It’s not very often that a chef with a career as extraordinary as Joel Robuchon opens a restaurant in New York. Named “Chef of the Century” by the Gault-Millau guide in 1999 (along with Frédy Girardet and Paul Bocuse), Robuchon is only a few years into his second culinary life, a second act that has him opening restaurants around the world with shocking speed and precision. Although the intention of this article was to “sit in” on a professional dialogue between Mr. Robuchon and some of the finest chefs in New York, all of whom went out of their way to welcome him into their community, let me begin by first introducing the man who is arguably the finest chef ever to open a restaurant in our gleaming, food-renowned city.
The son of a mason, Robuchon was born in 1945 in Poitiers, France. Seemingly predestined to become a priest, he spent three of his teenage years in a local seminary. Young Joel had to leave the seminary at the age of 15 in order to help his family through financial difficulties, and began working at his first restaurant in the Relais of Poitiers Hotel. He remained there for three years before joining the “Compagnon du Tour de France.” While this may sound like a bicycle race, it is actually a traveling apprenticeship, steeped in France’s history and dating back to the Middle Ages. It allows young apprentices to move around the French countryside for three to five years while working for a variety of master chefs. This was arguably one of the most important early experiences in Robuchon’s career, providing him with a vast variety of techniques and experience with regional ingredients all across France.
Over the next ten years, Robuchon worked for a wide range of restaurants throughout France, including Hotel Concorde la Fayette, and Les Celebrites at the Hotel Nikko in Paris. However, none of his experiences during this time period were more important to his development than his relationship with Jean Delaveyne. Delaveyne became well-known not only as Robuchon’s most influential mentor, but also as someone who deserves much credit for developing a creative spin on Escoffier’s ideas that would become known as “Nouvelle Cuisine.” Delaveyne also taught Robuchon that cooking was “more than technique - it was also reflection.”
Robuchon’s first great achievement would come in 1981 when, at the age of 36, he took over ownership of a long-established restaurant named Jamin, and within only three months he received a Michelin star. Known for being fanatical about the orderliness and cleanliness of his kitchen, he quickly established a reputation as the chef that everyone was watching. Three-star chef Jean-Claude Vrinat called him a culinary genius, and the region’s great chefs and food lovers began flocking to his restaurant. His next accomplishment came in 1984 when Jamin received the Michelin guide’s highest honor, three stars, in the shortest timeframe of any restaurant since the guide began publishing in 1900.
In the early 90’s, Robuchon began telling friends and reporters that he would retire at the age of 50, saying in one interview that “the life of a chef is just too severe.” In 1996, at the age of 51, he closed his Restaurant Joel Robuchon, handed over Jamin to Alain Ducasse, and shocked the culinary world by retiring just as he said he would – albeit one year late.
After doing the unthinkable and walking away from two of the most popular restaurants in France, it soon became clear that the concept of retirement to Mr. Robuchon seemed to mean doing everything BUT running a restaurant. He never stayed away from a kitchen for very long, creating an astonishing number of cookbooks (Amazon’s “.fr” French web site lists 43 books with his name on it, and Amazon’s U.S. site has 9) and hosting several popular French television cooking shows. In 2003, Robuchon finally came out of retirement to open L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon, a semi-casual restaurant concept he had created that combined elements of Japanese, Spanish, and French restaurant styles and cuisine. His first L’Atelier was in Roppongi Hills, Tokyo. Once it became successful, he followed that up by opening another in Paris, in the Royal Hotel. He also began overseeing the kitchen at Robuchon a Galera in the Lisboa Hotel in Macau, a gambling region in southern China.
Clearly enjoying the ride, in 2004 he became even busier. He opened two new restaurants at MGM Grand in Las Vegas; the high-end Joel Robuchon at the Mansion (patterned after Joel Robuchon in Paris which he closed in 1996), and the more casual L’Atelier. He also opened Restaurant Joel Robuchon in the Metropole Hotel in Monte Carlo that same year.
Like Alain Ducasse, Robuchon had embraced the concept of training top culinary talent to his exact specifications, then installing this talent in a variety of establishments that bear his name all across the globe. He currently has plans to open L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon restaurants in London, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Tel Aviv.
Hesitant at first to bring his L’Atelier concept to New York, Four Seasons owner Ty Warner finally tempted Robuchon to come to Manhattan with a deal that had been several years in the making. Mr. Robuchon brought Executive Chef Yosuke Suga with him to run the kitchen, who most recently oversaw L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon in Tokyo. The seats in this restaurant, like other L’Atelier’s, are arranged around a u-shaped bar that allows patrons to see directly into the kitchen, where they can watch as black-clad chefs and waiters dance around their sleek black and silver stage. There is seating for 20 around the pearwood counter, and 30 at individual tables.
