Joël Robuchon, 1945–2018
The French chef who created a culinary empire
To gourmands, Joël Robuchon was much more than a chef—he was an alchemist. The French culinary star’s mashed potatoes were a creamy work of art, thanks to his painstaking method of drying the potatoes and then slowly introducing chilled butter and boiling milk. Many more delights awaited diners at his empire of restaurants, which stretched from Paris to Tokyo to New York City. There was a layered cake of smoked foie gras and caramelized eel, caviar in fine jelly with cauliflower cream, and a soup of cocoa beans and truffles. In 2016 Robuchon collected 32 Michelin stars, a tally unequaled by any other chef. Yet he was no food snob. He prized simple ingredients and bold flavors, and loathed showing off. “Our job is not to make a mushroom taste like a carrot,” he said, “but to make a mushroom taste as much like a mushroom as it can.”
Robuchon was born to a “fervently Catholic family in Poitiers, in the center of France,” said The Times (U.K.). He entered a seminary at age 12, planning to become a priest, but found a new calling while helping the nuns prepare meals. At age 15, Robuchon began an apprenticeship at a restaurant, and by 29, he was in charge of 90 chefs at a large Paris hotel, said The Washington Post. In 1981, he opened his own restaurant, Jamin, near the Eiffel Tower. It “racked up a Michelin star a year in its first three years—a feat no one had accomplished before.” Robuchon was fiercely demanding in the kitchen, once bouncing a plate of disappointing langoustine ravioli off the head of a junior chef named Gordon Ramsay.
The restaurant guide Gault & Millau hailed Robuchon as a “chef of the century” in 1989, said TheGuardian.com. But seven years later, at age 51, he abruptly retired, saying he’d seen too many contemporaries “burn out or die.” He came out of retirement in 2003 to launch his revolutionary Ateliers (the French word for workshops): intimate restaurants where diners sat at a counter surrounding the kitchen. The first ones in Paris and Tokyo were “greeted with almost hysterical acclaim and long queues,” and dozens more soon opened around the world. Just as in his kitchens, Robuchon liked to keep things simple when cooking for himself. His favorite dish? “Steak and fries,” he said, “nice and French.”