Joël Robuchon, 61, has only recently established a foothold in the American dining scene, but has long been considered one of the world's greatest living chefs. Born in Poitiers, France, Robuchon first learned to cook by helping out the nuns in the kitchen of the seminary where he was a student. By age 15, he was an apprentice in a local restaurant; soon after, he left his hometown to work alongside and learn from some of the best chefs in France. In 1981, he opened Jamin, in Paris, where he developed some of the signature recipes, most notably cream of cauliflower soup with caviar, that made him an international sensation. Within three years, Jamin was awarded three Michelin stars. Robuchon closed the restaurant in 1993; the following year, he opened the larger and more opulent Restaurant Joël Robuchon, which he operated for only two years before "retiring" from the kitchen.
After a few years spent writing and making television appearances, Robuchon returned to the stoves, and since 2001 he has opened a number of restaurants, including Wine Spectator Grand Award-winning Robuchon a Galera, in Macao, a sovereign territory of China; L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon, in Paris, Tokyo, Las Vegas and New York; and Joël Robuchon at the Mansion, also in Las Vegas. The great chef shared his opinions with Wine Spectator Online about wine, cuisine and the narrowing differences between Americans and the French.
Wine Spectator: Tell us how you became interested in and educated about wine.
Joël Robuchon: Cooking and wine are human works. The harmony between the cooking and the wine is a moment of love. The chef and the sommelier unite to study these harmonies … Often, the first steps toward wine knowledge occur at a restaurant. Antoine Hernandez, my longtime sommelier, who has so much wine knowledge, has shared with me his passion and his vision. Being a wine scholar is unimportant, because one is entering into an inexhaustible field.
WS: Is there a uniting principle among the wine lists at your various restaurants?
JR: At a time when the great vintages are out of reach of common people, the relationship between quality and price is of primary importance. It's very important to unearth a wine that will offer the most pleasure for the minimum of pain when the bill arrives. Antoine … could of course serve you a Pétrus or a Château d'Yquem, but he will [also] speak to you with great emotion about sunny, light local wines from a region that has really evolved into a quality wine region, the Languedoc-Roussillon.
WS: Given the style of counter service and the small-portion, multicourse menus available at L'Atelier in Paris, New York and Las Vegas, is there a particular emphasis on by-the-glass selections in your wine program?
JR: The role of the sommelier presently is evolving very quickly … The client consumes less wine than in the past, but he drinks better wines. That's the reason that we have such a beautiful selection of wines by the glass. Counter service favors more interaction with the sommelier, which is important for the client, who is more and more a wine connoisseur, and therefore more demanding.
We have a selection of about 20 wines by the glass in the haute cuisine restaurants, and double that in the Ateliers. This list is made up of wines both French and foreign, though I dislike that word, [and] I'd rather say "wines of the world," since quality wines are no longer exclusive to France.
WS: What are your favorite wines to drink, and do you collect any of them for personal consumption?
JR: Very simply, I like good wine which is in harmony with the dish I'm tasting. … I do have a very small cellar. I don't like all the wine etiquette and rules; I just want to have a wine with character that tastes great. I do have a few bottles from Côtes du Rhône.
WS: You said in an interview with Wine Spectator in 2004 that, "I adore New York … but I am a bit scared. So many chefs have not made it in New York. We will start in Las Vegas; first, I need to understand American culture." What have you learned about American culture in the two years since making that statement, and have you learned it all in Las Vegas?
JR: Well, I still have a lot to learn about the American culture. What I've found is the clientele in Vegas is very cosmopolitan and international. In New York, while we do have some foreigners since we're located in a hotel, the majority of the clients are native New Yorkers. I've been pleased and surprised by the New York clients and how much knowledge they have of wine and food. New Yorkers are used to going out, know the restaurant world very well, and are very receptive to my ideas.
WS: Do you see a large difference in the ways that the Americans and the French approach fine dining, in terms of their expectations, what they are willing to try?
JR: Not anymore. Today, I think they're very similar in that both are sophisticated, but want to eat things they know: La cuisine de verité; the cuisine of truth. And by that I mean that simple, fresh dishes with top-quality ingredients are most important to both [populations]. People want to be happy and not too ceremonial when dining out. Our American clients have really evolved and even know more about wine, the producers, the vintages, than the French. The French think they know about wine but they don't actually study it. The Americans really want to know about wine and have made an effort to teach themselves and become knowledgeable.
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