The Quiet Revolutionary
Louise Simpson lunches with the world’s most Michelin-starred chef, Joël Robuchon
“I’ll never achieve everything I’d like to in life because I have so many projects in my head,” says Joël Robuchon.
Perched on a high chair at the chef’s table in his Hôtel Métropole gastronomic flagship, Joël Robuchon speaks French so softly that I have to lean in to catch his words. This unassuming man was named Gault Millau’s “Chef of the Century”, while his first Parisian restaurant Jamin was voted “Best Restaurant in the World” by the International Herald Tribune. With more Michelin stars than any other chef in history and a culinary empire of 16 restaurants, Robuchon is probably the world’s greatest chef. You’d think this 71-year-old would be taking things a little easier at last. Instead, he’s opening three new restaurants abroad: two in the US, one in Shanghai.
Robuchon enthuses about his recent visit to Shanghai: “This is my first foray into continental China. I expected everyone to be dressed in Communist blue overalls, but the first thing I saw upon leaving the airport was a Rolls Royce. China is the clientele of tomorrow.”
His connection to Asia dates back many years. After winning the contest to be Meilleur Ouvrier de France in 1976, he was sent to a hotel school in Tokyo by the legendary chef Paul Bocuse. He explains: “I fell in love with Japanese cuisine, with their respect for the seasons and with their respect for products.”
Asia became a cornerstone of his culinary empire with restaurants across the continent: in Tokyo, Nagoya, Hong Kong, Macau, Taipei, Singapore, Bangkok and now Shanghai. He also brought his love of Asia back to Europe with the opening of Yoshi, which became France’s only Michelin-starred Japanese restaurant in 2010.
“It’s a Japanese restaurant with a French twist,” says Robuchon. “Sourcing a chef from Japan didn’t work, so I hired a Japanese chef from France and sent him to train with my favourite Japanese chefs. Now he makes authentic Japanese cuisine adapted for Western tastebuds.”
Yoshi is Robuchon’s newest Monaco-based success story. Since his arrival into the principality over a decade ago, Robuchon has quietly asserted his culinary presence. His Jacques Garcia-designed Joël Robuchon is now widely seen as Monaco’s de-facto gastronomic restaurant, while his poolside Odyssey restaurant has been booked out since its spectacular Karl Lagerfeld-designed facelift in 2015. Even the hotel bar section has morphed from serving a couple of diners to almost 70 covers daily. As I delve into a quinoa ball from his new vegetarian menu at Joël Robuchon, I wonder where the secret to his Monegasque success lies.
“The golden word is kindness,” he says. “I know it’s not a very French concept.”
He berates the cold academic formality of fine French dining where the focus is “less on treating diners kindly and more on whether the silver fork is to the right or left of the plate”. For the record, Robuchon doesn’t use silverware at all as his cutlery is inox. I smile in my realization that behind his gentle, grandfatherly façade lies a revolutionary.
“You have to question yourself constantly,” says Robuchon. “You can never be too attached to the past.”
Robuchon has been as good as his words in forging culinary history. He was the first French chef to champion open-plan, teppanyaki-style kitchens with induction hobs. His atelier restaurant concept recreated the cooking-in-front-of-clients informality that he had enjoyed for decades in Japanese sushi bars and Spanish tapas bars.
“I wanted to combine chic-et-pas-cher (good value) with luxury,” he says, “So I developed a bistro combined with an open-plan kitchen and Michelin-starred cooking.”
At the same time, he became the first chef to dress his kitchen staff in black. He recalls: “I felt that white uniforms would attract too much diners’ attention in my new ateliers, so I decided on black instead.”
The problem was that the kitchen uniforms only came in one colour: white. Moreover his usual kitchen manufacturer told him that black uniforms weren’t allowed. Undeterred, Robuchon hired a kitchen hygienist to confirm that as long as kitchen overalls were clean, they could be any colour. Nowadays black-clad chefs have become the norm for open-plan kitchens.
Robuchon also revolutionized gastronomic French cuisine. His time in Japan influenced his approach both in his introduction of Asian ingredients (such as wasabi and soya) and in the deceptive simplicity of his cuisine. Unlike the eye-wateringly rich cuisine of some of his Michelin-starred competitors, Robuchon pioneered an almost instantaneous “cuisine minute” that is neither rich nor heavy. Often no more than three ingredients are used.
“I like dishes that you can eat daily,” says Robuchon. “In some gastronomic restaurants: the first time is amazing; the second time, a little less so; the third time makes you nauseous. Sometimes the simple stuff can be hardest to do.”
Robuchon’s interest in healthy eating dates back to 2012, when he was asked to cater for an oncology conference across the Atlantic. Listening to the speeches, he realized the enormous impact of food upon life-threatening illnesses. Since then, he has become an advocate for a medicinal approach to cuisine speaking at conferences and collaborating with the medical industry to research the therapeutic qualities of food. He joined forces with neuropharmacologist Dr Nadia Volf to produce the book, Food & Life melding nutritional advice with recipes to treat common ailments. While Robuchon describes a new detox broth on his Odyssey menu and other dishes that are sprinkled with anti-oxidants, a smiling waitress arrives with a beetroot-and-apple duo that looks healthy enough to extend my life by another decade.
“This healthy eating suits the pretty women of Monaco who like to look after their figures,” says Robuchon.
Over our main course of quail and truffled mashed potato, Robuchon remembers his teenage years at a strict Roman-Catholic school where he was top of the class in every subject except languages (to this day, he speaks only French). His first culinary experience came from helping the nuns to prepare meals. He recalls: “Pupils had to eat in silence. I chopped up vegetables and cleared the plates.”
It was a modest beginning for one of the world’s most successful chefs. With characteristic generosity, he is keen to credit mentors such as Charles Barrier and Frédy Girardet, as well as loyal members of his team who have helped him along the way. His complicity with Monaco’s head chef and his right-hand-man Christophe Cussac dates back four decades. He says: “Our DNA is shared. We share ideas, reflections. It’s teamwork.”
Indeed Robuchon drove his whole team 200km to Cussac’s family restaurant in Burgundy to celebrate winning his first three Michelin stars for his Parisian restaurant Jamin.
The Michelin guide has been the leitmotif in Robuchon’s rags-to-riches tale. His restaurant in Las Vegas teetered on the brink of bankruptcy with five to ten covers per night for several years until the Michelin guide arrived: “Once the restaurant had been awarded three Michelin stars, it became chock-a-block overnight.”
The financial and emotional pressure of running Michelin-starred restaurants was highlighted by the recent suicide of one of Europe’s top chefs. Benoit Violier, who ran a three Michelin-starred restaurant in Switzerland, had been one of his protégés. Robuchon concedes sadly: “The stress of earning three Michelin stars is nothing compared to the fear of losing them. Top chefs are under constant pressure.”
For a man who works every day of the week, Robuchon looks remarkably calm. In his rare time off each summer, he heads home to Southern Spain. One of his greatest pleasures is dining with his French wife, two adult children and four grandchildren. His best-loved restaurant in the world is in nearby Alicante: a tapas bar called Nou Manolin where he loves gorging on langoustines that are brought in fresh every evening.
“My favourite meal has more to do with whom I eat,” he says. “It could simply be potatoes.”
Spooning his legendary butter-lashed, truffle-infused potato purée into my mouth, I couldn’t agree more.