Joël Robuchon was a French chef and restaurateur. He was named “Chef of the Century” by the guide Gault Millau in 1989, and awarded the Meilleur Ouvrier de France (France’s best worker) in cuisine in 1976. He published several cookbooks, two of which have been translated into English, chaired the committee for the Larousse Gastronomique, and hosted culinary television shows in France. He operated more than a dozen restaurants in Bangkok, Bordeaux, Hong Kong, Las Vegas, London, Macau, Monaco, Montreal, Paris, Shanghai, Singapore, Taipei, Tokyo, and New York City, with the highest record of a total of 32 Michelin Guide stars among them (31 at the time of his death), the most of any chef in the world.
Robuchon was born in 1945 in Poitiers, France, one of four children of a bricklayer. He attended the Châtillon-sur-Sèvre seminary in the Deux-Sèvres briefly considering a clerical career. The French master chef Joël Robuchon, who rebelled against the stuffy world of fine dining, elevated mashed potato into an art form, and built up a culinary empire across the world.
Named the “chef of the century” by the Gault et Millau cooking guide in 1990, Robuchon was both a highly disciplined perfectionist and a kitchen rebel who became known for cooking mashed potato so exquisitely that critics described eating it as an overwhelmingly “emotional” experience.
Robuchon went from working-class roots to young stardom in the 1970s Paris world of fine dining, where eye-watering prices, starched tablecloths and silver cutlery were the norm. But he was credited with changing the rules of French cooking and restoring heartiness to the stark dishes of nouvelle cuisine.
He believed it was not the tiny sculpted portions on platters that should matter to diners, but hearty and simple dishes – truffle tart, creamed cauliflower, langoustine ravioli – cooked without mixing too many flavours at once, and sourcing the best produce.
He did not shy away from luxury products such as caviar, but his food was described as simple because he preached the use of only three or four ingredients in most dishes, and his goal was always to show off their flavours.
After he turned 21, he joined the apprenticeship “Compagnon du Tour de France”, enabling him to travel throughout the country, learning a variety of regional techniques. At the age of 29, Robuchon was appointed as head chef at the Hôtel Concorde La Fayette, where he managed 90 cooks. In 1976 he won the Meilleur Ouvrier de France for his craftsmanship in culinary arts. While working as an Executive Chef and Food and Beverage manager of the Nikko hotel in Paris he gained two Michelin stars.
In 1981 he opened his own restaurant, Jamin, which holds the rare distinction of receiving three Michelin stars in the first three years of existence. In 1984, Jamin is named “Best Restaurant in the World” by International Herald Tribune. Between 1987 and 1990, he became a regular of cooking shows on French television.
In 1989, prestigious restaurant guide Gault Millau named Robuchon the ”Chef of the Century”. He mentored many famous chefs, including Gordon Ramsay, Eric Ripert, and Michael Caines.
Robuchon’s food style, might be described as a synthesis of cuisine classique (traditional French fare, featuring meaty and fat-laden sauces), nouvelle cuisine (a rejection of that classic cooking which popularized lighter, vegetable-forward flavors), and influences from Japan and Spain. He didn’t just follow Escoffier’s systemization of culinary technique, he built upon it by demonstrating how highly technical dishes (featuring luxurious, and often temperamental ingredients) could be reproduced in multiple places at once, thanks to careful product sourcing, a nearly compulsive obsession with perfection, and extensive training.
Today, Robuchon’s quail with foie gras, deviled egg with caviar, uni with lobster gelee, and mashed potatoes are taught in culinary schools, replicated in a dozen different L’Ateliers, and mimicked by chefs around the world. This guarantees his place in French culinary history, but it also created a whole new kind of luxury diner. Frequent fliers with expense accounts tend to chat each other up at each L’Atelier, comparing the lobster they had in Hong Kong to the one they had in London, recommending a special bottle of scotch they tasted in Las Vegas, or the chocolates that came at the end of their meal in Macau.
Regional variations exist at even massive chains like McDonald’s or Burger King, but the most popular items — sort of like Robuchon’s own Big Mac and Whopper — make an appearance on every menu at some point no matter where they are in the world. Every powerhouse chef has a list of greatest hits, signature menu items that outlive them, inspire generations of cooks, and at least attempt to further the craft of cooking.
Robuchon has been known for the relentless perfectionism of his cuisine; he said there is no such thing as the perfect meal – one can always do better. He was instrumental in leading French cuisine forward from the excessive reductionism of nouvelle cuisine toward a post-modern amalgam of the nouvelle, international influences – especially Japanese cuisine – and even select traditions of haute cuisine.