Joël Robuchon: A Memorable Conversation With The Celebrated French Chef

ImageChef Joël Robuchon was dubbed the “Chef of the Century” as early as 1989 by the Gault et Millau guide in France. Robuchon has been credited with guiding modern French cuisine to a simpler yet delicate form as we see it now, being very respectful of the product and making it the star in his cuisine. Numerous accolades and awards have been bestowed on him during his career pre and post his retirement He created waves in the culinary world by announcing his decision to retire suddenly in 1996 at the height of his career, closing up a three Michelin star restaurant in pursuit of what he found missing in his life at that point. Chef Robuchon later reentered the world of gastronomy to set up an immense restaurant empire spanning many continents and has since earned 28 Michelin stars between his 17 restaurants in 8 countries. An incredible achievement indeed. During a conversation about various aspects of his life at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas he spoke about his other passions in life besides cuisine and travel.

Robuchon, whose first choice of profession was the seminary. It was followed by a desire to be an architect but finally settling on being a chef but be the very best chef there was. He did exactly that and became an  incomparable chef  who bounced back from retirement with a bang and whose signature dish is mashed potatoes !.  He says he believes in letting no more than four flavors shine in a dish.

Success and recognition come to many people in life but few are able sustain it and earn a lifetime of respect like Joël Robuchon. In order know more about what makes him such an incredible human it was important to know him out of the context of his restaurant empire and so I set out to interact with him at close quarters.

Our very amusing lengthy conversation happened one late morning in the small waiting room with red lacquered walls situated at the entrance to his acclaimed three-star Joël Robuchon restaurant at the MGM in Las Vegas. We had chatted the night before at the L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon located next door and discussed our mutual love of Chinese cuisine as he had just come from a dinner at Hakkasan at the MGM. At the Atelier he walked around the dining room and then went into the open kitchen to check on the plates being sent out to diners in the restaurant, who were sadly unaware of the presence of this culinary great.

An elegant, soft spoken, perspicacious man immaculate in his appearance with a curiosity about everything and his very original take on many aspects of life outside the domain of the kitchen, it was for me the experience of a lifetime. We discussed a whole gamut of subjects including the Round Table 2 days when he along with Paul Bocuse, Juan Mari Arzak, and Alain Ducasse was focused on creating the modern cuisine of the time a precursor to present day contemporary French and Spanish cuisine. This unforgettable conversation also touched upon the various aspects of his professional life before and after his very public retirement and comeback in his various collaborative ventures.

photo1I had carried with me some pictures of him from a few decades ago with many of his friends like Alain Ducasse, the two Adria brothers and Juan Mari Arzak and he was visibly touched and called out his entourage to see how he appeared in those days. He reminsced about the days when he would travel to the town of Roses to see Ferran Adria who would cook for him or to see old friends in San Sebastian. These pictures have traveled the world and been signed by all featured in them and he was happy to help me accomplish my mission by adding his own. I could tell he was genuinely pleased to have his own copies which he sent to be safely stored and said that recollecting those days made him very happy.

photo4This incident broke the ice, and I forgot that I was meeting and conversing with living legend Joël Robuchon. Meeting him had been on my bucket list along with other mundane things like visiting Machu Picchu, a Rolling Stones concert and the like and here I was having an interactive experience with this very celebrated but humble individual. I don’t conduct interviews; I attempt to have real conversations in order to get a glimpse of the true personalities and to comprehend their creative genius as part of my own lifelong learning process.

The ensuing conversation included a very amusing story about Chef Paul Bocuse, a lifelong friend and mentor who has been a part of his extraordinary career as narrated by chef Robuchon. As we joked about Robuchon being referred to as a Pape  (pope) of cuisine and when I asked where would that place Chef Bocuse and he said undoubtedly the God of cuisine. Robuchon had traveled to Lyon to visit Bocuse last year and being aware of his ill health was surprised to see him at the train station in Lyon, waiting to pick him up as was customary. As chef Bocuse drove out of the station he bumped into a few cars but proceeded to drive on with Robuchon in the passenger seat, not stopping to see if any damage had resulted to the vehicles.  A very irate woman stopped him and tapped on his car window to express her displeasure and to vent but after one look at him gushed Monsieur Bocuse! I am so glad to see you!  and instantly forgot the whole incident but probably  left with an amazing story of a lifetime . Chef Bocuse politely wished her a “Bon journee!” (Good day!)  and, not considering the incident a big deal, drove on nonchalantly with an amused passenger at his side.

