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 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 on 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.
While Robuchon was no stranger to the fancy – truffles and caviar were among his favourites – his food was often described as simple because he preached the use of only three or four ingredients in most dishes and his goal was always to show off, not mask, their flavours.
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 $US200.
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.
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 US, and the Michelin stars followed fast and furious.