Chef who gave clout to casual dining

Joel Robuchon at his restaurant L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon in the Meatpacking District in Manhattan last year.
Joel Robuchon at his restaurant L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon in the Meatpacking District in Manhattan last year.PHOTO: NYTIMES

Joel Robuchon's L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon was a breakthrough in French gastronomy - giving diners a relatively affordable experience of a meal served at the counter in view of the kitchen

NEW YORK • Joel Robuchon kept chefs on their toes, "even when we were sleeping", said Gordon Ramsay in his tribute to the master chef who died on Monday.

The British celebrity chef had trained under Robuchon, who died at age 73 from pancreatic cancer.

For New York City restaurateur Danny Meyer, it was not Robuchon's Michelin stars or that his white-tablecloth establishment in Paris was once considered the best restaurant in the world.

What he most vividly recalled was the French master chef's foray into the world of casual dining.

Opened in the early 2000s in Paris and Tokyo, L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon was a breakthrough in French gastronomy - a relatively affordable experience in which your meal was served at the counter in full view of the kitchen.

Inspired by Japanese and Spanish tapas restaurants, L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon gave chefs and restaurateurs the freedom to rethink the concept of haute cuisine.

Meyer, who helped create celebrated Manhattan restaurants Gramercy Tavern and Modern inside the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), said: "He understood that what you get on a plate matters more to people than how luxurious the accommodations were."

Meyer said L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon made such an impression on him that he incorporated its influences into the Bar Room, a refined-but-casual concept he opened at MoMA in 2005, less than two years after Robuchon debuted his own bar-style restaurant in France and Japan.

Perhaps not widely known, Robuchon created L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon after he had retired from the kitchen, around his 50th birthday, to focus on a television project that would pass along his knowledge of French cuisine.

But the bricklayer's son found that he could not rest on his laurels, which included Jamin in Paris.

That he earned his third Michelin star in 1984, after Jamin had been open only three years, is often cited as the quickest any chef ever netted three of those coveted stars.

He later moved Jamin and renamed the place after himself.

In 1994, Patricia Wells, then restaurant critic with the International Herald Tribune, called it the best restaurant in the world.

But in 1996, he shut down his three-star restaurant. Declaring he did not want to die of the stress of turning out flawless fare day after day, the father of two said: "I will watch my children and grandchildren grow up, I will love my wife, friends and the good things in life."

The timeout gave him time to do just that. "The first time I saw snow was when I was 50," he told the Telegraph, "because I'd never had the time before."

In the same interview, he talked about his re-emergence in the industry with L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon. In his travels, he had watched as diners gravitated towards more casual dining.

The quest for spontaneity extended to his character - Robuchon was not caught up in his own fame, noted Washington chef Jose Andres.

Years ago at an event in Beverly Hills, California, he recalled that the master chef was struggling to plate a dish of his iconic potato puree. Andres' 11-year-old daughter grabbed the chef's jacket and said: "Don't worry, chef. All will be good. I will help you."

Andres said: "He gave her a kiss and told her, 'You will help me alone.' I never saw a person more caring. My daughter loves food and cooking, and I know that this moment I'm describing had an impact on her that still endures in her DNA."

Still, despite his placid demeanour, Robuchon could blow up in the heat of the moment.

In a 2013 interview, he admitted to throwing a plate at Ramsay. "I've never thought of myself as having that much of a temper. But it's true that I can't stand it when things are not done properly.

"When that happens, I cannot control my reaction," he said.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 08, 2018, with the headline 'Chef who gave clout to casual dining'. Print Edition | Subscribe