My many questions for Monsieur Robuchon and his very thoughtful answers:

Discussing Health benefits of food

What has changed in your style of cooking after your return from retirement which had shocked the world? (He was barely 51 years of age and a chef with a three Michelin star restaurant at the prime of his career in 1996)

I have realized that to evolve as an individual you have to open your eyes and allow yourself to discover the world outside. My approach is very different now as I have traveled the world and have been able to see things less from the aspect of work but just letting them speak for themselves. I have evolved so much culinarily and I love to see what happens in kitchens around the world and have since done much more work with my cuisine. There is some incredible food out there and being in this business it is even more interesting to see the variety of products and different methods of preparing and producing it. This induces passion and inspires you.

When you are young you are more into learning techniques and transforming products. As you grow older your ideas change. Young chefs want to be very technical but you cannot change the product too much. I firmly believe in respecting my product. The flavor of a chicken, duck or even a simple carrot properly prepared is enough on its own to elevate a dish. When you let produce speak for itself you get superior results.

You cannot take a life and not respect it you must use the product in the best way possible.
When I was young we were told that a cook must stay in the kitchen and not venture out. I regret having followed that idea for a long time and having missed out on many experiences. I had never seen a mountain top covered with snow and many other natural sights. Now when I travel I see nature, experience cultures and make contact with individuals like you today to learn and understand more about different cultures.

In France we have always had the reputation of our cuisine being the best in the world. When we were young this is what we were told and what we believed and told others. When I got to travel around the world I realized that it is not true and all of the cultures have incredible cuisines that you have to taste and experience for yourself.

I understand you are not a fan of molecular gastronomy?
When it first emerged and became popular especially in Spain I was very interested in it along with everyone else but then I realized that even to make the oil drops etc. the technique and additives involved were not very healthy. Genuinely, not a very good idea. A lot of my close friends are from the medical field and they said that it was definitely not a good idea to move towards that kind of cuisine as it can be dangerous for your health. So I specifically stepped away from it though there are some very interesting techniques out there that interest me. I am now moving towards the health aspects of food. Techniques such as cooking sous-vide is not very well understood, it is a cooking procedure first and foremost.

photo2I know you used it when you provided meals for the SNCF in 1982. So how do you comprehend it?
When you walk into a big restaurant and smell the aroma of lamb cooking it sparks your appetite and interest. In sous vide you are cooking with less liquid and flavors are confined and retained in the product. It sometimes scares people to cook this way and it is expensive as well.

Coming back to molecular cooking it has been found that it can accelerate Alzheimer’s and though it is not absolutely certain, if you have the slightest doubt about it is better to be cognizant of the dangers before rather than after the fact. Most well-known chefs have contacts in the medical field and since food is what allows us to live, chefs have a responsible role to play and should work to make food healthy.

In studies in the US  that have data collected from autopsies 75% of men have prostate cancer or even kidney stones without being aware of them in their lifetime. With simple remedies like a glass of pomegranate juice or tomato juice they can resist this disease.

Right now we are seeing the best of this natural, healthy way of cooking and I am encouraged by it. That is why I am excited to travel to different parts of the world to see how people cook and eat simply. In France people are no longer comfortable eating birds, rabbit, there are problems with the beef supply (SARS) , people no longer eat horse meat  or pork as  was customary in France.  We need more regulation in terms of fish; we are countering nature by eating more farm raised fish. Vegetable and fruit production is not regulated with respect to pesticides.

At the same time diner’s perceptions have changed and they no longer appreciate things like being served a fish with its head on. In France they no longer eat heavy or very rich food with a lot of fat. Even in my restaurants is see people asking for more vegetarian dishes. In Singapore there is a large % of diners who prefer vegetarian dishes. Natural health benefits and the demand from diners motivate me to push my kitchen in that direction. We have to respect the diners and their dietary or religious beliefs.

There are those who say that even the soil is contaminated for growing food?
Not everything is contaminated and I am not saying we should become vegetarian.  For example even with the massive atmospheric pollution when you are surrounded by trees they clean the air. Interestingly nutritionists say you should not drink aerated or bubbly drinks but on the contrary these enable you to put air in your body and oxygenate your brain and body. It is frowned upon but for those with cardiovascular disease it can be beneficial. Fish eggs or caviar for example are actually healthy foods. Information like this can help chefs add to their culinary base.

photo5So how can chefs participate in this dialogue?
My family, my entourage, my friends; we all have someone close to us touched by medical problems nobody is immune to this so every potential health benefit from nutrition needs to be explored. A very famous health professional here in Las Vegas showed me brain cells damaged by brain tumors. Some had been treated with conventional medicine and others with nutrition and the latter had proved to be better at healing those tumors.

