Joel Robuchon, a master chef who shook up the stuffy world of French haute cuisine by wowing palates with the delights of the simple mashed potato and giving diners a peek at the kitchen, has died at 73. His career was one of the superlatives: Named among the best craftsmen in France in 1976, crowned cook of the century in 1990, chosen to be one of the cooks at the “dinner of the century,” and, for years, holder of the most Michelin stars in the world.
A spokeswoman for Robuchon confirmed his death, with French TV station BFM and newspaper Le Figaro reporting that he died Monday in Geneva from cancer. Robuchon was known for his constant innovation and even playfulness in the kitchen _ a revelation to the hidebound world of French cuisine. He built an empire of gourmet restaurants across the world _from Paris to Tokyo, Las Vegas and New York City.
“To describe Joel Robuchon as a cook is a bit like calling Pablo Picasso a painter, Luciano Pavarotti a singer, Frederic Chopin a pianist,” Patricia Wells, a cook and food writer, wrote in “L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon,” a book about the chef and his students. “Joel Robuchon will undoubtedly go down as the artist who most influenced the 20th-century world of cuisine.”
Many of France’s greatest chefs echoed those sentiments. French chef Marc Veyrat, whose restaurant holds three stars from the Michelin guide, said “he was someone I love, formidable, extraordinary.” He called Robuchon the “prince of French cuisine” on RTL radio, adding “I’m not afraid to say he inspired me.” French chef Pierre Gagnaire, also a Michelin three-star chef, wrote on his Instagram account that “the best among us is gone. All my thoughts to his family.”
While Robuchon was no stranger to the fancy _ truffles and caviar were among his favorites _ his food was often described as simple because he preached the use of only three or four ingredients in most dishes. His goal was always to show off, not mask, their flavors. He started a revolution with his “Atelier” (workshop in French) business model: small, intimate restaurants where diners sat at a counter surrounding the kitchen. They didn’t take reservations and many didn’t even have tables. His goal, Robuchon said, was to make diners feel comfortable, let them interact with the chef and, above all, put the focus back on the food. It was partially a rebuke to the Michelin star regime, which awards points not just for technique but also for the ambiance and service.
But Michelin, and just about everyone else, gobbled it up. And thanks to Ateliers around the world, Robuchon reached a total of 32 Michelin stars in 2016 _ a record _ and still held 31 stars this year, including five three-star restaurants.
Born just before the end of World War II in the French town of Poitiers, south of the Loire Valley, Robuchon studied at a seminary from a young age and considered becoming a priest. But hours spent cooking with the nuns convinced him that he had another calling. He got his professional start at 15 at a local restaurant and by 29 was running the kitchen at a large Paris hotel, in charge of 90 chefs. For years, his culinary home was at Jamin, a restaurant near the Eiffel Tower that he opened in 1981. The restaurant racked up a Michelin star a year for its first three years _ a feat no one had ever accomplished before. The wait for a reservation was two months, even though the price without wine was $200.
Even at this classic restaurant, signs of the ways Robuchon would shake up the culinary scene could be found. For one, his most famous dish was the lowly mashed potato. “These mashed potatoes, it’s true, made my reputation. I owe everything to these mashed potatoes,” he said once during a demonstration of how to make the almost liquid dish. “Maybe it’s a little bit of nostalgia, Proust’s madeleines. Everyone has in his memory the mashed potatoes of his mother, the mashed potatoes of his grandmother.”
The idea that a restaurant might be a warm, casual place, rather than a stuffy temple to awkward food, was taking root. It was, in part, a rejection of “nouvelle cuisine,” the movement that made French chefs notorious for small plates, exquisitely presented but often not all that satisfying. But, as long promised, Robuchon hung up his whisk in 1996, at the age of 51.
“You have to know when it’s time to quit,” the chef told The Associated Press at the time. “A great chef has to be in great shape. Cooking is tough. It’s like being an athlete who has to stay really fit.” He would still consult with other chefs, work on a line of prepared foods, oversee restaurants across the world, but he declared that he was done with slaving away all day at the stove. And that, some say, is when his career really took off.
In 2003, he came out of retirement to create the Atelier _ one opened in Paris and one in Tokyo nearly simultaneously. From there, he brought them to cities all over Asia, Europe and the U.S., and the Michelin stars followed fast and furious. Guy Job, who produced Robuchon’s cooking shows, called it “3-star food with stainless steel cutlery and glass glasses, not crystal ones.” His latest new project came this year in Paris with the opening in April of Dassai, a restaurant and tea and cakes salon with, importantly, a bar for tasting sake, the rice-based alcohol of Japan, where the French chef established a presence, and drew inspiration, decades ago. The establishment, not far from the French presidential palace, was opened in collaboration with Dassai sake producer Hiroshi Sakurai.