Joel Robuchon, a master chef who shook up the stuffy world of French haute cuisine by showing diners the delights of the simple mashed potato and a peek at a restaurant kitchen, has died at 73.
A spokeswoman for Robuchon, who for years held more Michelin stars than anyone else in the world, confirmed his death Monday. French media reported he died of cancer in Geneva.
Robuchon’s career was one of superlatives. He was named among the best craftsmen in France in 1976, crowned cook of the century in 1990 and chosen to be one of the cooks at the “dinner of the century.”
Robuchon was known for constant innovation and playfulness in the kitchen, qualities that made him a revelation to the hidebound world of French cuisine. He built a gourmet empire that included restaurants in Paris, Tokyo, Las Vegas and New York City.
“To describe Joel Robuchon as a cook is a bit like calling Pablo Picasso a painter, Luciano Pavarotti a singer, Frederic Chopin a pianist,” cook and food writer Patricia Wells 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.”
Many of France’s greatest chefs echoed her tribute.
Prominent Michelin-starred French chef Alain Ducasse, who was seen by some as a rival to Robuchon, told The Associated Press that “French cuisine owes a tribute to a man who for more than 40 years has made it shine throughout the world.”
“Robuchon was a demanding colleague but this nature was ultimately the solid foundation of our esteem,” Ducasse, 61, added.
French chef Pierre Gagnaire, a Michelin three-star chef, wrote on his Instagram account that “the best among us is gone. All my thoughts to his family.”
Chef Marc Veyrat, whose restaurant also holds three Michelin stars, called Robuchon the “prince of French cuisine” on RTL radio, adding: “I’m not afraid to say he inspired me.”
While Robuchon was no stranger to fancy food – truffles and caviar were among his favourites – his dishes often were described as simple because he preached the use of only three or four ingredients. His goal was always to show off, not mask, their flavours.
He started a revolution with his “Atelier” (workshop in French) business model: small, intimate restaurants where diners sat at a counter surrounding the kitchen. They didn’t take reservations and many didn’t even have tables.
His goal, Robuchon 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 ambiance and service.
But Michelin, and just about everyone else, gobbled it up. And thanks to Ateliers around the world, Robuchon reached a total of 32 Michelin stars in 2016 – a record – and still held 31 stars this year, including five three-star restaurants.
Born just before the end of World War II in the French town of Poitiers, Robuchon studied at a seminary from a young age and considered becoming a priest. But hours spent cooking with the nuns convinced him he had another calling. He got his professional start at age 15 at a local restaurant and by age 29 was running the kitchen and managing 90 chefs at a large Paris hotel.
For years, his culinary home was Jamin, a restaurant near the Eiffel Tower that he opened in 1981. The restaurant racked up a Michelin star a year during its first three years – a feat no one had previously accomplished. The wait for a reservation was two months, even though the price without wine was $200.
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,” the chef told The Associated Press 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.
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 United States, and the Michelin stars followed fast and furious.
Guy Job, who produced Robuchon’s cooking shows, called it “3-star food with stainless steel cutlery and glass glasses, not crystal ones.”
His latest venture opened in April in Paris: Dassai, a restaurant and tea and cakes salon with a bar for tasting sake. The French chef established a presence in and drew inspiration from Japan decades ago. The establishment, not far from the French presidential palace, was opened in collaboration with Dassai sake producer Hiroshi Sakurai.