During the interview, Mr. Robuchon was modest and graceful, and when the interview went well over our pre-arranged time, he repeatedly asked that we continue, wanting to answer every chef’s question even if that meant he would run late on his other obligations. I hope you enjoy the interview!
Knowing what a perfectionist you are about ingredients and how knowledgeable you are about them, what do you think about what you have found locally here in the New York? Do you plan to source all your ingredients locally or will you import part of them from Europe?
Very little is brought in from Europe. I’m lucky to have the benefit of having been in America for a year in Las Vegas, so this is going to be a little bit easier here. One of the things that really impressed me was that how, without any resistance, and with a completely open mind and a warm welcome, all of these chefs approached me before I even had to ask and said, “Here’s where you get your oysters. Here is where you get this, here is where you get that.” I was so pleasantly surprised because that’s not always the case in Europe, it’s a little bit of a secret – ‘I know where I get my oysters from, I’m not telling anyone, right?’ So everybody came to me and said, “This is where you can get your produce, this is where you can get your meat,” and it really wasn’t an issue of having to look for it, it was more a question of saying, “What do I want to buy.” So I’m really looking at the States for where everything comes from, and it’s more and more the case that I’m looking less and less to Europe.
Right before an opening I get very nervous. Did I train my staff well enough? Is the wait staff prepared? Do you still get nervous? As accomplished as you are, does the feeling of uncertainty enter your thoughts? Do you worry about the food critics anymore?
I’m always a little anxious. There are a lot of very good and very successful chef’s who came to New York and left right away. New York is not easily forgiving. Certainly there is a degree of anxiety about opening in New York because there is very little forgiveness with mistakes early on when you open; New York is a very harsh town for that. Certainly, it’s not a given, I’m not taking it for granted that I’m going to be successful. In America there are some fantastic chefs and it’s best to come and be humble.
Do you plan to hire an American staff for New York or will you bring them from France? Which do you think is a better food town and why: New York or Paris?
You really want to stoke the fires! In fact I’m really not bringing any people from France. The only people I’ve really brought from my restaurants are Japanese. Yosuke worked ten years with me in Tokyo, he’s one of the best cooks I’ve worked with. And he’s probably the best pastry chef I’ve ever worked with. I’m in awe of his skill. I’ve been very, very pleasantly surprised by how hard-working I’ve found the staff to be in America, how conscientious they are, how professional they are, the passion they have, the enthusiasm they have. With all the restaurants I have around the world, I was pleasantly surprised by how good the quality of the work force is. For the record, everybody we’ve hired is still on board. Nobody has said, “That’s it, I can’t handle it.” Four weeks later they’re all still on board. We’ve had people come from San Francisco and Seattle to relocate and work with us.
What motivated you to conceive and execute the L’Atelier concept, and what has your experience been, in terms of its acceptance and success, comparing Paris and Tokyo?
I recognized that in the traditional fine dining restaurants there was an awful lot of anguish on the client side – ‘oh my god, am I sitting right, do I eat this, how do I do this right,’ it was quite an intimidating environment and I wanted to get away from that. What I’m going to do at this next concept, I realized that I want to do something that is fun and lively and energetic because people need to be able to relax when they go out to dinner, it shouldn’t be a stressful experience. I realized in Japan that where the Japanese are the most relaxed is at the sushi bar, so that was the inspiration for the counter. I spent a lot of time in Spain, and the Tapas bar was where people were the most relaxed and having the most fun. So living in Spain, visiting Japan, and with my French cooking style I brought it all together. Now the acceptance is such that when we opened in Japan, it was enough of a success so that I said, ‘Now I can go to Paris and do this.’ The French have very, very precise ideas, and at first it was, ‘Okay, it’s different,’ and now 2 or 3 years later it’s a very successful restaurant.
Having gone from being called “the world’s greatest chef,” to retirement, and now having multiple restaurants world-wide, where did you find the motivation, inspiration and energy at this stage in your life to return?
The motivation and the energy and inspiration I had in my old kitchen was in the back - the chef stayed in the kitchen. By nature I’m quite timid and shy, and being in the kitchen, that didn’t really force me out to talk to the guests, that really wasn’t something that was done. Now with the new concept, I don’t need any inspiration or motivation because I’m in touch with the guests, I talk to them every day, I see them. That’s the energy that we get, the fact that we’ve brought the kitchen into the restaurant and the guests are in the kitchen, that is my motivation, that is my inspiration, and I don’t need any extra energy because I get it from them. I see the immediate feedback of them enjoying the food, and that’s really the concept of bringing the guests and the cooks closer together.
