French chef Joël Robuchon, who made mashed potato a gourmet treat, has died

Ethan Miller/Getty ImagesChef Joel Robuchon at his Las Vegas restaurant in 2014.
  • Joël Robuchon was regarded as the world’s greatest living chef in a 58-year career that saw him awarded more Michelin stars than anyone else.
  • He retired early, aged 50, before returning seven years later and had 26 restaurants around the globe at the time of his death.
  • Gordon Ramsay learnt under Robuchon, who once threw a plate at the fiery British chef because he was arrogant and his cooking wasn’t up to scratch.

French restaurateur Joël Robuchon, hailed as “chef of the century” for his contribution to global dining, has died of cancer in Geneva, Switzerland. He was 73.

Robuchon rewrote the culinary rulebook in a career that saw his establishments decorated with more Michelin stars – 32 at the peak of his powers in 2016, currently 24 (in 13 restaurants in 10 cities) – than any other chef in a career spanning nearly 60 years, 38 of them running his own restaurants.

At the time of his death, he oversaw a trio of three star restaurants – Tokyo’s Joël Robuchon, Robuchon au Dome in Macau, and L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in Hong Kong, along with five two stars and five one star restaurants.

While he’d closed his two Singapore restaurants last month, more openings were planned, including in Miami and Geneva.

Michelin group President Jean-Dominique Senard said Robuchon was a unique man, an extraordinary chef who revolutionised French cuisine, and trained and inspired a whole generation of chefs.

“Through his talent and creativity, he has contributed to the highest degree to restore gastronomy to its nobility and elevate it to the status of a recognised art,” Senard said.

“He became a true entrepreneur at the head of a gastronomic group which he has spread worldwide. Today the world of gastronomy and Michelin are in mourning, we lost an artisan, an artist and the most starred of chefs in the world.”

French president Emmanuel Macron paid tribute saying: “His name and style embody French cuisine all over the world, they symbolise a lifestyle, a demand for a job well done, and convey the richness of our traditions”.

Born in Poitiers, France, just two months before WWII climaxed with the Normandy landings, Joël Robuchon became an apprentice pastry chef at a local hotel, aged 15. Raised a Catholic, he’d originally enrolled in the local seminary aged 12.

By 29 he was a head chef, running a team of 90 at Concorde Lafayette Hotel, serving several thousand meals daily. His first restaurant, Jamin, opened in Paris in 1981, attaining three Michelin stars with unprecedented speed in 1984.

Five years later, the Gault Millau guide would name him “Chef of the Century”.

His first eponymous restaurant opened in Paris in 1994 and that same year it was declared the world’s best restaurant.

A year later, alarmed by the premature deaths of so many colleagues, Robuchon “retired”, aged 50, to focus on passing on his knowledge.

Among those he mentored were Gordon Ramsay, Eric Ripert of New York’s Le Bernardin, and Australia’s own Guillaume Brahimi, who was 14 when he first turned up at Jamin for a fortnight’s work experience before returning four years later to start to his life as a chef.

Robuchon once threw a plate of langoustine ravioli at Ramsay during service because it wasn’t made properly and the British chef “reacted in a very arrogant manner” when called on it.

Brahimi’s legendary and decadent “Paris mash” is based on Robuchon’s own potato puree, which combined potatoes, butter and warm milk in an alchemy that turned it into the culinary version of the Sistine Chapel. The mash became his signature dish.

“I owe everything to these mashed potatoes,” Robuchon once said, adding that it made his reputation.

His cooking was all about honouring the beauty of ingredients with an elegant simplicity.

Business Insider once asked the chef about the best thing he’d ever eaten. His response was a reminder of what’s most important about the table.

“The best meal I had was very simple, but it’s the company that makes it exceptional,” he said.

That retirement didn’t last long – he launched a TV series aimed at demystifying cooking to increase its appeal that ran for a decade during that period – and in his late 50s Robuchon’s influence would become even more profound.

Joel RobuchonL’Atelier de Joel Robuchon in Paris

The European table changed forever in 2003 when he launched L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in Paris, a black and red smart-casual diner inspired by Japanese izakaya and Spanish tapas. The open kitchen became part of the theatre of dining out, with customers sitting at counters watching the action, and the chefs encouraged to banter with them in the name of “conviviality”.

L’Atelier’s casual approach spawned countless imitators. It became a critically and publicly lauded hit. Within two years there was a version in Las Vegas. New York, London and Hong Kong followed in 2006, and there are now 11 globally. A Shanghai outpost opened in 2016.

That new approach also changed the culture of kitchens, a tough, hectoring and sometimes brutal workplace generally hidden behind closed doors, into something far more zen under the public gaze.

Guillaume Brahimi, who has Bistro Guillaume restaurants in Sydney, Melbourne and Perth, told Business Insider he owes his success to Robuchon.

“He was and is my master. I wouldn’t be where I am now without him,” he said.

“He taught me some very simple things, such as the respect of the produce.

“He had a saying ‘l’amour du travail bien fait’ – the love of the work well done.

“He was rigorous. He was a perfectionist. Everything had to be perfection. And he came pretty close to it. That commitment was amazing.”

And yet the chef took the 18-year-old fellow Frenchman under his wing when he came to learn the craft.

“From the moment you were in his brigade, you were part of his family,” Brahimi recalls.

“It’s a tragedy he has passed so early. He touched so many cooks, so many chefs, so many customers. There is only one Joel Rubochon. It’s a big page we turn.”

He cites his mentor’s dish of French caviar with lobster gelee and cauliflower creme as the dish that stands out in his memory of days where 25 chefs laboured to cook a meal for 40 guests, twice a day, at Jamin.

“They are going to eat very well upstairs tonight,” Brahimi said, with Robuchon joining fellow culinary icon Paul Bocuse, who died in January, aged 91.

The author of nearly two dozen books, Robuchon leaves behind a hospitality empire that stretches from Paris to Bangkok, Taipei, Shanghai, London, Las Vegas, New York, and Montreal in 26 restaurants.

He is survived by two children, Sophie and Louis.

In his long-running TV series “Bon appétit bien sûr”, Robuchon always closed the show by saying: “Et n’oubliez pas, bon appétit bien sûr!”

And remember, enjoy of course!

Joël Robuchon
Born: 7 April, 1945; Poitiers, France
Died: 6 August, 2018; Geneva, Switzerland

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