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“Joël Robuchon was a unique man, an extraordinary chef who revolutionized French cuisine, and trained and inspired a whole generation of chefs.” This is the opening line of Michelin’s statement about the most awarded starred chef in the world, Joël Robuchon. A man, who in a 60-year-career managed to finish with 24 Michelin stars spanning 13 restaurants from France to Tokyo.
As a chef he had more stars than many countries and in 2016 he held the world record with 32.
At the time of his passing, his status as one of the most important chefs of his generation was secured with the 'Chef of The Century' title from Gault et Millau, and he was the proud recipient of the Meilleur Ouvrier de France (France’s Best Craftsman award): marked by a blue, white and red collar which he wore proudly at all times. He had received a host of accolades from some of the world’s most prestigious awards, and held three stars in three separate locations: Macau, Tokyo and Hong Kong. Robuchon was an impacter and innovator throughout.
But what does it take to work at that level? To maintain the standards required by Michelin time and time again, at 13 separate locations? Crossing borders, cultures and timezones, while maintaining the type of consistency required for even one star, let alone two or three.
Former Michelin director, Michael Ellis, described the three-star experience as: “Every three-star restaurant has a very unique signature and I think that what we look for in a three-star meal is an emotional experience and you should have that experience engraved in your memory for many years to come.” Robuchon first achieved this solo in 1984 with his Jamin restaurant in Paris, taking three stars in just three years: a feat that is rarely rivalled today. He went on to repeat it again and again, turning his light, refined approach to French cuisine and tradition into true mastery.
In defining his own style of 'Moderne' cuisine, an approach often described as the bridge between classic French and Nouvelle cooking, in which rich, heavy and thick sauces of the past were lightened, refined and repackaged, Robuchon set his place alongside the likes of Escoffier and Bocuse in the timeline of France's culinary history. ''What I want to be known for is a cuisine that is less heavy, but not necessarily less rich. We use butter, we use cream, but thick, heavy sauces no longer fit into the contemporary life style or taste,'' Robuchon told The New York Times in 1983.
On top of the style he perfected, Robuchon also evolved when it was time to evolve, opening himself to influences from Asia and Spain, the latter being where he chose to live. Using these influences in his cooking and certainly in the Japanese counter-style seating found in the L’Atelier restaurants he went on to open around the world.
Speaking about his passing, ex-student and friend, Eric Ripert of the three-star Le Bernardin restaurant in New York, posted on Twitter: “The most rigorous, precise, demanding, ultra gifted King of all Chefs...RIP Monsieur Robuchon.”
And it’s these descriptives, “rigorous, precise and demanding” that ring truest of Robuchon. Of course he produced the world’s best mashed potatoes, his plating work was as if done by the hand of an artist, he knocked out more signature dishes than most: caviar jelly with cauliflower cream; quail packed with foie gras; and his total technique dish of sous vide egg that’s coated in pastry and deep fried – a dish that plays on texture, temperature and timing with delicious results. But it’s precision and a constant search for perfection that led to the chef securing the title of the most awarded starred chef in the world.
He evolved when it was time to evolve, he taught with passion and usually with patience, explaining during an interview in 2013 how he had only ever thrown one plate in anger, at none other than Gordon Ramsay.
"I remember it was a dish of langoustine ravioli. He hadn’t made it properly. I told him so and Gordon reacted in a very arrogant manner. Although he was very talented, his attitude had always been… difficult. At the end of every service, he used to fling his pan down on the stove and threaten to resign because I was so demanding. This time, it really got on my nerves and so I threw a plate at him... This time he took his apron off and walked out. But that is the only time I’ve ever thrown a plate at anyone.”
They later made up and were pictured together smiling. "We’ve Lost The God Father of Michelin the most decorated Chef in the World, he kept all of us on our toes," wrote Ramsay, after his passing.
As a chef he demanded perfection, he wanted to improve, even within a tradition and history of great food, he looked to improve on it. And this led to him gaining and maintaining so many stars.
Robuchon also reached the coveted consistency many chefs spend their entire life trying to achieve. He sourced the best ingredients, in every single country he worked in. He served the same signature dishes on plates, often at the same time, in Japan, China, France and Thailand. He evolved when it was right to evolve and maintained when it was right to stay the same. Few chefs will ever reach the level achieved by Robuchon, and it’s hard to imagine seeing another Michelin powerhouse like the one he built.
It seems only fair to let Michelin have the last word...
"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 recognized art. From his restaurant Jamin, famous around the world, and through his Ateliers de Joël Robuchon, 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..."