What can French chefs learn from American chefs?
What the French have to learn from the American chefs is solidarity, working together, but also humility, and being a little bit more humble, seeing as how the culinary level between France and New York is at the same level now.
How have you handled educating your customers and your staff working with many different products?
It’s not really the products that are different; it’s the preparation and the combination of the products that is different. If you’re going to eat a chicken, it should taste like a chicken and I believe in breaking it down to the most simplistic style of cooking. There aren’t a lot of ingredients in there that are going to disguise the chicken - I want you to taste the chicken. There might be maybe 1 or 2 additional ingredients, but I believe in sophistication and quality through simplicity and a respect for the food. Chicken should taste like chicken and duck should taste like a duck.
What are your continuing sources of creative inspiration after all the years you’ve spent as a chef?
When I first started working in my old restaurants it was all very complicated and very complex cooking. As I age and as my palate changes, it’s really about my palate today versus yesterday. I’m erring more and more towards sophistication through simplicity, making it as simple and as straightforward as possible. If you can call it inspiration, it’s how to make it as simple as possible and still be creative, that’s what my challenge is.
Do you think the benefit of being able to experience the cuisine of Joel Robuchon in many different global locations outweighs the special nature of making a pilgrimage to a great chef’s single “destination” restaurant? Has the culinary globe become too small?
The benefit of eating in all of my restaurants around the world is such that I can find the local produce that is suited best for that market place. You don’t do rabbit in Japan, so you are not going to find it on the menu there, however I believe you should source your food from the sky, the land, and from the water, and in each area of the country or the world you’re going to find the product that suits that local market place. Let’s say for the oysters, you pull them right out of the ocean and you eat them, they are going to taste different than if you pull them out of the ocean and ship them somewhere. It’s not the same oyster whether it’s chemicals or biology or another element that we’re not aware of, you should really work as much as possible with the local produce. So the benefit is if you’re going to have restaurants around the world you can make use of the local produce and also adapt the cooking style. It may be the same recipe but you need to adapt it a little bit to the local ingredients. Maybe the cream is a little bit thicker; maybe this is saltier. One of the things that I’ve noticed is that some chefs will take their dish in Paris and bring it to New York or somewhere else and it’s not going to work because the ingredients don’t gel together, the chemistry just isn’t there anymore. So I’ve got the flexibility of saying I’m going to use the products I’ve got in Japan, I’m going to use the products I find in New York or in Las Vegas, and adapt them and make them work.
It’s true that chef’s are traveling more and they’re getting more influence from regions that they visit, but I’m finding that there is a great deal that you can still learn when traveling. I am a French cook and very influenced by flavors, and when I recently went to China I spent some time learning about how they cook and I realized that there’s another layer to cooking and that’s texture. I hadn’t put that much importance on texture before, and it was another experience which I’m now bringing to my food, it’s not just flavors and seasoning, it’s also texture as well as the eye appeal. For example, I was watching how the Chinese were rinsing out shrimp for hours and hours and hours and they were limp, there was nothing left, but as soon as they sautéed them, they took on a totally different shape and had a different texture. I said ‘wow, there is a different way.’ It’s good for the culinary world that there are all these experiences. What it does is it raises the bar.
Do you feel there has been a change in the quality of cooks that have come to your kitchens in the last few years, and do you notice a difference in the cooks here in New York as opposed to Europe?
In my generation, when you went into the kitchen and learned to cook, it was more along the lines of, “Listen, you’re not doing so well at school at 15 or 16, so why don’t you go peel potatoes, at least you won’t be hungry, at least you’ll have a job where you’ll be able to sustain yourself.” Nowadays education has come along and converted the culinary world from a “I must do this so I can survive,” to a “I want to be a cook and the scales are tilted.” The difference between the New York and European cooks is a generalization, but I’ve noticed that in Europe they’re starting to lose that precision, attention to detail and that passion that was renowned in Europe. Whereas in America, my observations are such that everyone is in it with their heart and they’re really trying to make it happen.
Why did you retire so early?
