While I’m tucking into my fourth course of pure delight at L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in London, the legend himself appears from around the corner of the counter bar with his trusty brigade of consultants and culinary companions in tow. Small in stature but big in smiles and warmth,Joël Robuchon beams up at me. He is visiting his restaurant to sew the seeds of his ever-developing menu and culinary direction with the team over here. Headed up by executive chef Xavier Boyer, the restaurant is one of Joël’s twelve Atelier restaurants that are scattered around the world. Our rendezvous isn’t until later, but Joël is making the rounds, passing from table to table, greeting new guests and welcoming returning customers with kisses and laughs.
Eight courses of decadence down–including an indulgent conveyor belt of caviar, truffles, black cod, langoustine, quail, champagne and parfaits–I turn away from the herb-covered restaurant wall and cosmopolitan décor, to the first floor. Here, the walls are covered entirely in black and white checks and oversized black apples are dotted around. But we don’t stop here: we go up even higher to Le Salon de Joël Robuchon bar, which has a terrace onto London’s central skyline and gets going by night. With a bit of quiet upon us, I join his team and sit around Joël and, leaning in we are all ears and eyes on the legend who begins his tale…
In 1968, France was experiencing social uproar, and Joël Robuchon was roaring with it and meeting people who would influence and push him to become the chef he is today. As a young teenager, he had been following his dream of becoming a Catholic priest, studying at a specialised school until his parents could no longer afford the fees. Having enjoyed helping the nuns prepare food at school, he decided to plunge into culinary studies. “I was lucky because I worked with a lot of quality chefs who were passionate and allowed me to discover the culinary world.” It was during the whirlwind of the 1968 revolt that he met some friends who would give him a well-needed push to follow his culinary career with passion and love. “They encouraged me to do cooking competitions and inspired me to follow this path. I was lucky enough to have friends who were doing the right thing.”
Working his way up through national competitions, he started working at Concorde Lafayette, overlooking two to three thousand covers every day with a team of 90 and multiple kitchens. However, Joël’s rebellious side came out to play again: “It was great to learn, but I wanted to do the opposite of what everyone was doing and to have my own restaurant.” He jumped at the opportunity to become the Food and Beverage manager at hotel Nikko in Paris. This step would lead him to earn 28 Michelin stars over the course of his extensive career and a showering of accolades, including the prestigious Meilleur Ouvrier de France in 1976 and Chef of the Century by Gault Millau in 1989. However, having seen many of his colleagues suffer from stress and health issues, he decided to retire at 50. “I had been [cooking] since I was 15 and I’d never seen the mountain under the snow,” Joël explains.
But as only a dedicated hard worker can experience, he was struck with an epiphany in a moment of retirement heaven. Considering the demonic reputations of chefs and their kitchens, Joël and his team of trusty chefs decided to “re-interpret [and combine welcoming] tapas bars and Japanese sushi bars where food is made in front of people”. But there was another string to his revolutionary bow. “Back then, all chefs were dressed in white so I wanted the staff to be dressed in black” to blend into the carefully chosen colour scheme of black and red; “black for night, red for day.” It was a revolutionary idea, which Joël’s Ateliers still revolve around today.
Still pushing the boundaries today at the age of 70, Joël has recently turned his attention to moving his cuisine away from molecular cuisine, which he deems dangerous to the health, and into a new wave of healthy cooking or “wellness cuisine”. He explains, “with food I think we can help [people in ill health] a lot. It’s about focusing on combinations of foods. In each restaurant, I am trying to explore wellness cuisine, especially vegetarian cuisine, with experts. Although I understand that our menus must be right for our clients, I would like to develop some menus that explore the wellness gastronomy more. It’s something that’s a bit different, which is just as high quality but appeals to a different audience. Excellence is always hard, and demands hard work and a lot of understanding.”
Hard work is certainly not something that Joël is shy of. Earlier this year, he opened 2 restaurants in Bordeaux and Bangkok, there are plans for New York, Shanghai, Geneva and Canada in the near future, while his heart is also set on Mumbai. Although these plans are ideas in the making, there’s one thing you can be sure of about all of them: they’ll all have a streak of the Rebel Robuchon. “If tomorrow someone told me the trend was blue, I would make mine red,” he chuckles. “I don’t follow the fashion.”
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Words by Sophie Cater