THE MAN WHO COLLECTED STARS Joel Robuchon 1945 - 2018
He was the master chef who shook up the stuffy world of French haute cuisine by wowing palates with the delights of the simple mashed potato and giving diners a peek at the kitchen. At one point he had earned more than 30 Michelin stars across nearly two dozen restaurants across three continents so it is little wonder that Joel Robuchon was named the “chef of the century” by the Gault et Millau cooking guide in 1990.
Mentor to Gordon Ramsay, Robuchon was both a highly disciplined perfectionist and a kitchen rebel known for his constant innovation and even playfulness in the kitchen.
While he was no stranger to using luxury foods such as truffles and caviar of which were his favourites - his dishes were often described as just simple because he believed in using just a few ingredients within each dish so each ingredient should express itself individually not be overburdened by other more powerful flavours.
His recipe for the humble mashed potato — or pommes purée — which famously uses a 1:2 butter to (Ratte) potato ratio, became not just one of the chef’s signature creations, but one of the upper end of global dining’s most recognisable dishes.
The culinary maestro, best known in recent years for the chain of small restaurants he called L’ateliers first garnered international acclaim back in 1981 with the opening of his first space in Paris at a restaurant near the Eiffel Tower called Jamin, it was here where he trained the young Gordon Ramsay and famously threw a plate of Ravioli Langoustine at the young protégé who likened working for Robuchon “as working for the SAS.” Considered one of the finest restaurants in the world Jamin won three Michelin stars in three consecutive years the first restaurant ever to achieve such a feat.
Born during the final years of WWII in the French town of Poitiers, Robuchon was all but destined to become a priest, at the age of 12-years he entered the junior seminary in Mauléon-sur-Sèvre, northwest of Poitiers, but found while helping the nuns prepare meals that it was cooking that was his calling so at fifteen he began an apprenticeship at the Relais de Poitiers, a hotel and restaurant in Chasseneuil-du-Poitou and has never looked back.
Robuchon whilst traditionally trained bucked the trend of traditional ‘nouvelle cuisines,’ he believed that a restaurant should be a warm, casual place, rather than a stuffy temple to awkward food he introduced the open restaurant kitchen, a concept which he believed was “the future of cooking” it allowed for transparency and honesty and today more and more restaurants have migrated towards this style of open plan kitchens which Robuchon also believed made for better cooking and chefs because chefs are less likely to find themselves shouting filthy swear words or branding each other with hot knives in the heat of a moment.
Following further successes with Restaurant Robuchon at 50, Robuchon announced his retirement and his plans to pass along his knowledge to the next generation he began work on a series of TV shows, but whilst travelling to Japan and Spain he was persuaded to open a new concept: L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon and so the global revolution began.
Influenced by the tapas bars of Spain and the sushi counters of Japan his L ’Atelier’s were small, intimate restaurants where diners sat at a counter surrounding the kitchen, they didn’t take reservations and the chefs cooked dishes using ingredients sourced from the market daily.
His goal, he said, was to make diners feel comfortable, let them interact with the chef and, above all, put the focus back on the food.
Sadly in August of this year Robuchon passed away at the age of 73 and he leaves behind a legacy not only in his restaurants - there are currently 12 branches of L'Atelier, including in London, Tokyo, Las Vegas and Beijing - but also in the cooking school he created near the town where he was born and in the ethos he installed in countless chefs who had the privilege to work with and for him.