Chef of the Century, first and youngest chef to win three Michelin stars, self-taught (quasi-)genius, awarded best restaurant in the world by the International Herald Tribune... The list of awards goes on and on, but what matters is that Joël Robuchon is widely considered the best chef alive. He attained his status through a masterful blend of innovation and tradition.
Joel Robuchon Opens Joel Robuchon
When Robuchon opened his eponymous restaurant in 1986 the world of high-class French cuisine was busy recovering from the whirlwind that was the Nouvelle Cuisine movement from the early 70's ("Nouvelle Cuisine, roughly translated, means: I can't believe I paid ninety-six dollars and I'm still hungry." -Mike Kalin). Nouvelle Cuisine was supposed to be a revolution in cooking, and was not unlike the original : a dark, bloody period where the new generation overthrew the old one, causing a lot of disaster but ultimately creating more good than bad. Before that, French cooking was very rich, relying heavily on established recipes and principles sometimes centuries old. Nouvelle cuisine responded by lightening and simplifying everything (hence tiny portions that would sometimes leave a client still hungry) and putting the focus on innovation instead of tradition. Sauces were thickened through reduction; a "roux", the before common method of whisking flour in a sauce to thicken it became taboo. Vegetables were cooked quickly so they could be tender and yet slightly crisp. The looks and texture of a dish came to matter as much as the taste. The minimalism, severity (and steep price) of the Nouvelle Cuisine caused it to be seen mainly as a snobbish, Parisian fad, but for all its flaws, its innovations, both conceptual and practical forever changed the way chefs and patrons look at cooking.
Why He's The Best
Robuchon set his distinctive style from the outset with simplicity. Robuchon is a purist, who uses only the best produce, because he believes in putting its original taste to the fore. He is an almost compulsive perfectionist, often referred to as the swiss watch of Haute Cuisine. Every ingredient is precisely weighed, every step mapped -- the chef becomes a surgeon. He sums it up best : "To make a grand meal, you have to make it simple. But to look simple is very complicated. You have to have the highest quality products, the best equipment and you have to keep the focus on the original flavor of the produce." The greatness of his cuisine lies not in innovation for its own sake but in attaining perfection in his craft. You mustn't take that to mean Robuchon simply cooks old recipes really well. He was and still is a very innovative chef. However his innovation is to the service of the produce he cooks -- he aims to underscore the produce's taste best. This is the thinking behind his favourite among the many recipes he invented, his gelée de caviar à la crème de choux fleur (caviar jelly with cauliflower cream), a multi-layered dish with different yet complimentary textures and tastes.
"I believe in a 'cuisine of flavors,' a cuisine that draws on the flavors of the regions in France. The problem with nouvelle cuisine is that all the flavors are mixed and it's difficult to distinguish a particular flavor. I believe in cuisine that has distinctive flavors; chicken that tastes like chicken. Nouvelle cuisine masks the flavor, the aroma, there's no harmony. Kiwi doesn't belong with fish."
Free As In Speech
However, Robuchon's greatest accomplishment wasn't made in the kitchen of an art nouveau restaurant of the posh 16th Arrondissement of Paris. He retired his restaurant in '96 in the apt hands of Alain Ducasse to take on a role as a 'gastronomic ambassador.' He started his own cooking show, called Bon Appétit, Bien Sûr. On this show, other chefs would come and prepare with him some of their recipes, ones which wouldn't cost too much or require too much culinary expertise. This was revolutionary, because the countless tricks and tips that made a chef's cooking stand head and shoulders (and waist) above even the best homemaker's were put out there for anyone to learn and practice, instead of being passed on from mouth to ear in the very selective, almost sacerdotal French schools of culinary learning. He later created the cable channel Gourmet TV with famous producer Guy Job, the first French cooking channel (strangely enough) with the same idea : to invite chefs to display their skills and recipes, put the secret behind their talent out there, for anyone to learn from.
This may not seem like much, but it was, indeed, a revolution : Joel Robuchon open sourced Haute Cuisine.
Since last year (2003) Robuchon has gotten back to the piano (cuisine jargon term for the set of stoves and ovens a chef uses to do his thang) and opened a new restaurant : L'Atelier ("The Workshop"). The keyword is once again simplicity, now more than ever. Minimalism of the decoration and of the dishes, which are cooked in front of the customer. The produce is put to the fore, and the recipe serves only to underscore it.