Ducasse’s floury pasta

The worst-cooked pasta I’ve eaten was at Alain Ducasse’s three-Michelin-starred restaurant in Paris a few years ago. Such is the power of marketing and the extent of demotic innocence, however, that he has gone on to run a veritable empire of restaurants, bistros and auberges from the French capital to Mauritius via London, Tokyo, Hong Kong and New York.
But this entry is more about the vexed issue of “al dente” and what it might or might not mean. (I was the great chef’s guest in Paris, by the way, and could not have afforded the $1500 lunch he tabled for Madame Downes and me.)
Ducasse’s pasta was served as sheets that, if I recall rightly, were supposed to have been hand-rolled on wooden batons. (My translation.) About handkerchief size and no more than a couple of millimetres thin, they arrived in a creamy bisque-type sauce. Bits of seafood of no great distinction also drifted in the juice. And when you bit into the Ducasse pasta the sheets were not just firm but hard on the bite, floury in the centre.
Fashion dictates – how overwhelming is the human need to belong! We eat rice and wheat noodles in Asian restaurants that are soft. Yet any dish that has Latin references requires that its pasta component be “al dente”. Translated, “al dente” might mean “on the tooth” or “at the tooth” – suggesting, at any rate, that pasta should be firm.
We should debate just why we should live under the tyranny of this prescription. Perhaps firm pasta is supposed to foil soft accompaniments such as fresh-tomato sauces or cooked artichoke hearts. But so many pasta dishes these days have crunchy or gelatinous protagonists – fish, broccoli tops, crispy pancetta, baby octopus and wild mushrooms, for instance – that softer pasta might go with better. And what about the great pasta dishes that prescribe soft pasta such as lasagne and macaroni cheese – Beethoven’s favorite, incidentally? Moreover, fresh homemade pasta is very quick to cook – a few minutes – and is very difficult to serve at any degree of firmness. And it’s great that way.
I can’t help thinking al-dente-ism is yet another gastro-fetish; handy if you can use it as a flywheel for hype.
I wonder, too, if Ducasse was thinking that as he trundled out the al dentiest of al dente pasta for me – and no doubt many others. One of the principles of pasta-making is to blend its ingredients – eggs and flour – into a unified elastic mass. For it to turn to powder between the incisors seems to me to defame its natural character.

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