follower of his dreams” whose boundless enthusiasm for new gastronomic experiences has broadened the horizons of the culinary world. Indeed, Ducasse comes off in the films as nothing less than a king of food, flitting from continent to continent to survey his vast empire of dining establishments, which include everything from three Michelin-starred restaurants like Le Louis XV in Monaco to a high-end cream-puff kiosk in Japan. In one sequence, he explores Mongolia for potential investment opportunities as if he were Alexander plotting his next conquest. Ducasse’s latest venture, the development of which gives the film its structure, serves to underscore the truly regal nature of his ambitions: a luxury dining experience located within the gilded walls of the Palace of Versailles.
As is so often the case with powerful men, Ducasse is aloof and enigmatic. The documentary captures so little of his personal life that at one point de Maistre is compelled to reveal that, in his two years of filming Ducasse, he never saw his four children and met his wife only once. But if The Quest of Alain Ducasse provides little sense of intimacy with its subject, the film gives an in-depth look at the master chef’s uniquely obsessive work habits: his constant travelling, exacting standards, unparalleled palate, and boundless curiosity. He’s a fundamentally restless man, a trait de Maistre attempts to echo in the film’s shaky, roving camerawork, a visual strategy that at times comes off as clunky. Still, Ducasse’s peripatetic nature makes for a dynamic travelogue of a film, one that often resembles a high-end spin on an Anthony Bourdain show as it takes us to far-flung locations, such as the Shanghai sturgeon farm from which Ducasse sources all of his restaurants’ caviar.
But Ducasse is no mere tour guide, as he’s constantly engaged in the creative process of cooking—even though we never see him so much as pick up a knife. Whether trying out new dishes created by his chefs, sampling local delicacies, or eating fresh produce right off the vine, he never wastes a bite. Everything the man tastes is a potential learning experience, something to be treasured, analyzed, and inventoried for later use. De Maistre never presses Ducasse to open up, instead approaching him with a reverence that borders on obsequiousness, particularly in the director’s gushing, pseudo-philosophical voiceover segments. Nevertheless, de Maistre’s access to his notoriously private subject affords a rare opportunity to observe a culinary giant up close. What we find is a man who will never be satisfied as long as there are new cuisines to sample, novel dishes to create, and a world to explore.