Alain Ducasse, the godfather of French gastronomy, at his refurbished Plaza Athenee restaurant. Photo: AFP
Think of French cuisine and meaty mains such as beef bourguignon, terrine and duck confit spring to mind. But pardon moi, it seems the gastronomic stereotype is in peril with one of France's most admired and influential chefs dropping red meat - and cream - from the menu at his three-Michelin-starred Parisian restaurant.
Alain Ducasse has announced he is switching his focus to healthier and more environmentally-friendly vegetarian and pescetarian fare at his flagship Plaza Athénée restaurant.
Ducasse - who runs two other three-Michelin-starred restaurants and has a hand in nearly 30 other restaurants worldwide - has cited environmental reasons for the switch, saying people needed to treat the earth's resources with more respect.
"The planet's resources are rare, we must consume more ethically and equitably," Ducasse told AFP.
Australian chefs Shannon Bennett and Brent Savage said the move by Ducasse was not a big surprise.
Bennett worked for Ducasse in Monaco in 1998 and now owns Melbourne's three-hatted Vue de Monde. While he had no doubt that Ducasse, in his late 50s, would pull off the new menu, Bennett put the change of heart down to shrewd marketing.
"Alain runs more than 20 restaurants. If [concern about the world's resources] is the reason why doesn't he change the menu at all his restaurants?
"I think he is appealing to a younger audience, and good on him... [Ducasse] was always thinking outside the box and always ahead of the game.
"I think rather than taking meat off the menu, he is really launching a new restaurant."
The new menu at Plaza Athénée will revolve around fish, vegetables and cereals with ingredients such as quinoa, burghul, monkfish and octopus featuring. The Plaza Athénée's website describes it as Ducasse's "new expression of contemporary French haute cuisine". The lavish restaurant re-opened this week after a 10-month closure for renovations.
And in bad news for mousse lovers, Ducasse's new menu omits cream and the chef says he plans to eliminate sugar also.
Brent Savage of Sydney's Bentley Restaurant & Bar, Yellow and Monopole said Ducasse's bold move was not a surprise. "It's the way of the future to have a more vegetable-focused menu," said Savage, who spent some time cooking in France early in his career, and who travels to the country every two or three years for inspiration.
Savage recently revamped the menu at his city restaurant Bentley, changing the menu headings from entree, main and dessert, to raw, fish, vegetables and meat. "The idea is to encourage people to eat more vegetables," said Savage, who was recently named The Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide's Chef of the Year.
Brent Savage said he did not expect Plaza Athénée would suffer a demotion from its three Michelin star status as a result of the menu shake-up. "Ducasse is one of the godfathers of cooking," he said. "He is very influential. I don't imagine there will be a drop in standards."
Ducasse is not the first big-name French chef to dump red meat. Alain Passard shocked the French dining public when he decided to remove meat from the menu at L'Arpege - also a three-Michelin-starred restaurant in Paris - 13 years ago. At the time many accused Passard of overreacting to an outbreak of mad cow disease in Europe, but Passard insisted he wanted to teach people to think differently about vegetables.
"I want to show people that you can do so much more with vegetables than boil them," Passard said at the time.
Despite the change, Passard has lost none of his influence in France. While he has reinstated some meat - though very sparingly - to the L'Arpege tasting menu, Passard's cuisine is now recognised and prized for its inventive use of the fruit and vegetables grown on a large biodynamic farm outside Paris.
Not to play second fiddle, most of the cereals and vegetables used in dishes at Plaza Athénée will come from the garden at the Palace of Versailles.
Bennett said he had no plans to cut down on meat at Vue de Monde or his other businesses. "There are some really great farmers out there who are doing things like eliminating feedlots and bringing the abattoir to the farm... If you really want to help the environment it's better to stop importing ingredients, to stop sourcing garlic from China and oranges and meat from South America. Stop buying food wrapped in plastic ... and bottled water."
But the news was welcomed by the French Vegetarian Association. President Élodie Vieille Blanchard told goodfood.com.au that Ducasse's move showed "an openness and a true interest in plant-based [cooking]".
"This decision is currently limited to red meat, but we hope that it will gradually give Alain Ducasse the opportunity to discover that we do not need to use meat, fish, eggs or dairy products (for) elaborate, sophisticated and tasty menus.
"To us this is a small step, but a step in the right direction. We also really enjoy that it comes from a famous chef, known for his haute cuisine and who will, as such, probably influence other French chefs."