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Two terrific French films open this month – The Fabulous Destiny of Amélie (Dec 20); The Closet (Dec 26) - and the French tourist bureau is on the case, reminding us that fabulous films are just one of the things you can find in France. Food is another …. Andrew L. Urban reports (happily).

"Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s wonderful tale has an unusual structure and certainly doesn’t follow the rules. Set in beautiful Paris with her glorious and distinctive landmarks, The Fabulous Destiny of Amélie is as rich and satisfying as its music," says Louise Keller in her review. When Sydney based French tourism dynamo Patrick Benhamou saw the film at a preview in October, he grinned and shook his head in approval. It was done: his office would host the Australian premiere, as a way of instilling feelgood vibes into Australians about France.

"In the filmic equivalent, Ducasse is like a multi-Oscar winning director"

And watch for more of the same. Benhamou says “films are a perfect promotional tool – you have a captive audience. Amélie depicts the true Parisian ambience, with all the Parisians’ idiosyncrasies. It’ll lure a lot of Australian to Paris. And we’re always looking for more films that we can use like this.”

Benhamou didn’t wait till December, though. For November, he organised Alain Ducasse to visit. In the filmic equivalent, Ducasse is like a multi-Oscar winning director.

As the world’s most decorated chef - if the Guide Michelin is any guide, his name is heavily inscribed in the kitchen hall of fame, with a clutch of stars that currently total nine – you have to take him seriously. In the past decade or so, Ducasse has risen from a celebrated chef at the Versaille-like Louis XV in Monaco, to a celebrated chef all over the western world, with a finger in many pies, as it were. He cooks at restaurants in Paris, New York and Monaco (as above), and also runs the Château & Hôtels de France marketing group, promoting the country’s castles and rustic inns which cater for foodies. Other interests include two inns in the French countryside and the Spoon series of unusual, casual eateries in cities as varied as Tokyo and London.

Is he more a brand than a chef now? Well, no; he likes to think of his business "something like the Louis Vuitton group, which has a culture of excellence operated by a series of smaller operations, which cultivate the various areas of craftsmanship" he says through his sprightly director of communications, Emmanuelle Perrier. But he quickly sidesteps questions about the business; that’s in the hands of his business development manager, Laurent Plantier, who is also part of the entourage.

Ducasse wears suit and tie, even in the kitchen. He lets me follow him past the pastry chef he brought with him from France, a genial man with a moustache ensconced behind a window in an air conditioned cubicle of carved chocolate scallops being readied for the dessert. In the main kitchen, two other chefs are carefully slicing lobster portions as if they were gelignite. Ducasse stops to taste the brown sauce in one of the big pots: it’s the pressed juice made from the heads of the lobsters, to go with the pink and white meat for entree. (It was to have been ‘marron façon Riviera’, but the rough seas of recent days made it impossible to get the fish, so we settled for local lobster.)

Ducasse came to Sydney to cook – well, to oversee the cooking – of two special meals: one was a lunch at the Regent for about 150 hospitality industry guests and media, hosted by Maison de la France, the French tourist bureau, whose energetic manager, Patrick Benhamou, initiated and organised the entire visit. The second was a benefit for the Sydney Symphony Orchestra at The Bathers Pavilion on Balmoral Beach for 100 or so paying guests. ($1,500 each, thank you.)

"What is important is to evolve all the time"

Why did he come, other than to satisfy a fascination for Australia? To learn. "What is important is to evolve all the time and bring new things to the table," he says.

Don’t know personally about the dinner, but the lunch certainly met expectations. Not only for the food and wine, but for the smooth organisation and the excellent atmosphere. France was shown off in all her sparkling best, with picture tours of the regions before lunch, and the only thing missing was that clip from the film Amélie, in the bar where she works and there is this extended lovemaking scene….but I digress.

Published December 6, 2001

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Alain Ducasse

Louis XV – where Alain Ducasse reigns

a great setting

Amelie "a fabulous fable"

The Closet – coming out of

Declaration of interest: Andrew L. Urban and Louise Keller were guests of the French tourist bureau at the magnificent lunch prepared by visiting super-chef Alain Ducasse at Sydney’s Regent Hotel in late November. They were not at all influenced by the fine food and the Krug champagne (nor especially by the stylish chocolate dessert), in preparing this report. [OK, the chocolate dessert came close…]

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