Joël Robuchon, one of the chefs who revolutionized French cuisine, died Monday of cancer in Geneva. He was 73.
Robuchon’s culinary empire comprised 24 restaurants from Paris to Shanghai, Las Vegas to Hong Kong. Some aimed for the acme of French formality and grandeur, others for a more casual style—a few are essentially tearooms. He collected more Michelin stars than any other chef, ever.
“To describe Joël Robuchon as a cook is a bit like calling Pablo Picasso a painter, Luciano Pavarotti a singer, Frederic Chopin a pianist,” wrote the food writer Patricia Wells in a book she co-authored with the chef in 1996.
Robuchon’s career started modestly. At age 15 he started work as a pastry chef at the Relais de Poitiers hotel in his hometown of Poitiers in west-central France. He went on to earn raves as the head chef at Hôtel Concorde-Lafayette in Paris. He opened his own restaurant, Jamin, in 1981, and later moved to larger quarters and renamed it Joël Robuchon.
Robuchon’s signature cooking style focused on amplifying the flavors and textures of two or three ingredients at the center of a dish. He took the tenets of Nouvelle Cuisine, which simplified the rigid hierarchies of traditional French restaurant cuisine, to another level, applying a chef’s taste and techniques to elevate home cooking.
“I have a zillion memories of Robuchon,” says Wells, who co-wrote three cookbooks with the chef. “But the one that I think of regularly was him saying: ‘As cooks, we don’t have the right to make a mushroom taste like a carrot. Our job is to make a mushroom taste as much as a mushroom as it can.’”
Observing the toll on his fellow star chefs from the pressure of maintaining three Michelin stars, he decided to close his eponymous restaurant in 1996, at the height of its prominence.
But retirement didn’t last. Seven years later he opened the more casual counter-service Atelier de Joël Robuchon in Paris and Tokyo almost simultaneously. An atelier is a workshop, and the idea was to bring diners closer to the kitchen, watching the chefs at work from the counter, an approach to haute cuisine that combined the concept of Spanish tapas with the experience of a Japanese sushi bar.
It was the progenitor of today’s overarching trend in restaurants toward serving fine cuisine in more casual surroundings.
At all levels of formality, wine was always a critical part of the Robuchon scene.
Wine Spectator’s Restaurant Awards program has recognized seven of Robuchon’s restaurants for their outstanding wine programs, including Grand Awards, Wine Spectator’s highest honor, for Robuchon au Dôme in Macau since 2005, Joël Robuchon Restaurant in Las Vegas since 2009 and L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in Hong Kong since 2010.
Robuchon’s belief that wine is an integral part of the dining experience is apparent in all of his restaurant ventures. “Cooking and wine are human works,” Robuchon told Wine Spectator in 2007. “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.”
Robuchon was heavily involved in the wine program of the newly opened L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in New York City, which earned the Best of Award of Excellence in 2018.
The chef’s lifelong reputation for excellence helped secure the wines he wanted. When pricing and availability of magnums of Champagne to serve by the glass threatened to sideline the program, he simply phoned Veuve Clicquot president Jean-Marc Gallot. “He came in yesterday,” Robuchon told Wine Spectator last year, “and brought in magnums to fix the issue.”
—Gillian Sciaretta contributed to this report
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