Why Joël Robuchon May Be The World’s Most Influential Chef
Since news of Chef Joël Robuchon’s passing, accolades have come in from chefs, food writers, celebrities, mourning the loss of one of the truly great chefs of this generation. He may not have had the boyish charm of a Jamie Oliver or the fury of a Gordon Ramsay, but in his quiet way, he has done more for the food world than most any one chef, and his enduring influence can’t be easily quantified.
The first time I dined at his L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in 2004, he had just recently come out of “retirement” with the opening of this restaurant the year before. Robuchon first became famous in the 1980s as the chef of Jamin in Paris, cooking superb classic French cuisine and earning three Michelin stars in record time. He was even named “Chef of the Century” by the Gault-Millau Guide in 1989. He was on top of the food world. But he suddenly gave that all up in 1993, exhausted from the pressure of running his restaurant and eager to do more outside the confines of the Michelin star system.
C’est avec une immense tristesse que nous venons d’apprendre la disparition de Joël Robuchon, notre maître à tous. Nos pensées vont d’abord à sa famille et à ses proches à qui nous adressons nos plus sincères condoléances. Sacré « cuisinier du siècle » en 1990, il restera à nos yeux et pour toujours, le plus grand cuisinier de tous les temps et un bâtisseur hors pair. C’est à l’Atelier Saint-Germain que sa fabuleuse aventure de cuisine de comptoir a débuté en 2003. Ensuite, à force de pugnacité et d’exigence, il est devenu le chef le plus étoilé au monde avec 32 étoiles. Joël était un esthète, un être obstiné dans une rigueur et une vision de qualité sans limite. Tous ceux qui ont eu le privilège de croiser son chemin, se rappelleront de son humanité et du calme qui se dégageait du personnage. Pour ses élèves, il restera à jamais un guide spirituel qui les accompagne vers les plus hauts sommets de l’excellence gastronomique à la française. Joël Robuchon rejoint désormais le panthéon des plus grands artistes de la cuisine. Le meilleur hommage que nous puissions lui rendre, est de poursuivre inlassablement son œuvre qui participe à ravir chaque jour, les plus fins gourmets aux quatre coins du monde.
In 2003, he was back in the limelight with his “comeback” restaurant, the groundbreaking L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon. It may have been almost 15 years ago, but I still vividly remember the meal I had at this very first L’Atelier located in the Saint-Germain neighborhood in Paris. The restaurant was like nothing else I had experienced before—French food of the highest caliber served in a bar setup with an open kitchen behind it, and with the chefs themselves, wearing black chef’s jackets (instead of the traditional white), serving the diners. We sat in stools at the bar elbow to elbow with other diners, and ordered from a menu of dishes that felt French, but didn’t seem constrained by the old rules. Robuchon was inspired by Asian flavors, most notably Japanese, but played with tapas style dishes as well. I recall savoring a simple starter of Jamon Iberico de Bellota on toast, followed by the most beautiful piece of veal I have ever tried—juicy, milky soft, and tasting both clean and rich at the same time, served so simply in its own jus and a mirepoix of vegetables.
Interestingly, Robuchon’s most famous dish is probably his simplest— pommes purées or mashed potatoes which one can order at any of his restaurants around the world. Made with an obscene amount of butter and choice potatoes, this dish puts any and all other mashed potatoes to shame—seriously. Just like the veal dish I enjoyed, it’s so simple with nothing to hide but the skill of the chef and the quality of the ingredients. It’s a dish I make sure to order whenever I get the chance to dine at one of his restaurants, most recently at L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in Hong Kong.
Looking back at my first Robuchon meal in 2004, it all seemed so modern back then, as Robuchon seemed to be going against all that fine dining had become—stiff, formal, unchanging. At that time, L’Atelier was received with much surprise, but also much acclaim. And the influence of that one restaurant is apparent. Today, that’s exactly what fine dining has become, with many top-rated restaurants boasting open kitchens and informal service, where all the luxury is on the plate rather than in the rest of the restaurant.
Robuchon has also trained many of the world’s best chefs, including Eric Ripert of Le Bernardin in New York and Joan Roca of Celler de Can Roca in Spain, among many others. From the Philippines, our very own Mika Calo spent several years with the Robuchon group, first in L’Atelier in London, then in Singapore. During an interview with her earlier this year, Chef Mika shared her Robuchon story: “His food philosophy is what I’ve imbibed. It’s the reason why I decided to stay with him for that long because we have the same kind of food philosophy, respect for ingredients, and manipulation of ingredients in a certain way.” When she was studying culinary arts in France, and was asked where she wanted to go for her internship, her first choice was at Robuchon. She says, “I was given a choice between Joël Robuchon and Guy Savoy. I felt like my trajectory was more Joël Robuchon than Guy Savoy, so that’s what I went for.”
Chef Mika Calo
Chef Mika moved back to Manila a few years ago, holding Underground Supper Club pop-up dinners and currently preparing to open her first restaurant soon. But when I asked her what she would do if L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon would one day open in Manila and Robuchon would ask her to head the kitchen, she replied with a smile, “Even if I don’t want to, I’ll probably say ‘yes.’ It would probably be a knee jerk reaction, oui chef!”
Chef Mika’s Carbonnade de Boeuf paired with Truffled Potato Purée, her own take on the famous Robuchon mashed potatoes, served at a dinner at the French Ambassador’s residence
That’s the Robuchon effect on Chef Mika who recently paid homage to her mentor via her Facebook post, writing: “For 6 years I have worked in the kitchens of this Legend, I have learned discipline, respect for products and restraint in the creative process of cooking. Thank you for making me the cook that I am today.”
At the time of his death in Geneva at the age of 73, he left behind a restaurant empire of restaurants, tea shops, patisseries, and wine shops scattered across Asia, Europe, and North America, with a total of 31 Michelin stars among them, including five three-star restaurants, the most Michelin stars carried by any one chef.