Joël Robuchon, the master chef who led the world of French gastronomy, died August 6 at the age of 73 following a battle with cancer.
While he may be remembered for his fleet of restaurants, his countless accolades earned over decades, or for simply creating the world’s most perfect mashed potatoes, Robuchon—the most celebrated authority figure in the world of French cuisine—leaves behind far more than just the above. The restaurant empire he built over decades covered not just fine dining establishments, such as Robuchon au Dome in Macau, but concepts such as his L’ Ateliers, that are less structured than the conventional starched-tablecloth-and-silverware framework. His unmistakable culinary style was upheld with sensational produce, sourced seasonally at their best and executed in deceptively simple ways. In his last candid interview with us, he shared his take on the growth of the dining scene, as well as his vision for the future of dining—a future that will now march on without him.
To Robuchon, the world of dining was constantly evolving, with change the only constant among unpredictability. However, the intuitive chef saw patterns emerge through his travels. “We are seeing a lot of changes in cultures. When they mix, notable characteristics such as food habits and traditions change,” he told us. “On a restaurant level, we are witnessing the exchange of ideas across establishments. You can tell when a dish becomes popular and everyone is serving it. In many instances, restaurants lose their character by copying others, and this kind of change is occurring more often now.”
He was a beloved mentor to a brigade of culinary masters, from Gordon Ramsay to Eric Ripert, as well as many chefs who are currently working in Hong Kong—namely Gaddi’s Xavier Boyer, and Olivier Elzer. Robuchon was a keen proponent of educating young chefs and helping them build solid skills while crafting their individual styles. “Chefs coming into my kitchen will learn everything that comes their way, from managing their station to their restaurant,” he told us. “They will learn how each dish is prepared, the what and the know-how. They will all understand how to create signature dishes at my restaurant, but in the process, they will develop their style based on the principles from mine.”
Peggy Chan of Grassroots Pantry had her first foray into the food and beverage industry as part of the front of house team at L'Atelier De Joël Robuchon in Central. She recalled vividly the attention to detail and precision required to work in a Robuchon establishment. “Everybody knew of chef Joël Robuchon in culinary school and would fight to get in the doors of his kitchens during a time his growing empire was becoming more and more mainstream. The theatrics behind his 11-course menu, the presentation of his bread trolley, the mashed potato, L'Oeuf de Poule and their immaculately executed Coffee Religieuse always done to perfection and with consistency," she told us. "To attain this level of execution at all times requires a sharp eye, strong leadership and unrelenting commitment towards your craft and your products. I believe chef Robuchon is one of only a few masters who achieved this through and through.”
The concern for wellness extends towards the wellbeing of the individual as well, and Robuchon predicted that the future of dining lay within the unit of one. “Healthy eating is the future of food, starting with the person’s well-being. It is not just about what you eat, but also how much and why. The addition of salt or pepper, or how much of each goes into your food reflects on the mindfulness in treating your ingredients.” The French chef disputed the practice of staying hungry to lose weight. “Hunger is a dangerous thing. Moderation is easy to say, but it is a working process. Obviously, one should not over-indulge, but no one should choose to be hungry. I never want my chefs to be hungry, as that sensation hinders their ability to experience the pleasure of good food, and therefore challenges them in delivering the best experience to our guests. The experience of food should extend beyond just a need to satisfy the physical need, but also one for the mental as well.”
Which brings us to those famous mashed potatoes. Robuchon stood by the decadent recipe, believing in moderation as the key to better health and a gateway to a true appreciation of fine cuisine. For those of us who chase down good food every chance we get, perhaps this is the best way to remember the great man himself and the legacy he built—through his wisdom and buttery mash, both which made this world a better place.
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