FRENCH chef Alain Ducasse is something of a legend - but as Ella Walker finds out, at its heart, his mission is a simple one.

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 Verge. 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 naturalite (naturalness). This is a very radical and innovative approach we developed at my Hotel Plaza Athenee, 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".

L'Hostellerie de l'Abbaye de la Celle offers superior double rooms from E239 per night based on two sharing. Contact (0)4 98 051 414/ For more information, see


It's ratatouille with a fine-dining twist.

This finely chopped ratatouille is the work of Alain Ducasse's chefs at his restaurant and inn in Provence.

Fine ratatouille from the gardens of the Abbey with tomato syrup by Nicolas Pierantoni, chef at L'Hostellerie de l'Abbaye de la Celle


(Serves 4)

2 white onions

4 garlic cloves

2 aubergines

2 long green courgettes

4 courgette flowers

2 red peppers

2 ripe tomatoes

1 sprig of green basil

1 sprig of purple basil

Olive oil

Cooking oil (such as rape seed oil)

50ml sparkling water

25g flour





1. Peel the aubergines, peppers and one of the onions. Dice them, as well as the courgettes but keeping their skin on.

2. Peel the tomatoes, keeping the skins and insides and then cut them into small cubes. Put them in a colander for 10 minutes mixed with salt to drain.

3. Crush the four garlic cloves in their skin.

4. Sweat the aubergines, peppers, courgette and onion separately, each time with olive oil and garlic. Meanwhile, chop the green and purple basil and set aside, keeping the stems and branches.

5. Combine the cooked vegetables, diced tomatoes and basil, and put in the fridge.

6. Brown the tomatoes, including the skins in olive oil with the basil branches, the second white onion and a pinch of sugar. Then, gently cook in the oven for 30 minutes at 130-140°C.

7. Once cooked, drain the vegetables and save the syrup. Put in the fridge.

8. Mix the flour and sparkling water and then brush the zucchini flowers with the mixture. Plunger them into the cooking oil at 170°C for one minute on each side. Once fried, place the flower fritters onto kitchen roll. Season with salt and pepper and set aside.

9. Place the thin ratatouille on a plate. Decorate with a courgette flower and the basil leaves. Serve chilled with a drizzle of the tomato syrup.


This is how you elevate veg.

Greek-style tender vegetables make something special out of fennel and courgette - this is how they're done at chef Alain Ducasse's L'Hostellerie de l'Abbaye de la Celle.

Greek-style tender vegetables, brousse des Roves cheese by chef Nicolas Pierantoni of L'Hostellerie de l'Abbaye de la Celle


(Serves 4)

8 carrots

2 fennel

2 white fresh onions

1 green courgette

15cm lenght of celery

2 turnips

50g broad beans

50g green peas

1/2 long cucumber




50g of brousse des Roves cheese

10ml of olive oil

50ml of chicken stock

20ml of white wine

4ml of wine vinegar


Ground pepper


25g of dried coriander

1 sprig fresh thyme

Zest of 2 lemons

1 small bay leaf

5g of dried fennel


1. Clean, peel and chop all the vegetables.

2. Put all the herbs in a sterile gauze compress and close it.

3. Cook the vegetables, except the green vegetables, and the herbs in a pan with a dash of olive oil.

4. Pour the wine vinegar and the white wine in the pan, then add the chicken breast stock and put the pan cover on.

5. When the vegetables are almost cooked, add the green vegetables in the pan: the green peas, the half cucumber, the broad beans and courgette.

6. Arrange the vegetables on the plate, the fresh herbs (chervil, cilantro and basil) and the brousse des Roves cheese. Season to taste with salt and pepper


Grand Marnier Souffle will certainly wow your guests.

Enjoy a taste of Provence with this Grand Marnier Souffle, served at chef Alain Ducasse's restaurant and inn, L'Hostellerie de l'Abbaye de La Celle.

Grand Marnier Souffle by Nicolas Pierantoni, chef at L'Hostellerie de l'Abbaye de La Celle


(Makes 6 ramekins)

For the base:

250ml milk

50g egg yolk or around 2 large eggs

50g sugar

15g cornflour

8g cream powder (as used in creme patissiere)

Zest of an orange

For the souffle:

200g egg white or around 7 eggs

80g sugar

8ml Grand Marnier

Butter for greasing

For the sponge:

100g egg yolk or around 5 eggs

80g sugar

180g egg white or around 6 eggs

30g sugar

60g flour

60g potato starch

For the syrup:

200ml water

100g sugar

Orange peel


1. Make the base. Boil the milk with the orange zest. Mix the egg yolks with the sugar to blanch them and add the cornflour and cream powder. Pour the milk over the mixture and return to the heat. Let the mixture boil for one minute and then put it in a dish. Cover in cling film, making sure the film is touching the cream to avoid the formation of a crust and allow to cool.

2. Make the sponge. Mix the egg yolks with the 80g sugar. Separately whip the egg whites, then add the whipped egg whites and the 30g sugar to the yolk/sugar mix. Stir in the flour and starch. Mix gently until the texture is even. Spread the mixture on a baking tray lined with baking paper. Bake for eight minutes at 200°C. Remove the sponge from the baking tray. Cut out discs measuring 65mm and then soak them in the syrup - just bring the water, sugar and orange peel to a boil to make that syrup.

3. Make the souffle. Grease the ramekins with butter and sprinkle with sugar. Warm the cream base and whisk in the Grand Marnier. Beat the egg whites until they are stiff and add the sugar. Gently add the whites to the cream base. Fill the ramekins to a third with the cream base and place the sponge on top. Finish filling the ramekins with the cream. To allow the souffle to rise well, gently pass your thumb around the edge of the ramekin. Bake at 185°C for 12 minutes. Serve.

L'Hostellerie de l'Abbaye de la Celle

10, place du General de Gaulle

83170 La Celle en Provence

(0)4 98 051 414