In an underground kitchen just a few steps from the Eiffel Tower, a woman named Kadidiatou stands at a stainless steel counter ripping the heads off of live lobsters, removing their claws and threading their still-wriggling bodies onto skewers. She has never tasted a lobster, has never seen the sea. And though she lives only ten miles from Paris in the gritty suburb of Sarcelles, she had never visited the Eiffel Tower until Alain Ducasse came into her life. The famous French chef has just launched his latest project, and its success or failure rides on Kadidiatou and her colleagues. But it isn't a new restaurant or a luxury hotel Ducasse is trying to change the lives of underprivileged women by teaching them how to cook.
With his project 15 Femmes en Avenir (15 Women with a Future), in which the Clinton Global Foundation is a partner, Ducasse is working to tackle a problem that has long stymied the French government: how to integrate the alienated and largely immigrant populations of the suburbs. "If we care about the future of this planet, we have to help those who are outside society," he tells TIME. Little has changed since 2005, when France's banlieues exploded in three weeks of riots. Housing is still decrepit and in short supply, unemployment hovers above 20%, and bored, angry teenagers still sell drugs and set cars on fire.
But one day last spring, blue posters appeared in community associations throughout Sarcelles: "15 femmes en avenir. Saisissez votre CHANCE!" (15 Women with a Future. Seize your Opportunity!) The posters offered 15 local women aged 25 to 45 a year's worth of paid culinary training and an apprenticeship in Ducasse's kitchens. At the end of the year, those who succeed in completing their apprenticeships would receive an official degree and a full-time job in one of Ducasse's establishments.
Ducasse has come to embody French haute cuisine around the globe, from Tokyo to Las Vegas, but few people in Sarcelles had ever heard of him. Nonetheless, 83 women applied for the program. Many were unemployed and lacked the skills to find jobs other than cleaning hotel rooms or serving fast food. Some were held back by abusive husbands or struggling under the strains of single motherhood. But suddenly none of that mattered, as a jury of local politicians and social workers selected 15 among them who demonstrated the most grit and motivation.
The recruits include Kadidiatou, an immigrant from Mali who says all she ever knew was African food "rice and more rice" but now finds herself spearing crustaceans for the Jules Verne restaurant in Paris. Stéphanie is a stunning 27-year-old who has been raising three children on her own with the meager earnings from a string of temp jobs, but dreams of opening a French restaurant in New York City or London. Kebire escaped a violent relationship and is doing all she can to keep her two young boys away from the influence of Sarcelles' drug dealers and delinquents. And Hanen quit her last job selling croissants at a bakery chain after constant harassment by her employers plunged her into a months-long depression. "I felt like nothing," she says. "Now I can prove what I'm worth."
It is hard to imagine what these women might have in common with Ducasse, who spends his time traveling around the planet, keeping a close eye on his global domain: 27 restaurants with a whopping 19 Michelin stars, luxury inns, cooking schools, even a publishing house. When asked how he could possibly relate to his new apprentices, Ducasse mentions a tragedy that struck him 26 years ago. He was riding in a small plane that crashed into the mountains, killing all on board except him. It took nearly 15 operations to put him together again. "I couldn't walk, I couldn't see, I couldn't work," he recalls. "So society had no interest for me. And society couldn't care less about Alain Ducasse, because he had nothing to offer. He was outside of society. Desocialized." Just as these women are.
When Ducasse finally recovered, he accepted a job at the Louis XV restaurant in Monaco with the brazen promise that he would earn three Michelin stars in four years. He bettered his wager, achieving it in three and becoming the youngest chef in France to hold such a distinction. "I didn't exist," he says. "And then, little by little, I reconstructed my life. I became an actor in society once again. And now, to give these women the possibility to exist, to be self-sufficient, would feel like a real accomplishment."
The women started their apprenticeships in early September, spending three days each week in a technical school, studying the basics of French cooking. The other two days they receive practical training in the kitchens of Ducasse's establishments around Paris. The program requires them to cram two years' worth of learning into one, before taking a nearly 13-hour exam in general knowledge (French, math) plus practical cooking skills. They must prove they know how to dress a carré d'agneau, poach fish in a court bouillon, braise vegetables, make a veal velouté, whisk a pastry cream, or perform a slew of other culinary techniques.
There is no guarantee they will all succeed. Most would be considered too old to take on the physically demanding career of working in a restaurant. They are all starting from scratch, unfamiliar with French culinary terms and techniques. Many have never seen a caper, not to mention a truffle. But they are confident and determined to live up to the potential Ducasse sees in them. Halima, a 40-year-old mother of four, stands next to Kadidiatou, trimming chicken in her new chef's whites. "Last night I saw [French cooking challenge] MasterChef on TV," Halima tells her friend. "I kept turning to my husband and saying, 'Hey, we did that today.'"