I started working at the age of 15 and worked all my life. It wasn’t until I was 50 years old that I saw the snow in the mountains. All I ever did was work and I realized that there were certain chefs around me who were dying and not doing so well physically because of the stress that was involved, and I didn’t want to get caught up in it. The retirement was one step in my life. Now I’m surrounded by colleagues and associates. I’ve have 5 business colleagues with whom I’ve worked 20 years - the sommelier, the pastry chefs. We know each other very intimately, so I’m no longer alone in the kitchen, there’s 5 of us so it’s a partnership, a collective effort and that’s what keeps me going now. I wouldn’t be able to do all these restaurants alone, there’s no way. I’m able to do it because I have a solid team around me.
Do you feel a chef can have a healthy balance between work & home and still be successful?
It is difficult because being in the culinary world, you are a passionate individual and it takes over. But that’s why we’re in this business, because we’re passionate about it, but it is a challenge.
A lot of New Yorkers will remember Robuchon from his Jamin days in Paris. Will you have a lot of these great culinary classic dishes from the menu of Jamin?
Not at all. That was then and this is now. Taste has changed, my cooking style has changed, and I recognize the question because in Vegas and in Paris I had a lot of people who followed us, but it’s a completely different kitchen that has evolved, and in ten years, we’ll change again. Well, maybe the mashed potatoes. You know, my worldwide reputation is based on my mashed potatoes!
How do you feel about the increasing numbers of people integrating science into the traditional European kitchen?
I have an enormous amount of respect for the cuisine of molecular cooking. However, I am 100, no 200% against it. The quality of the product is more important. You can take bad ingredients, take for example foie gras, and blend it, and all of a sudden your bad ingredients are disguised. Years ago they eliminated a lot of ingredients such as MSG and a lot of the chemical additives because they weren’t good for you. Now molecular cooking is adding that back in, and I’m really very cautious about it.
What role have the cuisines, spices and aromatics of the East (India, China, Japan and other nations) played in your life, cuisine and restaurants?
These spices actually allow us to simplify the food even further because you don’t have to use the creams and you don’t need the fat. Now you can just use maybe one or two different spices if that, and you’ve got a whole different dimension, a layering of the food, and it ties in with the globalization again. It allows me to experiment a little bit more.
How do you achieve such a high level of perfection in this day and age, where the business aspect of the restaurant more and more overshadows the culinary aspect?
That’s a great question. Yes, today more and more you have to balance the act of business and you have to balance cooking more and more than in the past. It used to be that a cook would work with his hands and get by and be a good cook and you’ll make your living, but now you have to work with your hands and your head, so it’s a balancing act.
What do you see in NY’s economy that would support a restaurant of your caliber?
We’re really not going for formal restaurants, so the pricing will be more affordable. We don’t think we’re going to price ourselves out of the market, we’ll be competitive with the market but we won’t be more expensive than the market, we’ll be in line with the pricing in New York City. We are positioning ourselves a little bit below Per Se, and in line with the Gray’s and the Modern’s. The concept is different, it’s a different direction, but the pricing at the end of the day will be on par.
What are your favorite cheeses?
A nicely aged camembert with a good glass of wine. I am French, after all!
Do you intend to change your style in any way to accommodate the U.S. market?
I only know how to do french cooking, I’m a French chef. I definitely respect the cultural aspects of the country I’m in, so I’m ready to make that adjustment in respect to the culture. For example, we are very conscious of the fact that maybe one or two items need to be Kosher and respect that element of New York’s market place.
Why is the time finally right for you to open a restaurant in New York City and why not choose to open a free-standing restaurant as opposed to one supported by a hotel?
I always refused any invitation to open a restaurant in New York City because it always frightened me. This was a new concept and we have a lot of Americans visiting Tokyo and Paris, so I’ve test driven it. I know that there is interest from the Americans. When Four Seasons approached me and the ownership here said, “You know what, there’s a good partnership here, quality meets quality.” That was the convincing thing, the quality here.
Regarding trends; how do you see the restaurant scene developing and or changing over the next 5-10 years? How different might it be from today?
In restaurants, the activity I’ve seen is like a stage. What the restaurants used to be was a little bit on par with the formality of going to church where you sat there and you listened, but the future of the restaurant is more and more about entertainment, where you need to be entertained with the eye and the senses. It’s not just about you and me looking each other in the eyes, although that was the case for many, many years - that was all you did. You went in, had dinner, you talked and you left. Now it’s a little bit more about the show, the activity, the action, and that’s more the direction we’re going to head towards; less of the formality, more of the informality with activity, but without a compromise on the quality.
In expanding your empire, where do you really feel that the future of successful chefs lies?
It’s having success with happy guests that come back again and again. Just yesterday I encountered someone who has eaten in my restaurant in Paris 50 times, and he told me, “Every single time I’m there, I have good memories of eating in your restaurant.” That is for me the measurement of success - a happy clientele. There is nothing that can compare with that.
