Joël Robuchon, 1945–2018
The French chef who created a culinary empire
Robuchon was born to a “fervently Catholic family in Poitiers, in the center of France,” said The Times (U.K.). He entered a seminary at age 12, planning to become a priest, but found a new calling while helping the nuns prepare meals. At age 15, Robuchon began an apprenticeship at a restaurant, and by 29, he was in charge of 90 chefs at a large Paris hotel, said The Washington Post. In 1981, he opened his own restaurant, Jamin, near the Eiffel Tower. It “racked up a Michelin star a year in its first three years—a feat no one had accomplished before.” Robuchon was fiercely demanding in the kitchen, once bouncing a plate of disappointing langoustine ravioli off the head of a junior chef named Gordon Ramsay.
The restaurant guide Gault & Millau hailed Robuchon as a “chef of the century” in 1989, said TheGuardian.com. But seven years later, at age 51, he abruptly retired, saying he’d seen too many contemporaries “burn out or die.” He came out of retirement in 2003 to launch his revolutionary Ateliers (the French word for workshops): intimate restaurants where diners sat at a counter surrounding the kitchen. The first ones in Paris and Tokyo were “greeted with almost hysterical acclaim and long queues,” and dozens more soon opened around the world. Just as in his kitchens, Robuchon liked to keep things simple when cooking for himself. His favorite dish? “Steak and fries,” he said, “nice and French.” ■