In France chefs are very prominent and looked up to hence they have a very prominent role to play. They need to push the initiative towards a health based cuisine and with health professionals mutually integrate the benefits of food into treatment protocols.

You have a residence on the Costa Blanca in Spain. What is special about that area?
Spain has an exceptional climate, it is always gorgeous out, the winters are brief, and the region has exceptional produce with great seafood from the Mediterranean. I live right by some small mountains with exceptional vegetables. I think the region maybe one of the best in terms of quality of life. The area between Denia and Alicante has the best paella, the only one worth traveling there for. It’s cooked over a fire built with grape vines and the fire encircles the paella pan giving that distinct smoky flavor to the rice. Everything, even the onions and tomatoes, are superb in Spain, not to forget the Jambon in Spain.

Do you still visit San Sebastian?
San Sebastian is a region of exceptional produce, it doesn’t have the same fish as the Mediterranean but the game, beef and vegetables are great. It also has the reputation of having the best tapas bars in all of Spain. Personally I think the best tapas are in Alicante. There is one place (Nou Manolin) where the tapas are superb. All their seafood arrives at 5:00pm right off the boat and goes straight to the kitchen and is prepared in front of you.

You have a fondness for Spain and Japan as we were just talking about but is there another culture that interests you as much?
I appreciate the Chinese culture a lot and especially since they attach a lot of importance to flavor and they have mastered the cooking techniques that enable them to do this. When you walk into a kitchen with wonderful aromas you might think that they must eat very well here when in fact the cook did not manage to save those flavors in the dish and they escaped into nature. To save the flavor is one of the most difficult things in cuisine. Very few chefs master that art.

What else is striking about Chinese cuisine?
I appreciate the textures and how both texture and flavor are incorporated in a dish. Other Asian cultures do this too but the Chinese have really mastered this art. I saw shrimp immersed in water and cooked for a long time and thought they must have lost their flavor but later I tasted them after they were cooked and found that they brought a completely different texture to the palate. To respond to your initial question what I love in the Chinese kitchen is the way they associate the two elements of texture and flavor and incorporate them in a dish it creates something beautiful. This is true of most Asian cultures but exceptional in China.

Do you think cuisine in the less developed regions in the world is restricted by access to certain ingredients not as evolved?
I don’t think so because there are areas that I know where using very few ingredients they create exceptional dishes such as in Morocco where they have mastered spices like cumin and coriander and do incredible things with them.

Have you come across the Ayurvedic science of using spices for health benefits in Indian cuisine since you mentioned Morocco?
I don’t know much about it but I am excited to hear about it from you since I am opening a version of L’Atelier in Mumbai. Since I am now focused on the health aspects of food as I have dedicated space to this topic in my book. I am excited to visit India and see a simpler style of life and dishes with individual flavors and tastes. Religion and culture create respect for product and life which leads to more vegetarians there.

I am seduced by the spices from India and have friends from there and cook with them. As I said I am not vegetarian but I feel the future kitchen is moving towards vegetarianism. The culture that identifies the most with this in the world is Indian. It’s an incredible learning opportunity for me to visit India. Spices used for medicinal benefit, living close to nature and thinking that life exists even  in stones are very interesting ideas. I am curious about natural healing processes. Once I watched hypo therapist assist someone in passing kidney stones and I get goose bumps thinking about it. Cultural ideas and recipes have always been passed on by grandmothers including home remedies and they are beneficial and should be preserved.

Fun momentWhat are your thoughts on using local, sustainable products as is the trend now?
Utilizing local products can be tricky. For example, when we are cooking here in Las Vegas, whenever possible we use products from the US, but in a region like this we don’t have, say, local olive oil. So then we are privileged to find superior product elsewhere and we can take advantage of it. We should not box ourselves into this idea and limit our ability to use the best.

Do you agree with the idea that too much emphasis on local can crush small farmers and producers growing niche crops in tiny enclaves around the world?
Yes, and now we can sustain these products and circulate them and market them much better. It has actually allowed cuisine to expand and evolve in a wider sense in the world. Speaking of local and organic products, no country in the world has really stepped up and required only such products to be used. As of right now there are not enough laws and regulations in place to restrict pesticides etc. There is no country in the world growing 100% organic, but it is definitely a step towards better cuisine.