The organic movement is becoming increasingly stronger in America – a fact that I am sure you appreciate given your French background. Are you forging relationships with purveyors or farmers of organic goods?
I’m in favor of organic food and cooking but it still has to taste good. There are certain organic foods that might be healthy for you, but they don’t necessarily have the flavor that you need. I certainly support it and understand it, but there are some organic products that just don’t have that good flavor. There is progress, though. In all my restaurants I do have organic vegetables, for example. In New York, it’s a little bit in flux right now because we’re in the process of choosing our products, but I think where the decisions are is ‘what’s the best product.’ I don’t know that we’re sourcing them deliberately because they’re organic; we’re looking for the best products. We need to encourage the organic market to continue, but they have to be quality products. It’s not just because they’re organic that they’re going to sell and I will only buy a product if it tastes good.
Are you planning on opening The Mansion here as well, assuming all goes well with L’Atelier?
No, I have three restaurants of that caliber, one in the Chateau at Tokyo, one in Macau, and one in Las Vegas, and I believe that’s enough.
What would it take for Chef Robuchon to consider opening another restaurant where he would be in the kitchen cooking again on a daily basis?
I’m actually cooking every day. It may not be in one restaurant but wherever I go, I’m in the kitchen and I’m cooking. Even when I’m not in the restaurants, I have a television show in France where I’m also cooking.
In France, waiting tables is a profession, whereas in America it is generally a gap on the way to another career – how do you deal with these discrepancies in front of house service issues?
One of the ideal profiles of a server for me is someone who is warm and kind and gentle, and that’s the overriding quality I am looking for. If the fork is 10% off to the right and it’s not quite parallel and perpendicular and everything, that’s not the end all. It’s more important how they interact with the guests because they’re my ambassadors. Certainly the personality is important, the warmth, the kindness is important. But even more important is that you do need the technical skills. You need to have someone for whom that is their profession, and they know what they’re doing.
Do you feel that the American palate is educated enough to challenge you?
Americans have traveled around the world, they are the clientele that has experienced and traveled the most. I was surprised by how many of the American clients, by how educated they are of their wine knowledge. That really surprised me. I don’t think I see a difference in the palate. Even in Vegas I was surprised. In Vegas, Americans are coming from all four corners and they’re able to recognize good and bad - I like it, I don’t like it. As in everywhere in the world, there are different levels of society where the culture is able to appreciate nuances in the food. Certain people may pick it up and certain people may not, but that’s the same with France and Germany as it is with America.
Where is your favorite place to eat in New York City and why?
It’s more important who you eat with, for example, I would love eating with Eric Ripert for sentimental reasons, we go back a long way. But I’m not going to tell you what my favorite restaurant is because I also haven’t eaten in all the restaurants. There are so many good restaurants. I’ve eaten in so many good restaurants, it’s a difficult thing, I can’t say what my favorite is. I am always welcomed with such kindness, every one of them in their own way has done something unique and special for me and I’m not going to judge other kitchens as better or not, I’m not going there with a critical mind, I’m going there to enjoy it.
I know you love cheese. What would be the best time and place for you to enjoy your favorite cheese and with whom?
You never know when you’re going to have your best in life. It could be at 10 o’clock in the morning you have a slice of sausage with a glass of wine and cheese that you like. There is no precise time; it’s really about the moment; who you’re with, when that happens. There’s a chef who lived on Lake Geneva in a little town called Crissier, and in that town was a restaurant called Girardet. I consider Frédy Girardet to be one of the best chefs I’ve ever met, the best in the world. I remember a meal where Frédy and I sat down around 9 o’clock in the morning, and we had a bottle of Chateau 1945 with some Swiss seasonal cheese that comes in a round box - like a hat box but flat - and you scoop it out and eat it with cumin. It was just a combination of wine and this one cheese, but basically that was our breakfast that day. That was one of the best moments of my life.
I would like to thank everyone for the welcome I’ve received every time I come to visit. Before I even came to New York and before I even asked, it was the first time in my life that any country and any place has been so accommodating in making me feel welcome. Before I left France, before I even got to America, chefs like Jean Georges, Daniel, and Thomas Keller called me and said, “Whatever you need, my kitchen, my address book, my list of suppliers, whatever it takes, whatever you want.” And I was shocked –‘wow, that’s fantastic.’ I would like to pay tribute to their professionalism. In other parts of the world, it would have been banana peels versus a welcome mat and I recognize that!