Joël Robuchon, master chef who transformed French fine dining and elevated mashed potatoes to haute cuisine
Apprenticed as a cook at 15, Robuchon, incredibly earned three Michelin stars for his first restaurant within three years, and went on to run a worldwide culinary empire. For all his flair, he liked to be judged by the humblest of dishes
Joël Robuchon, who died on Monday at the age of 73, dreamt of becoming a priest but was thwarted by a lack of money. That forced him instead to take a job as an apprentice cook at the age of 15 – a career move that ultimately saw him not only rise to the highest echelon of the culinary world, and earn more Michelin stars than any other chef, but be named one of four chefs of the 20th century by French restaurant guide Gault Millau.
The French chef’s worldwide empire of restaurants included Robuchon au Dome in Macau, l’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in Hong Kong, and Joël Robuchon Restaurant in Tokyo, Singapore (since closed) and Las Vegas – all of which had three Michelin stars – plus a host of other establishments with one and two Michelin stars.
Robuchon was born in 1945 in Poitiers, western France. After starting his culinary career, he rose quickly through the ranks, becoming a Meilleur Ouvrier de France (“master craftsman”) when he was 31, and attaining three Michelin stars for his first restaurant, Jamin, in Paris, in 1984, after it had been open for only three years – an incredible feat.
In 1996, at the age of 51, he shocked food lovers and fellow chefs by announcing that he was retiring from the day-to-day grind of running a restaurant to focus on passing on his knowledge, partly through television programmes that demystified cooking.
Robuchon’s retirement from the kitchen didn’t last long. In 2001, he became culinary supervisor and adviser for Robuchon a Galera at the Hotel Lisboa in Macau (now Robuchon au Dome at the Grand Lisboa).
I was lucky enough to be invited to the gala dinner for the opening of that restaurant. The meal was austere, compared to many other opening nights where the chef is so eager to impress that he serves a 20-course tasting menu. But Robuchon was confident enough to serve only four perfect courses, including caviar in fine jelly with cauliflower cream, sea urchin with fennel reduction, and a main course of savoy cabbage and other root vegetables with foie gras and black truffles.
Robuchon then came up with the concept of casual fine-dining French restaurants, where diners sit around a counter and watch the chefs prepare their food. He opened his first l’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in Tokyo in 2003, and there are now establishments of the same name in Hong Kong, Paris, Bangkok, Taipei, Shanghai, New York, Montreal, London and Las Vegas.
Robuchon was famous for juxtaposing humble ingredients with expensive ones (that cabbage with foie gras!), and for his black truffle dishes. Earlier this year, I ate an all-truffle dinner at Robuchon au Dome, with the chef in the kitchen. (How sad I am now to realise that would be the last time I’d see him. We talked about his cat. I wish I had told him how much joy he’s brought to people who ate his food.)
Probably his most famous dish was pommes purée. Yes, he elevated mashed potatoes to haute cuisine. As he told me back in 2001: “It’s very difficult to judge how good you are with a complicated, sophisticated dish. But if there’s something you eat every day and you find one that happens to be better than what you’ve been having all along, this is how you can tell when someone is doing a better job.”
He told me the technique, explaining that all the potatoes have to be the same size, they have to be cooked “not too slowly and not too quickly”, then use an old-fashioned hand masher.
“After that, you add some milk and butter until the consistency is perfect. Basically, it’s all a matter of attention to detail – each one adds up and in the end it makes all the difference.”
A simple dish made sublime, from a humble man who has influenced generations of chefs with his “attention to detail”.