Naomi Barry / October 2008
Food Arts presents the October 2008 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Joël Robuchon, the renowned and revered French chef who came out of premature retirement five years ago to inaugurate the age of counter dining that mixes the stripped down formalities and on-command cooking of a sushi bar with the rigorous perfection of French haute cuisine.
Robuchon, 63, opened his first L'Atelier in Paris on May 7, 2003, challenging clients to mount tall stools as if in a diner if they wanted to savor his caramelized quail stuffed with foie gras or his giant prawn clasped in a paper-thin crust, steamed in a green cabbage leaf, and centered like a jewel on a rectangular glass plate. "Robuchon's folly. It won't last two months," predicted the soothsayers of the fashionable know-it-all cliques, "at those prices and not a single table". Two months later they had switched sides and were embracing the informality as being as much fun as the milkmaid games Marie Antoinette had so enjoyed at Versailles. And now there are offshoots in New York City, Las Vegas, London, and Tokyo.
Born into a split, impoverished family in Poitiers, Robuchon's pious mother placed him in a seminary at age 12. There, in the kitchens, he discovered his vocation. At 15 he apprenticed at the Relais de Poitiers hotel, where the serious-minded youth was nicknamed Joël the Rigorous. Then on to Paris, where he shifted from job to job and studied after work for career-advancing culinary competitions. In five years he had won 19 medals—and earned the title of Meilleur Ouvrier de France. Jean Delaveyne, the legendary chef who had been the mentor of Michel Guérard, adopted Robuchon as his protégé, broadening his horizon with an eye-opening trip to Japan that foreshadowed his future; Robuchon now runs six restaurants in Tokyo.
Once the climb began, everything was straight up. He became chef of the Hôtel Concorde La Fayette in Paris with 90 cooks under his orders. He was still in his 20s. After four successful years he transferred to Les Célébrités at the huge Hôtel Nikko de Paris (now the Novatel Tour Eiffel), which became a rendezvous for gourmets. In 198l he acquired the 45 seat Jamin in the upscale 16th Arrondissement. If perfection was good, the Robuchon goal was to push perfection another step forward. In three years, Jamin had three stars from Michelin, a meteoric rise in record time.
At 51, at the pinnacle of his career, Robuchon retired. He had missed so much in the early years. He wanted time to read, to enjoy his vacation home in Spain, to dream. Large French food concerns clamored for him to develop new products. His gourmet show was a hit on French television. Everything was fun. He kept in contact with the young chefs he had trained. When four of them came to him for advice—each wanting to start a restaurant individually on his own—he counseled them to form a partnership with him as the umbrella. He now sees his name attached to 19 restaurants from Paris to Macao. The "Old Boys," as they refer to themselves, still call him Monsieur Robuchon. The master marked a generation of chefs with his work ethic. It shows in everything they do.