Thursday 20 June 2019

Obituary: Joel Robuchon

French restaurateur hailed as 'Chef of the Century' who preferred simple fare

Chef of the Century: Joel Robuchon, in 1969 he won the Prosper Merimee cookery prize. Photo: Reuters
Chef of the Century: Joel Robuchon, in 1969 he won the Prosper Merimee cookery prize. Photo: Reuters

Joel Robuchon, who died last Tuesday aged 73, was widely recognised as one of the world's best chefs; his restaurants, in destinations ranging from Tokyo to Las Vegas via Paris and London, notched up a tally of 28 Michelin stars across 13 countries, nine of them awarded in a single year; in 1990 the Gault Millau guide voted him "Chef of the Century".

Robuchon reached his prime in the kitchen when "nouvelle cuisine" was all the rage, but he rebelled against the emphasis on presentation, harking back to a more authentic French culinary tradition. To him the essence of good cooking lay in the combination of flavours, but never more than four in a single dish - prepared, as he put it, to "express themselves most articulately". "My mantra is 'Eat the truth'," he once said. "I hate going to restaurants where you don't know if it's duck, chicken or veal on the plate."

Robuchon had entered his first major cooking competition aged 16 when his "lievre farci" - stuffed wild hare - won first prize. By the time he was 28 he had become head chef at the Harmony-Lafayette restaurant in Paris. In 1981, aged 36, he opened his own establishment, Jamin, on Rue de Longchamp in the 16th arrondissement of Paris, where he helped banish the shaved carrot-on-plate daftness of nouvelle cuisine. He won one Michelin star in 1982, two in 1983 and three in 1984. No other chef had risen so far so fast.

Robuchon sustained his position at the top with a ferocious work ethic and a sometimes furious temper. In his autobiography, Humble Pie, Gordon Ramsay recalled his time working for the great man in Paris to working for the SAS, adding that, by comparison, the famously volcanic Marco Pierre White was a "f**king pussycat". After suffering numerous tongue-lashings, Ramsay finally tore off his apron and walked out when Robuchon hurled a plate of langoustine ravioli at him.

In 1996, when Robuchon was at the top of his game, he caused consternation in the world of fine dining by announcing his retirement. "I just wanted to live a little, to spend time with my wife and children," he explained. "The first time I saw snow was when I was 50, because I'd never had the time before."

He never quite pulled it off, continuing to keep his hand in with consultancies in France and Asia, hosting a popular television series and publishing cookery books.

On visits to Spain and Japan, meanwhile, Robuchon became fascinated by the conviviality of tapas and sushi bars and in 2003 he bounced back with an "Atelier" (workshop) in Tokyo, an informal, moderately-priced establishment where he tore up the fine-dining rule book, replacing white tablecloths and crystal glassware with bare wood tables and non-traditional crockery, placing the kitchen in full view of diners and ordaining that there should be no dress code. A second Atelier was opened in Paris shortly after, quickly gaining a Michelin star, and others followed around the world from Singapore to Las Vegas.

As the Michelin stars began to accumulate once again, Robuchon returned to opening gastronomic restaurants on a grand scale, including one in a luxury casino hotel in Las Vegas bankrolled by MGM and three restaurants at the Hotel Metropole in Monaco, with prices appropriate to the hotel's billionaire clientele.

One of four children, Joel Robuchon was born to devoutly Roman Catholic working-class parents in Poitiers, central France, on April 7, 1945. From the age of 12 he spent three years in a seminary wanting to be a priest, but found that he was more interested in sitting in the kitchen watching nuns cut up vegetables than he was in his bible studies. Aged 15 he took a job in the kitchen of a relais in Poitiers.

But Robuchon, who enjoyed watching rugby and tennis, insisted that he remained a man of simple pleasures: "I do have this vision that if I ever get to heaven, someone will sit me down and say, 'This is our menu for today'. But I'd be quite happy with a baguette with some fantastic cheese and a glass of wine."

In 1966 he married Janine Pallix, with whom he had a son and a daughter.

© Telegraph

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