In the gilded world of fine dining, there is no living chef as renowned as Joël Robuchon. The master of French gastronomy, who has long held the honour of chef with most Michelin stars in the world, has not only made a name for himself for his caviar and truffle-studded cuisine but also for training some of the culinary world's best, including chefs Gordon Ramsay and Eric Ripert.
But as the global food scene becomes increasingly democratised, the Old World-style fine dining upon which Robuchon built his legacy is faced with a difficult challenge: adapt or die.
We sat down with Robuchon at his three-Michelin-star namesake restaurant in Las Vegas to get to talk about the future of fine dining, from the ascendence of healthy food in the restaurant scene to the new way chefs ought to be taught in culinary school.
MUNCHIES: When did you begin to fall in love with cooking?
Joël Robuchon: My love of cooking began a long time ago. When I was 15, I was actually in a seminary. The moment of epiphany, one could say, was when I went to help the nuns cook. At the time there were very strict regulations as what you could do, so in order to get out of classes I went to help the nuns cook. So, at 15 I found myself in a difficult family situation and I said to myself, "I'm going to start to cook." And from there I really began to love it and I left the seminary to become an apprentice.
That's such an interesting transition, from seminary to cooking.
Not necessarily, as working in a seminary was to nourish the spirit, whereas in the kitchen it's to nourish the individual.
Is there something in particular that you feel has contributed to your huge success as a chef?
That's a difficult thing for me to explain. I definitely won't say I'm better than others, but it might be that I've surrounded myself with a lot of chefs, very young chefs at the time who have since stayed with me and grown in maturity—some have been with me for 30 to 40 years. So, one thing is that I have a very strong team; we've worked in a lot of different establishments and these individuals are extremely confident. Also, my philosophy is to always question myself and to know that we can always do better—I believe we can always do better. I'm finished with just being satisfied with a job well done.
Leaving your restaurant for others to manage is difficult. How do you determine who is the right person to leave in charge?
One of those beautiful advantages of being older is that I have helped to train a lot of chefs and there's a lot of people who are extremely loyal who have stayed with me over the years. As an example, I have a sommelier who began at the same age as I did and he stayed with me his entire career. He recently retired but he still assists me with putting together wine lists sometimes. But it's very, very difficult to find the right people.
Individually and independently, I'm nothing at all. One has to know how to surround themselves with accomplished, loyal individuals. But in general—and this may be a little bit pretentious on my part—I tend to believe that bad people surround bad people and good people surround good people.
If you were to be remembered for just one thing, what would you want it to be?
Just a few dishes that have stayed with them in their memory. When people speak about Joël Robuchon, there are usually a few dishes that have left a mark for people. There's one that comes first and foremost and that'll be the mashed potatoes; another one is the crab and caviar. In today's age, you might have noticed that there are a lot of well-known restaurants, but there are not really notable dishes that stuck with you. In the day that I grew up in, you would go to certain restaurants for certain dishes, which the chef was absolutely recognised for. I'm less sure about America, but in Europe and Asia there just are no dishes which really leave a mark and define a chef anymore.
Fine dining has changed so much over the past decade. Where do you see it headed in the future?
When you look at fine dining today, these are restaurants and moments which stay very privileged, so it's not the type of experience anyone can go to every day or on a regular basis. I think true fine dining is going to move in the direction of healthy eating.
Are nutrition and health something you're focusing on in your food right now?
Yes. I've had a number of conversations with nutritionists and doctors, and based on all of those conversations, I've finally determined to follow suit. I was able to make myself dishes for months that I put together with certain nutrients, and I ate well and I was still extremely happy with my life and I lost 25 kilos. And now I plan on going a lot further in applying these nutritional philosophies, and I hope there are people who will believe and who will support that.
So will you open a health-focused restaurant?
I want to open a fine dinning restaurant that is entirely based on healthy nutrition because I believe that that is the future. Because when we look all around us, we see so many people with health problems. I think you really can do incredibly tasty food that is healthy, and I think that is the future. And I think that we can gain ten to 20 years of life just by eating properly.
What would this restaurant look like?
I'll be honest, it's my dream, I'm still thinking about it and I've been thinking about it for a long time. I think it has to be done in a hotel in order to have people come not only once but ten days in a row because they have to come consecutively and see that it's possible to eat this on a regular basis. A fine dining cure—a cure through fine dining—which will ensure healthy living.
You are opening a cooking and hospitality school. How will this school be different from other culinary schools?
It's going to take a lot of time and it's at least two more years of construction. We're opening a huge academy in France which will be able to take 1,500 students. There's this African proverb which says that a dead grandfather is a burned library. And I've seen so many chefs who have died and their knowledge was never shared. And I would like to create a school which isn't necessarily a school, where it's a professor who teaches directly—it's more that of a master to a disciple. To teach through application, through restaurants, through fine dinning—as well as a hotel, chocolate shop, wine shop where the individuals are immediately thrown into an activity.
So I really have two projects. I have the school, which I really want to do, and of course this healthy fine dining restaurant which I'm really excited about. Because I'll be immediately able to apply those learnings in the school, I think that that will bring a lot of good to the future generations.
Thank you for speaking with me.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.