Since his rather public retirement in 1996, the 66-year-old world famous chef has been working harder and has opened more restaurants than ever before. If retirement is doing what one loves to do, then Robuchon has found his vocation. We met the legendary master at his restaurant in Macau. With a successful global restaurant empire that other chefs can only dream of, he looked surprisingly well-rested and relaxed. Clad in his white double-breasted jacket – the black version we often see him in is the uniform for L’Atelier – black trousers and black patent dress shoes, he took time in telling WOM his jetsetter lifestyle, why he thinks the days are numbered for molecular gastronomy, and what he thinks is the next dining trend.
As of today, there are 22 dining establishments carrying his name, the latest two being the Joël Robuchon Restaurant and L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in Resorts World Sentosa complex in Singapore. His other restaurants are all over the world – New York, Monaco, London, Las Vegas, Tokyo and Taipei to name a few. Gordon Ramsay, who worked under Robuchon early in his career recalled working with the latter to being tougher than in the SAS. (Special Air Service in the UK) According to Robuchon, discipline is the one essential ingredient in the kitchen, and also one of the secrets to his success. He works every day of the week and only takes vacation in July and August each year.
Up In The Air
I was curious what prompted him to make a comeback, and quite an extraordinary one after his alleged retirement in 1996 at the age of 50. Until then, Robuchon had been working in the kitchen every day. Since closing Jamin in France, he had a chance to travel, which he had not had the privilege of before. It was a new experience for him, and “a constructive one”, he added, allowing him to gain a new perspective outside of the kitchen. Then, when the chefs he had been working with for 20 years asked him for his help, he could not turn them down. This is how he re-entered the restaurant scene, with 6 associates whom he can rely on and trusts. The magnificent 7 have demonstrated to the world what they are capable of, and they are not slowing down.
I am not sure if Harry Potter can cook, but he possesses the ability to apparate. If I were the chef, I would like to pick up this skill now. The disproportionate amount of time he spends travelling around the world to take care of his business is startling – since April, he has spent 15 days in Singapore, 8 days in Las Vegas, 8 days in New York, 5 days in Hong Kong and another 5 days in Macau. The next stop is Tokyo! In the days of cell phone and emails, the silver lining to all the plane rides is time to rest with no interruption. It is a bonus that Robuchon can fall asleep on the plane easily and I am jealous to learn that he never gets jetlag, although he admits he does travel in luxury.
Guess What He Cooks at Home?
When asked what he likes to cook at home, Robuchon laughed and said he doesn’t cook at home, because he is never there! Being a jetsetter could mean sampling the world’s finest restaurants, and Robuchon believes Spain, where he spends his vacation every year, is the place where one can enjoy high quality lunches and dinners without getting a second mortgage on the house. However, don’t think for a minute that he doesn’t spend time in the kitchen these days, because he does, especially when he is creating new dishes. It is his passion in life to create recipes, and for the gala dinners that happen a few times a year at Robuchon a Galera in Macau, no recipe has been used more than once since the opening of the restaurant in 2001. Known for turning mundane ingredients into haute cuisine, Robuchon gets his inspirations from the food he works with and his customers. This time in Macau, he and his executive chef Francky Semblat found excellent red radish and morels, so some dishes have been created around them. Each dish reflects the chef’s philosophy of respecting the original flavor of the ingredients, which is synonymous in Japanese cuisine.
Since his first trip to Japan in 1976, he has fallen in love with the culture. Not only do the Japanese have respect for the ingredients, the presentation also plays an important role. Drawing inspirations from the simplicity and the rigourous nature of Japanese cuisine and the great atmosphere and conviviality of tapas bars, his L’Atelier chain of informal and contemporary eateries was born. It provides a stage where customers can see how the food is prepared and he cheekily added that he has nothing to hide.
End of Molecular Gastronomy?
Chefs, especially the most influential ones, are often friends. At least this is the case for Robuchon and Ferran Adria, the owner and chef for the acclaimed El Bulli. As one of the most famous pioneers of molecular gastronomy, Adria refers to his way of cooking as deconstructivist. Liquid nitrogen, syringes and food dehydrators are found in the kitchen, and the different chemical transformations carried out on the food are enough to give a chemist a headache.
When the whole world thinks it is tragic that this Spanish institution is closing its doors this summer, Robuchon believes it is a wise move. He explains, “there are chefs who can do good molecular gastronomy because they work with qualified people. However, some don’t have the knowledge or the skills.” He believes the excessive use of additives and synthetics that make some of the dishes possible might cause diseases. He added, “Adria is a very smart man. All the excess is killing it [molecular gastronomy]. He sees the end of it and so is closing his restaurant. He wants to gain some new perspectives.”
The Next Trend
One of the main reasons he took retirement in 1996 was to live a long and healthy life. Seeing some of his fellow chefs die of heart attack, he thought it was not worth it. For a while, Robuchon has been working with medical professionals to use food as a medicine. With organic markets around the world cropping up every day, people are more health conscious. Rosemary, garlic, white tea, and ginger are some of the ingredients that known to benefit the body. On the other hand, foie gras (goose liver) and caviar (fish eggs) might not be categorised as “good food” but they can also be good for you. He predicts the next trend in food will focus on cuisine of the well-being. This is already prominent in Japanese cuisine and he will also be using more Indian spices in his dishes.
Before I let Robuchon go back to work, I asked him what his plan is and what he thinks of Hong Kong. He said Hong Kong never stops or rests. There is an energy in the city. It is funny that one can go out without walking out, with all the footbridges connecting the buildings in the city. It is a dense and exciting place. As for whether there will be more restaurants bearing his name in the future, he admits he has turned down many propositions because it would not be possible to control the quality if there are too many restaurants. As if he doesn’t have enough on his plate. The next opening will be in Lebanon. So the chef never stops or rests either; just like Hong Kong.