Have you ever wished to travel back in time to try the cuisine of Escoffier or another famous chef who's no longer behind the stove? I have, and for me that chef is Joel Robuchon. I’d always wished for the opportunity to experience his cuisine at its three-star best. He’s a chef so great that even his pommes purees are legendary. Mashed potatoes? What could JR do to them that no one else could? I finally got to try his pommes puree at L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon in Paris in the summer of 2005. Once a bite of this distinctive and unique treat hit my tongue, I felt I tasted Robuchon’s version of 'Stairway to Heaven." My dream to try JR’s cuisine in a three-star setting became a reality when the gastronomic landscape of the United States changed in October of 2005.
This was when Chef Joel Robuchon opened two restaurants -- his first in the United States -- at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. One, called Robuchon at the Mansion, is a fine dining establishment, and the other is the less formal L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon.
Before my dinner at Robuchon at the Mansion, I had the opportunity to meet with the top toque himself. I asked JR some questions and got a look into the inner workings of Robuchon’s kitchen.
EW: When you opened a restaurant in China, you said that you wanted to use French techniques to adapt food to Chinese tastes. What if anything have you done to adapt to the American diner?
JR: The western food culture is all alike so you don’t really need to adapt. On the contrary, you really need to understand and adapt yourself to the Asian culture and cooking.
EW: How do you expect your various restaurants to conform to you and what levels of autonomy do they have? Will the food at L’Atelier Las Vegas be the same as it is in Paris and elsewhere?
JR: They are always doing my style of cooking. All the L’Ateliers have the same menu. Each staff will adapt to the products that are available in their locations
EW: Are your food sources global or local for each individual restaurant?
JR: It depends on the product.
EW: Who are your favorite American purveyors?
JR: These are the best that I know with the best products: West Central Produce-Alan Weiss for vegetables, Four Story Hill Farm- Sylvia and Stephen Pryzant for poultry and veal, The Chef’s Garden- for all the herbs
EW: What do you think of the various American food safety restrictions vs. European food safety restrictions (sous-vide etc.)?
JR: Everyday we use products that are perishable. We need to pay maximum attention to the sanitary laws, but I’m not scientific and I hope to adapt myself more to the country’s laws.
EW: What are your likes and dislikes of the United States?
JR: I like the space. I do not like the immigration formalities
EW: What are your favorite cities to dine in?
JR: Paris, Tokyo, New York, Alicante (Spain)
EW: What are your favorite restaurants?
JR: In terms of quality and price: Nou Manolin (Alicante), El Bulli, Martin Beratasegui in Spain, Jiro in Tokyo, Le Pre Catalan and Le Bristol in Paris, Marc Veyrat in Annecy , and Per Se, Jean Georges, Daniel Boulud and Le Bernardin in New York.
EW: Who is your favorite Chef?
JR: The Swiss Chef Freddy Girardet
EW: Where was your favorite meal cooked for you in a restaurant other than your own?
JR: Freddy Girardet
EW: If you could pick any Chef dead or alive to cook you a meal, who would it be?
JR: The late Jean Delaveyne and Charles Barrier
EW: If you knew that you had one last meal, where would it be (other than your restaurants)?
JR: In my house, with the people I love.
EW: What dish do you cook at home the most often?
JR: At my house, it’s my wife who does the cooking
EW: What is the favorite dish that you have created?
JR: La Gelee de caviar a la crème de chou-fleur
EW: What do you think of the Michelin rating system and of the Chefs that want to give back their stars?
JR: The world changes, the customer also… The guests want more simplicity and the first thing they want is quality on the plate instead of better décor. The Michelin Guide needs to adapt itself also to address this evolution.
EW: The current hot trend is “Molecular Gastronomy”, what do you think of it and how is it perceived in France?
JR: It is very marginal in France.
EW: Where do you see French cuisine in the next 5 years?
JR: The French, because of their geography, have many different important products and qualities. The history of gastronomy is very rich, and the culture is open-minded. I see more creativity and even more conviviality.
EW: Do you remember any advice that you were given as a young chef and do have any advice for a young chef?
JR: Work, perseverance, creativity, perfection
EW: In eG Forums, there is a discussion on the exact method to make your Pommes Puree. What is the recipe?
JR: See the recipe in the book "Simply French," by Patricia Wells
EW: Do you have any plans on opening restaurants in any other cities?
JR: Yes -- NYC, London, Hong Kong, Singapore, Tel Aviv.
hspace="8" height="320" width="240" align="left">Chef Robuchon watching the “Amuse” being plated for the Degustation Menu
The world might have never tasted the magic of Joel Robuchon had he stuck to his original plan and finished his studies at the seminary. However, Robuchon gave up his studies at age 15 and went to work to support his family. He apprenticed at the hotel-restaurant Relais de Poitiers, where he started his culinary education. He stayed at the Relais de Poitiers for three years and then became a Compagnon du Tour de France. This was essentially an apprenticeship which moved him around France. Working with different chefs enabled him to learn a vast variety of techniques and gain experience with regional ingredients. If an apprenticeship program like that were in existence in America today, a young chef could sharpen his skills with the likes of Eric Ripert , Jose Andres, Grant Achatz and Alice Waters. What a way to learn! Robuchon took full advantage of the apprenticeship, exposing himself to techniques and ingredients that he would call upon during his whole career.
