Joël Robuchon, one of the most accomplished and decorated chefs in history, has died at age 73, after a career devoted to injecting new creativity into French cooking and exploring other cuisines. Robuchon had cancer; his death was confirmed on Monday by a spokeswoman at his company in Paris.
Robuchon won more than 30 Michelin stars — more than any other chef in the world, according to his website. His company operated more than 20 restaurants from New York to Bangkok.
Dubbed "Chef of the Century" in France, Robuchon embraced his role as a steward of one of country's cultural treasures, even as he rejected pretentiousness. After all, his signature dish was his potato puree.
Born into a Catholic family in Poitiers in central-west France, Robuchon had been on track to become a priest. But when he attended seminary at age 12, he would often gravitate to the kitchen, where he talked to the nuns and helped cut vegetables. At 15, he became an apprentice in a hotel kitchen. And by the time he was 29, he was leading a staff of 90 at the the Hotel Concorde La Fayette in Paris.
Robuchon won his first Michelin stars working for other people, including at the hotel Nikko. But after he opened his own restaurant, Jamin, in 1981, it immediately won one star – and then two, and then three — in the space of three years.
"Receiving three stars does not mean I am worth it — it only means I now have the right to prove it," the chef said of that achievement, according to his official biography.
Famous for taking a lighter and more innovative approach to French cooking, Robuchon called his food "modern," looking to turn the page on "nouvelle" cuisine.
"Chefs must cook for the way we live today," he told The New York Times in a 1983 profile. "Much of what has been passed off as nouvelle was simply decorative cooking done by chefs without professional training."
The Times also noted that on a single Friday, the diners at Jamin included chefs who collectively represented at least 10 Michelin stars – masters who were trying to get a handle on what the young chef was doing to quietly remake French cuisine.
At the heart of Robuchon's cooking was an insistence on the freshest and best ingredients and in rotating menus to change with the seasons. There was also an unrelentingly high standard for any plate that left his kitchen — and a temper that would flare if details were left to chance.
In the mid-'90s, Robuchon moved Jamin to a larger location and renamed it after himself. But just two years later, he shocked and dismayed his fans by announcing he would close the restaurant. He compared his decision to an elite athlete wanting to stop playing while at the top of their game. Robuchon also said he had noticed how many top-performing chefs seemed to die in their 50s.
Robuchon nurtured other great chefs along the way, including Dominique Bouchet and Gordon Ramsay. It was Ramsay who was at the receiving end of what Robuchon called "the only time I've ever thrown a plate at anyone," after a heated exchange in the kitchen one night.
Speaking to the Los Angeles Times in 1996, Robuchon — renowned for his ravioli with langoustine and his salt-crusted lamb — also said there's a place for delivery pizza, and even frozen food, in life.
His own children, Robuchon said, ate at McDonald's as well as at his restaurant:
"I believe it's necessary for them to live like all other children and to discover a little of all these cuisines. They loved it because, at a certain age, all children love McDonald's for its ambience. It corresponds to the taste of children.
"Myself, I drink Coca-Cola. Now, someone is going to say a grand chef who drinks Coca-Cola, that can't be. But I also use ketchup. One must be open to everything. Sometimes, you feel like eating a pizza; the next day, you may feel like couscous or paella, then, the day after, you eat some more refined cuisine. All of it is necessary."
Nothing was left to chance in his restaurants, even the clientele. In that LA Times interview, Robuchon acknowledged that the staff at his Paris restaurant tried to hit a certain mix in taking reservations for his tables, preferring French diners and sometimes limiting the number of U.S. and Japanese customers. The reason, he said, was to prevent any patrons — French, American or Japanese — from getting the idea that the restaurant was merely a tourist spot.
"I am a restaurateur and my role is to give satisfaction to everyone," he said.
Robuchon officially retired from kitchen duties at age 51 but went on to bolster his reputation as a global businessman and developed several TV shows, including Bon Appetit Bien Sûr — in which he shared cooking tips and recipes while chatting with other prestigious chefs. It aired for nine seasons in France and was followed by another long-running show, Planète Gourmande.
When he resumed opening restaurants in the second half of his career, Robuchon incorporated elements of Japan's sushi bars and Spain's tapas bars into his approach. His establishments now operate on three continents.