France’s ‘chef of the century’ Joel Robuchon dies age 73

Chef at one point held more than 30 Michelin stars at restaurants across the world

French chef Joel Robuchon explains his  ways of cooking during the World Summit of Gastronomy in Tokyo  in 2009. Photograph: Toshifumi Kitamura/AFP/Getty Images

French chef Joel Robuchon explains his ways of cooking during the World Summit of Gastronomy in Tokyo in 2009. Photograph: Toshifumi Kitamura/AFP/Getty Images

 

Joel Robuchon, a world famous chef who at one point earned more than 30 Michelin stars across nearly two dozen restaurants on three continents, died on Monday at his home in Geneva aged 73, his staff said.

Named the “chef of the century” by the Gault et Millau cooking guide in 1990, Robuchon was regarded as a perfectionist, toiling to make even ordinary seeming dishes – such as mashed potatoes – the very best they could be.

He came into his own in the 1980s and early 1990s, when gourmet food went global. He steadily expanded his renown, from being one of Paris’s most recognised three-star chefs to become a worldwide phenomenon.

In France, Robuchon is regarded as a chef who ushered in an era of authenticity after the restraint of nouvelle cuisine.

“To describe Joel Robuchon as a cook is a bit like calling Pablo Picasso a painter, Luciano Pavarotti a singer, Frederic Chopin a pianist,” Patricia Wells, a cook and food writer, wrote in L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon, a book about the chef and his students. “Joel Robuchon will undoubtedly go down as the artist who most influenced the 20th-century world of cuisine.”

While he was no stranger to the fancy – truffles and caviar were among his favourites – his food was often 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, not mask, their flavours.

No reservations

He started a revolution with his Atelier – workshop in French – model: small, intimate restaurants where diners sat at a counter surrounding the kitchen. It did not take reservations and it did not have tables (for the most part).

His goal, he said, was to make diners feel comfortable, let them interact with the chef and, above all, put the focus back on the food. It was partially a rebuke to the Michelin star regime, which awards points not just for technique but also for the ambience and service.

“The older I get, the more I realise the truth is: the simpler the food, the more exception it can be,” he told Business Insider in an interview in 2014. “I never try to marry more than three flavours in one dish. I like walking into a kitchen and knowing that the dishes are identifiable and the ingredients within them easy to detect.”

Thanks to Ateliers around the world – from Las Vegas to Tokyo – Robuchon reached a total of 32 Michelin stars in 2016 – a record – and still held 31 stars this year, including five three-star restaurants.

Another calling

Robuchon was born just before the end of the second World War in the French town of Poitiers, south of the Loire Valley. He studied at a seminary from a young age and considered becoming a priest. But hours spent cooking with the nuns convinced him that he had another calling.

He got his professional start at 15 at a local restaurant and by 29 was running the kitchen at a large Paris hotel, in charge of 90 chefs.

For years, his culinary home was at Jamin, a restaurant near the Eiffel Tower that he opened in 1981. The restaurant racked up a Michelin star a year for its first three years – a feat no one had ever accomplished before. The wait for a reservation was two months.

Mashed potato

Even at this classic restaurant, signs of the ways Robuchon would shake up the culinary scene could be found. For one, his most famous dish was the lowly mashed potato. “These mashed potatoes, it’s true, made my reputation. I owe everything to these mashed potatoes,” he said once during a demonstration of how to make the almost liquid dish.

“Maybe it’s a little bit of nostalgia, Proust’s madeleines. Everyone has in his memory the mashed potatoes of his mother, the mashed potatoes of his grandmother.”

The idea that a restaurant might be a warm, casual place, rather than a stuffy temple to awkward food, was taking root. It was, in part, a rejection of nouvelle cuisine, the movement that made French chefs notorious for small plates, exquisitely presented but often not all that satisfying.

But, as long promised, Robuchon hung up his whisk in 1996, at the age of 51. “You have to know when it’s time to quit,” he said at the time. “A great chef has to be in great shape. Cooking is tough. It’s like being an athlete who has to stay really fit.”

He would still consult with other chefs, work on a line of prepared foods, oversee restaurants across the world, but he declared that he was done with slaving away all day at the stove.

Michelin stars

And that, some say, is when his career really took off. In 2003, he came out of retirement to create the Atelier – one opened in Paris and one in Tokyo nearly simultaneously. From there, he brought them to cities all over Asia, Europe and the US, and the Michelin stars followed.

His latest project came this year in Paris with the opening in April of Dassai, a restaurant and tea and cakes salon with, importantly, a bar for tasting sake, the rice-based alcohol of Japan, where the French chef established a presence, and drew inspiration, decades ago.

The establishment, not far from the French presidential palace, was opened in collaboration with Dassai sake producer Hiroshi Sakurai.