You travel a lot for work and to visit your restaurants that are in different parts of the world. Is there a region or country that you want to visit and have not done so yet?
Of course as we were discussing earlier, India, where I will be going for the first time since we are opening a restaurant in Mumbai. After hearing about your travels in Peru and about things I was not aware of I am curious and would like to travel there as well. I have heard so many interesting things about it from you and other people. Tasting and seeing products that are local to different parts of the world is very interesting. Sometimes you find a local cuisine that has been built around just one product. In Spain the paella developed around the small rabbits from the mountains and the rice fields in Albufera. The paella from the small village of Pinoso has a taste that cannot be duplicated elsewhere. (Ferran Adria listed the paella from there as the best in the region) Regional produce creates regional cuisine and we should keep these traditions alive.

Since we have spoken so much about travel and you travel to all the countries your restaurants are located how about some packing tips? (He was really amused at that but answered in great detail)
I am very organized in my packing. First you must have the right luggage that has enough space for all your stuff and can transport everything in good condition. It is important to select the right clothes. If you look (regarde!) my clothes you see they maintain their crease and are never wrinkled. So I like clothes that travel well and have discovered by trial and error that TUMI makes the best luggage that is light, easy to pack.

I love shopping and I find the best lightweight clothing in Hong Kong, in fact you can find anything you want there. (He held out his arm for me to touch the fabric of his black jacket that was custom made for him there)

ImageSo what are your other hobbies besides shopping?
Other than being in the kitchen my other hobby is shopping for electronic gadgets. (Who knew he was a tech junkie?)

Latest gadgets you have purchased? (His eyes lit up!)
Last I added, what always tells me where I am, is my carbon iPhone. I have 5-6 iPhones but this one (I got to hold the carbon iPhone) is made entirely of carbon, not just its case. I have several iPads, 2-3 small ones 2-3 big ones. I have many computers and every time I travel I find something I have to add to my collection.

I have an adapter that takes six cables from an iPad, iPhone, a Blackberry and just about anything else. I admit I am a little crazy when it comes to gadgets and spend a lot on purchasing them. It is truly my passion and outside of electronics not much interests me other than work. I work every day except the months of July to August when I am in Spain. Truthfully I work every day even during that time.

What made you venture into the field of home decor with the candles etc.?
I have worked closely with this industry. I search for products that deal with odors one of biggest challenges in restaurants. So I asked perfumers what can you use in restaurants negatively impacted by odors and all of them came back time and time again with the same answer. They said the only true perfume that we should ever use is vanilla. (He asked for Bernard to bring some from the restaurant so I could recognize the aroma)

So we use vanilla scented candles in the restaurants to deal with odors. Then they suggested chocolate and other flavors and so we kept adding.

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What is the most significant lesson you have learned in your life’s journey so far?
It’s HUMILITY. I have met people who are relatively unknown and yet have done beautiful and extraordinary dishes out of simple products that celebrated could not have done. In life we must have humility and open our eyes to see and learn constantly. Only then do we really evolve as individuals.

When we arrive at our age with all that we have done in our life time we realize that we have barely scratched the surface and there is much more to learn.

Do you regularly keep in touch with friends some of whom are big names in the business like yourself?
I do keep in touch. There are some friends who are very dear to me because they have the same concept and ideas regarding cuisine and a genuine passion for it we talk about many things but somehow always come back to cuisine.

What do you want your legacy to be?
What I want most is to transfer my knowledge and teach as much as possible to the next generation. When I started in this profession people kept their recipes close and now we teach and share them. When I am cooking I am a happy man. Obviously age changes how you work. I have no obligations and nothing forcing me to work. I can sit in the sun all day, yet since I am a free man, I do exactly as I please and therefore I cook.

Young chefs these days are open to sharing their techniques, product knowledge etc. and I appreciate this and it is exceptional to see this solidarity amongst chefs and cooks all over the world as I saw when Alain Ducasse had organized such a meet in Monte Carlo on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of his restaurant Louis XV. This event allowed all chefs to share their concerns, experiences and to get together with mutual respect and admiration for each other. I saw that it was genuine and natural and not forced and they really respected each other’s work.

That is the idea I would like to share, this incredible sincerity, friendship and admiration between chefs. See I am French and I even live in Spain!

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