Robuchon worked in various restaurants all over France from 1963-1973, following the completion of his traveling apprenticeship. The most important may have been the Berkeley restaurant, where he worked from 1966-69. While there, he met Chef Jean Delaveyne. Robuchon said of Delaveyne, ". . . for me, Delaveyne was the first to help us move out from under the yoke of Escoffier -- he was in truth the beginning of nouvelle cuisine, teaching me that cuisine was more than manual, more than technique, that it was also reflection."
Next on Robuchon’s journey to excellence was the Concorde-Lafayette Hotel in Paris, where by age 29, he was managing 90 cooks who were turning out 5000 meals a day. In 1976, Robuchon was awarded the title of Meilleur Ouvrier de France, the most prestigious award for Chefs. Created in 1924,' Meilleur Ouvrier de France" translates as best workman of France and is awarded every three years. Soon after, Chef Paul Bocuse invited Robuchon to teach in Japan. Japan opened Robuchon’s eyes to a style of cooking which employed simple presentations and avoided heavy saucing. This exposure led to him to creating single ingredient dishes in an era known for its extravagant and complex platings.
Robuchon’s next stop was the Hotel Nikko in Paris, from 1978 until December of 1981. Robuchon’s star began to rise with the opening of Jamin, where he became chef and owner for the first time. Jamin garnered its first Michelin star three months after opening, and the second and third followed in quick succession. During this time, Robuchon created a number of his signature dishes and his style continued to develop. He began using dots and squares of sauces to amplify flavor and the appearance of the plate. Of his cooking philosophy, Robuchon says: "To make a grand meal, you have to make it simple. To look simple is very complicated. You need the highest quality products, the best equipment and you have to keep the focus on the original flavor of the product. I have learned truth from my ingredients." When asked by Patricia Wells how to describe his cooking, he answered, "Today’s cuisine might be called cuisine actuelle, a cooking in which we rediscover the savors, flavors, tastes, of an ingredient. If you’re eating lobster, it should taste like lobster. If you’re eating mushrooms, they should taste like mushrooms. As cooks, we have the right to enhance or heighten flavors, but we do not have the right to destroy them."
Robuchon, needing a larger space, closed Jamin in 1993 and in 1994 opened the more luxurious Joel Robuchon, where he was again awarded three Michelin stars. His cuisine became more refined and creative, introducing "Plats du Voyage," menus based on his travels outside of France. The closure of this second venue marked the end of the first chapter of Joel Robuchon’s career behind the stove.
Chef Joel Robuchon wanted to go out on top. On July 5 1996, after winning three Michelin stars and being named "Chef of the Century," he retired. He handed the keys of his restaurant over to Chef Alain Ducasse and ended his career behind the stove. No more Pommes Purees, No more gelée de caviar a la crème de chou-fleur, no more galette de truffles aux oignons et lard fume or any of the other Robuchon classics.
Foodies far and wide were devastated. Had he lost a step? No. The truth was this was always Robuchon’s plan. He’d promised himself that he would retire in his prime. "You have to know when it's time to quit," the three-star chef said. "A great chef has to be in great shape. Cooking is tough. It's like being an athlete who has to stay really fit." So, keeping his promise to himself Robuchon said, "I want to live," and walked away.
Robuchon retired from the restaurant business, but not from food. He kept his passion alive by hosting a cooking show on French television, launching a line of prepared dishes bearing his name, opening a school on the fine art of dining, and writing for magazines and cookbooks. It was not enough. Fortunately for American diners, Robuchon did not stay in retirement. In 2001, Robuchon a Galera in Macau opened and JR was back in business. Robuchon quickly regained momentum. He returned to his Parisian roots and opened L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon in 2003.
hspace="8" height="320" width="240" align="left">No plate goes out without the approval of Chef Claude Le Tohic and JR
"L'Atelier" is French for an artist or designer’s studio or workroom, and the restuarant named so broke the mold of the conventional restaurant. The diner sits down for a front row seat in Robuchon's studio. The restaurant has a counter that runs around the entire perimeter of the kitchen with no tables. Gone are the chefs clad in their traditional whites instead, the chefs and servers are in black. The diner is encouraged to compose a meal by selecting several small plates from an array of offerings. There are large plates as well, so the meal can be as flexible as the diner desires.
