Joël Robuchon clearly loves to surprise people. Even before he shocked the culinary world and retired, age 51, shutting his eponymous restaurant in Paris and handing over the keys to Alain Ducasse, he had reinvented French cuisine, confounding his customers’ expectations by moving beyond the boundaries of Escoffier-inspired classical cooking, exalting the humblest of ingredients, paring down dishes, transforming the modest and the rustic into the luxurious and fashionable.
His restless quest for perfection, his rigour in the kitchen and the meticulous approach to cooking are well documented. Gordon Ramsay, who trained under Robuchon at his Paris restaurant Jamin, recalls life in the kitchen there as tougher than being in the SAS. Michale Caines, who also worked at Jamin, describes Robuchon as a “hard task master”, adding, “We used to do some bloody long hours there, I can tell you.”
Both Ramsay and Caines are great admirers of Robuchon though. Caines calls him “the watchmaker of food”, highlighting the brilliance, intricate technical ability that allowed him to take something as mundane as mashed potato and elevate it to legendary status: his silky pommes purees remains arguably Robuchon’s most defining dish.
The fact is that the discipline and methods of Robuchon instilled in his kitchens has helped produce a long line of great chefs. Robuchon himself doubts that he is difficult to work with. “People have worked for me for over 20 years and I get on very well with them,” he explains. “That’s not to say that discipline and rigour are not essential. Do you know of any great restaurant where there is no discipline? There’s a balance of charisma and discipline required in a great restaurant. And in this environment people need discipline and they like discipline.”
"Do you know of any great restaurant
where there is no discipline?
In this environment people need discipline and
they like discipline.”
Caines’ recollections of his time at Jamin also remind us that Robuchon was ahead of his time. “Everyone’s talking about sous vide now, but we were cooking sous vide in Jamin 15 or 16 years ago,” he says The cubed vegetables and dots of sauces that would become de rigeur for Michelin restaurants were also ahead of their time, as was the influence on Japanese cuisine.
Robuchon first visited Japan in the late seventies and his thrill at the quality of produce, new techniques and the simplicity of dishes led to a more minimalist approach in his own cooking. At the time, in the West, this was something of a revolution.
After retiring, the surprises continued. Robuchon re-emerged, opening his first L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon in Paris in 2003, a restaurant that broke the mould of fine dining, eschewing white linen tablecloths and classical finery for a more informal, interactive experience, with diners seated at stools round a bar, an open kitchen and, sacre bleu, no reservations - so the high and mighty had to queue for a seat alongside the hoi polloi.
This sushi bar style set-up, which allowed interaction between chef and customer, gives a clue as to what continues to motivate Robuchon after nearly half a century in the industry. “It’s the contact with the customer that enthuses me,” he says. “In the old days, the chef stayed in the kitchen; he never came out. So you wouldn’t know the reaction of the person dining to all your hard work. Especially with a concept like L’Atelier, you can have direct contact, you can gauge their reactions, get their feedback. That’s really exciting.”
The more informal L’Atelier concept also hints at Robuchon’s reasons for retiring in 1996. The pressures of operating a three-Michelin starred restaurant, especially in France, were huge. He was working absurdly long hours, as were many of his peers. Some of them died young, as a result of the stress. Most famously of all, Bernard Loiseau, who ran the three star La Cote d’Or in Burgundy, committed suicide, apparently believing Michelin as about to downgrade his restaurant to two stars.
“I felt incredibly pressurised,” says Robuchon. “I looked at my peers and thought the food we were producing was not a reflection of our competence due to the pressure we were under. Not only that, but I’d worked in a kitchen since I was 15; long, long hours. I lived in France and I’d never seen the mountains. So I decided I would go to 50 and then quit.”
The reality is he never completely walked away from the industry. Instead he did a lot of television and got involved with restaurant consultancies. And he travelled. He was persuaded out of ‘retirement’ by his former collaborators, but with the new concept of L’Atelier, Robuchon says he “changed the formula to his advantage”, something he regrets not having done earlier in his life. “Now I travel, I meet interesting people, I get to interact with my customers. Right now, I don’t feel like I’m working.”
“The restaurants of 30 years ago won’t be relevant in 10 years’ time.
Many three star restaurants have already begun to modernise.
Customers now want quality, but not pomp and formality.”
Key to the success of the L’Atelier concept, aside from the tapas-style menu of smaller dishes bursting with flavour and originality, is accessibility. Robuchon continually talks about the importance of a “convivial atmosphere” - there’s no place for the stuffy, intimidating ambience that some fine dining establishments seem to revel in.
Partly because of this and partly because Robuchon recognises that great food both absorbs and transcends cultural and linguistic differences, the L’Atelier concept travels well. There are L’Ateliers spanning the globe, from Tokyo to Las Vegas. He launched a new concept, Yoshi, in Monte Carlo, serving Japanese cuisine attuned to the French palate. This is a man who likes to keep inventing.
Ironically for someone who retired because of the [pressures of Michelin, he now finds himself the most Michelin-starred chef in the world. So does he still think, as he once did, that Michelin is too old fashioned?
Robuchon freely admits he was critical of Michelin earlier in his career but claims that it has “radically modernised” thanks to its director Jean-Luc Naret. “The facts are the facts” Robuchon argues. “At L’Atelier, you don’t have silver cutlery, you have a plastic table mat, you eat at a bar - it’s a two star restaurant.”
Expect to see more accessibility and less formality from the temples of gastronomy in the future, he says. “The restaurants of 30 years ago won’t be relevant in 10 years’ time. Many three star restaurants have already begun to modernise,” he claims. “Customers now want quality, but not pomp and formality.”
As for the current economic crisis, not even the greatest chefs are completely immune form its effects. But while conceding that it’s particularly tough in the US currently, he claims to be excited by the challenges now presenting themselves. “Not in an arrogant way,” he adds. “But these situations encourage new ideas and changes. You have to reassess everything. Those that really focus will come out on top; the best will succeed. And tomorrow’s world will be a truthful one.”