Interview with star chef Jo�l Robuchon
Jo�l Robuchon may be awash with Michelin stars, but he can’t resist a plate of chips and tomato ketchup. Jeremy Josephs meets the chef of the century who still thinks he can improve.
Jo�l Robuchon may be awash with Michelin stars, but he can’t resist a plate of chips and tomato ketchup. Jeremy Josephs meets the chef of the century who still thinks he can improve
Jo�l Robuchon is not an easy man to track down. Ring his London restaurant and they tell you to contact Paris. Ring Paris and you find out that he is in Tokyo. And Tokyo points to Taipei. In the end his secretary, Christine Ravachol, must have admired my determination in seeking out the most Michelin starred man on the planet. Either that or she took pity on me.
“You can meet him here in Paris at the office – we are on the third floor of a block not far from Balard m�tro station which is on line 8. “Or, if you prefer, Monsieur Robuchon would be delighted to treat you to lunch at his new two-starred restaurant L’Atelier on the Champs �lys�es and you could chat with him after that.” I am not particularly keen on the phrase nobrainer’. Not least because I don’t know how to translate it into French. But I knew right away that whatever its precise definition, here was a classic example of one. “Oh, I think the Atelier sounds rather nice – thanks so much. I am sure I will be able to cope with any background noise,” I say
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You could be forgiven for thinking that being one of the world’s most celebrated and successful chefs would be something of a burden to bear. Or that the award of Chef of the Century’ might bring with it such high gastronomic expectations that it could lead its recipient to toss and turn in the early hours. But that would be to misread entirely the mind of the world-renowned restaurateur Jo�l Robuchon. For a happier and more chirpy 66-year-old soul it would be difficult to meet. “Do I look stressed out from running any of my 20 restaurants? Does it look as if the 26 Michelin stars have got me down?
“I am not. Because I love doing what I do. I could have packed it all in years ago and put my feet up. But I do it and go on because I love the trade, I love people and I love the world in which I operate.” In fact Robuchon is so carried away with love and conviviality that the subject of haute cuisine almost seemed to pass him by.
“The secret to good cooking is to love people”, he affirms. “To cook for them as you would when preparing a meal for your loved ones. So a friendly atmosphere in a restaurant is absolutely crucial. Once people are on your side then they won’t get unduly upset if you drop a plate here or break a glass there.
Conviviality and warmth are my watchwords – when people come to my restaurants they are not going to Mass, you know.” Robuchon happens to know all about the intricacies of the Catholic church, having been educated in the Maul�on-sur-S�vre seminary in the d�partement of Deux-S�vres – where he was destined for the priesthood. “But I realised that it was not for me, because I liked girls and if you are put together properly by the good Lord then in my view it’s not at all natural to abstain.”
And yet it was within the rather unforgiving environment of the seminary that he had his first encounter with preparing food. “The nuns and priests would ask for volunteers in the kitchens – to help out with peeling the potatoes, washing up and so on. I liked the atmosphere there. I was from a poor family, you know. So I thought that since I wasn’t going to become a priest I would try to become a chef. I’ll tell you what that training gave me – discipline and rigour, key ingredients for any well-run kitchen.”
Leaving school at 15, he became an apprentice chef at a hotel in Poitiers, starting off as a p�tissier. By the age of 31 he had won the Meilleur Ouvrier de France for his craftsmanship in culinary arts. He opened his own restaurant, Jamin, in Paris creatingboth a laboratory and a stage for his burgeoning, revolutionary cuisine. As experiments go, it can only be described as highly successful; it soon received the highest accolade possible – three Michelin stars. Jamin also happened to be where a talented up-andcoming chef turned up – Gordon Ramsay. Robuchon immediately confesses that he once threw one of his signature dishes – his fabled truffled langoustine ravioli – at his eager young prot�g�.
“I was younger and hot-headed then – more impulsive too. It’s only as you become older that you realise that all that is really not the best way to conduct yourself in life. As for Gordon’s shouting and screaming, I wouldn’t take too much notice of it: but it does make good viewing on TV, for sure.” Despite having almost two dozen restaurants spread out around the globe – New York, Las Vegas, Monaco, Hong Kong to name but a few – do not set off to one of Robuchon’s establishments in search of the perfect meal. And pourquoi pas?
“Because the perfect meal doesn’t exist. I don’t say this out of modesty, or false modesty, but from belief and conviction. The truth is that one can always do better. I learned that message as a boy both in the seminary and as an apprentice – and it’s true both in and outside of the kitchen. Am I still striving to improve? Of course.”
His culinary skills were much sought after, and appreciated, on French TV – his programme on France 3 attracting huge viewing figures. He insists that success on the small screen was because his were teaching programmes, not shows based around the personality of the chef. With fame and success every which way he looked, Robuchon could apparently do no wrong. And yet, at the age of 50, he decided the throw in the towel. “Because I saw friends dropping dead from heart attacks in their forties and fifties. I had been working more or less non-stop since the age of 15. I only saw a mountain with snow on it in my fifties. I just thought I should stop to live a little. Call it a mid-life crisis if you will.” Yet 15 years down the line he has more restaurants than ever and a business continuing to expand. So what brought him back? “I guess the hardest thing in life is to say no. A lot of young chefs who I was working with wanted to establish themselves in their own right. But the banks are now very cautious with their money. So they came to me and asked if I would back them. I said I would, but with another concept – L’Atelier – where the food is prepared in front of customers. It’s been a huge hit. I am working with partners. I would never want to do it alone. I am a happy man. I do what I want, when I want. The only thing that stresses me is when I see work badly done. Because the primary objective is always that the customer should be satisfied.” Jo�l Robuchon cannot quite bring himself to say that he is proud of what he has achieved. “It just sounds too bigheaded”. He prefers to dwell on whether or not he might have been able to do even better. “This feeling”, he says, “is something instilled into you in your training as a chef. In some respects constructive criticism is more appealing than lavish praise.” He says he very much regrets not having completed his formal education – and has been trying to make up for it ever since – immersing himself in the works of France’s philosophers and great writers.
Two of Robuchon’s signature dishes have gathered almost mythical, legendary status – his gel�e de caviar � la cr�me de chou-fleur, (cream of cauliflower soup with caviar), and his galette de truffes aux oignons et lard fum� (truffle tart). “To make a grand meal, you have to keep it simple. To look simple is very complicated. You need the highest quality products, the best equipment and you have to keep the focus on the original flavour of the product.”
Robuchon could lead the high life, but he chooses not to. “If you could see the car I run around in in Paris, you might be a little surprised; it’s a Citro�n Berlingo van. I prefer to live a quiet, modest life – much of it in Spain.” Is there any other guilty pleasure to which he might like to confess? The man acknowledged as the world’s greatest chef unburdens himself: “I’ll tell you a couple of things I am more than a little partial to; a nice plate of chips smothered in tomato ketchup. And washed down with a nice cold glass of Coke.” Which prompts one to wonder, of course, what the good inspectors of the Guide Michelin, would make of that.
L’Atelier de Jo�l Robuchon
13-15 West Street London WC2H 9NE Tel: 0207 010 8600
L’Atelier de Jo�l Robuchon
133 Avenue des Champs �lys�es 75008 Paris Tel: (Fr) 1 47 23 75 75
L’Atelier Saint Germain
5 Rue de Montalembert 75007 Paris Tel: (Fr) 1 42 22 56 56
Visit www.joel-robuchon.net to find out about the many restaurants of Jo�l Robuchon