These dishes could easily be served in a "3 star setting," yet chef Robuchon wanted to bring his style to an informal format. He describes the cuisine of L'Atelier as French, with touches from Italy and Spain. "The older I get, the more I want to do stuff that suits my personal taste," says Robuchon. "It has to be less mixed up, less complicated than ever, designed to let the best ingredients shine."
Robuchon’s biggest challenge since coming out of retirement was opening his first restaurants in the United States. "I never had the intention of coming to the United States," Robuchon says. "It's too hard. Americans don't need me . . . but Gamal Aziz, the president of the MGM Grand, gave me the means to do the kind of restaurant I wanted. He told me, 'I have no constraints. I have only a desire. I'll give you anything you want.' Today when you open a restaurant, all anybody talks about is the bottom line: How much money is it going to make? Quality is finished, yet that's the only thing that interests me."
hspace="8" height="240" width="320" align="left">Only the nose knows.
MGM Grand President Gamal Aziz explained: "As a chef, Robuchon should be understood for his passion for excellence. Concerned not only about the quality of a vegetable, he also is concerned about the quality of the soil in which it was grown," adding, "he is in a phase of life where he needs to create, not impress."
With the carte blanche given by Aziz, Robuchon began to assemble the “dream team” of all-star chefs and front of the house staff to bring the Robuchon experience to the American diner. He selected 8 chefs and 6 front-of-the-house specialists from his cadre of restaurants around the world.
The design of the restaurants would be in the capable hands of Pierre-Yves Rochon. He graduated first in his class of interior design at the École des Beaux-Arts et Arts Appliques in Paris. He’s known for his luxurious decor of The Four Seasons George V in Paris, the St. James Hotel in London and Les Crayeres in Rheims.
Robuchon picked Chef Claude Le Tohic to be in charge of his U.S. flagship restaurant. Le Tohic received the Meilleur Ouvrier de France award in 2004, as Paul Bocuse, Pierre Troisgros and Joël Robuchon himself has before him . . . Claude is now considered to be a "French Ambassador" entitled to wear the blue-, white- and red-collared chef’s jacket. His resume is impressive, full of Michelin-starred restaurants, including the triple-starred Jamin. Most of all, though, Claude is a skilled teacher. He is responsible for the formation of the school L'Unite Pedagogique et Professionnelle, in Val de Reuil, and has been a professor there for the last 6 years. He also had a TV show "Recettes de Chefs," which aired on French television. He speaks three languages, which is important in any kitchen -- especially the kitchen at the Mansion -- where chefs from many countries have come to practice and perfect their craft. His responsibilities in the opening of Robuchon at the Mansion included hiring staff, forming and organizing the kitchen, and identifying and establishing contacts with suppliers. The hardest part of preparing the restaurant was introducing chefs that had not worked with JR before to the Robuchon style of cuisine -- a style that features the natural essence of an ingredient as the star of the plate without needing an entourage of supporting flavors.
Loic Launay was working at Joel Robuchon Monte Carlo when he was tapped on the shoulder by JR to be the face of Robuchon at the Mansion. This was a great responsibility and judging by the rave reviews that the restaurant has received, Launay has risen to the occasion.
There are a few more "Dream Team" members that round out the staff of the Mansion. Chef de Cuisine Tomonori Danzaki has worked with Joel Robuchon for more than 10 years in Tokyo and Paris.
hspace="8" height="320" width="240" align="left">Chef Tomonori Danzaki plating "Le Caviar Oscietre."
The Executive Pastry Chef of both restaurants is Kamel Guechida. Chef Guechida worked for Fredy Girardet, and has been consulting for Robuchon for the past few years. Berengere Leleu comes from Paris, where she worked at La Table de Joel Robuchon and with Bruno Paillard. She is a manager at the Mansion.
L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon is headed up by two "Dream Team" members. Executive Chef Steve Benjamin served in the same capacity at the Hotel Astor ( two stars) and L’Atelier, both in Paris. The sommelier and assistant general manager is Diego Requena. Requena was the assistant general manager at L'Atelier in Paris, when JR selected him for the Vegas assignment. Diego is a perfect host and is equally adept at his duties as Sommelier. Diego says that when Mr. Robuchon asked him to come to the United States, he didn’t even speak English -- since then he has become fluent.
With the deep pockets and full buy-in of the MGM Grand, his stellar hand-picked staff, and the finest purveyors in the world, Joel Robuchon has started to make an impression on diners in the United States, including a nomination for "Best New Restaurant" from the James Beard Foundation. Should fortune or circumstance land you at one of Robuchon's Vegas restaurants, luck will have nothing to do with the fantastic cuisine you’ll experience. A Meilleur Ouvrier de France leaves nothing to chance.
Eliot Wexler (aka molto e) grew up in Chicago and was exposed to a variety of fine dining from an Italian beef sandwich to white truffle risotto. His love of food has taken him round the globe to many Michelin-starred restaurants. He is a specialist for the southwest forum of eG Forums. He is working on opening a restaurant in the Phoenix area.