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Joël Robuchon’s Legacy Explained in Eight Dishes

The world’s most Michelin-starred chef will be remembered for more than his mashed potatoes

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Joël Robuchon’s most famous dishes Photo by Sergi Alexander/Getty Images

On August 3, 2005, at 9:57 a.m., with the summer sun high in the sky, I walked through the front door of L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in Paris’s 7th arrondissement, my knife kit slung over my right shoulder. I approached the first person I saw — a lanky young man in a chefs’ coat, peering into a low refrigerator — and summoned my college French: “Excusez-moi, où est le chef?”

For the next several months, I worked in that pastry kitchen, unpaid, from 10 a.m. until midnight, six days a week, rolling tart shells, peeling grapefruit, pureeing raspberries, sneaking peeks at the pastry chef’s recipe book, comparing notes with other stagiaires, and trying not to fuck anything up. During service, the general manager paced between the front kitchen, which the diners could see, and the prep kitchen, where the interns were allowed to roam. One night, on one of his walks, the GM suddenly stopped in the back kitchen and raised his hand. Very quickly, and silently, everyone threw out every dish they had been preparing and started making it from scratch. Joël Robuchon was in the house.

Though his name was on the door, I only saw the late chef twice. The first time, while at his restaurant in Paris, I was organizing and reorganizing my mise-en-place when he approached, stopped in front of my station, looked down and then up at me, frowned, and said something to the manager, who, when necessary, relayed feedback in real time. I was so nervous I held my breath, but the men moved on from my station without a word to me. Apparently, I passed the test.

Robuchon was Michelin’s most decorated chef before he died on Monday, with 32 stars spread out over restaurants in 13 cities. These achievements earned him fame, but it was his unrelenting demand for perfection that inspired generations of cooks, including me. Chefs are often compared to generals, their teams of cooks to army brigades. Over the course of his working life, thousands of cooks wanted to be in Robuchon’s brigade. Like few chefs before or after him, his leadership and ambition allowed him to expand his vision for dining across the globe, spreading his style of French cuisine and service far and wide. His chain of L’Ateliers (and spin off concepts) are now his legacy just as much as the signature dishes he created, which still grace its menus.

When the first L’Atelier, which means “workshop” in French, opened, a lot of (French) people thought that Robuchon, a man who had made a name for himself in white-tablecloth establishments, might have lost it. One of the reasons it stood out was that the chef was not exclusively offering a degustation, or tasting menu. More importantly, ordering a la carte was not frowned upon at L’Atelier, bucking the dominant trend in French fine dining. The dining room seemed designed for Patrick Bateman and his ilk, all lacquered black with accents in blood red, and odd but eye-catching sculptures. The best seats were at the bar, and rather than being stuck behind a swinging door, the main kitchen was open and lit like a theater. Robuchon’s chefs and cooks were not servants, they were the stars of the show.

The other star of the show was Robuchon’s food. His style might be described as a synthesis of cuisine classique (traditional French fare, featuring meaty and fat-laden sauces), nouvelle cuisine (a rejection of that classic cooking which popularized lighter, vegetable-forward flavors), and influences from Japan and Spain. He didn’t just follow Escoffier’s systemization of culinary technique, he built upon it by demonstrating how highly technical dishes (featuring luxurious, and often temperamental ingredients) could be reproduced in multiple places at once, thanks to careful product sourcing, a nearly compulsive obsession with perfection, and extensive training.

Today, Robuchon’s quail with foie gras, deviled egg with caviar, uni with lobster gelee, and mashed potatoes are taught in culinary schools, replicated in a dozen different L’Ateliers, and mimicked by chefs around the world. This guarantees his place in French culinary history, but it also created a whole new kind of luxury diner. Frequent fliers with expense accounts tend to chat each other up at each L’Atelier, comparing the lobster they had in Hong Kong to the one they had in London, recommending a special bottle of scotch they tasted in Las Vegas, or the chocolates that came at the end of their meal in Macau.

Regional variations exist at even massive chains like McDonald’s or Burger King, but the most popular items — sort of like Robuchon’s own Big Mac and Whopper — make an appearance on every menu at some point no matter where they are in the world. (Incidentally, Robuchon added sliders to his menu some years ago — a pair are topped with foie gras, decorated with roasted and julienned bell peppers, and sandwiched between miniature brioche buns. They even come with fries, just like a value meal.) Every powerhouse chef has a list of greatest hits, signature menu items that outlive them, inspire generations of cooks, and at least attempt to further the craft of cooking. Here are some of Robuchon’s most referenced plates and techniques, why they stand out, and why they’ll likely matter for generations to come.


POMMES PUREE

Robuchon pommes puree Robuchon/Facebook

If you don’t know about these mashed potatoes, and you consider yourself a food obsessive, I don’t know where you’ve been. Fortified with an astonishing quantity of butter, in the late ’90s the New York Times acknowledged that Robuchon’s potatoes were “widely considered the ultimate [and] have been copied all over the world.”

The recipe, found in English in Patricia Wells’ Simply French, sounds straightforward, calling for two pounds of ratte potatoes — a small, French variety known for its firm texture and nutty flavor — one pound of butter, a ¼ cup of whole milk, and salt to taste. But the technique is everything. The potatoes are boiled whole, peeled, and pressed through a food mill. The resulting potato fluff is then dried out over a low flame before the butter is added, gradually. Eliminating excess moisture from the cooked potatoes ensures the resulting mash is neither gluey nor loose. Ideally, the finished puree is smooth, meltingly soft, and barely holds its shape, like gently whipped cream. That his most famous dish is also one of the simplest demonstrates his ability to heighten even the most basic foods through precision and attention to detail.

Also iconic is how the potato puree is served: A dollop usually sits next to the main (meat) course on the plate, but a small crock or copper pot filled with more of the mashed potatoes is also always offered on the side. —Daniela Galarza


DOTS

Robuchon’s dots Robuchon/Official

Dots of sauce on the plate are a cliche in French fine dining, but Robuchon’s use of dots as decor on so many of his dishes is critical as an example of his incessant perfectionism.

In his memoir, 32 Yolks, chef Eric Ripert (of New York City’s Le Bernardin) recalls his time as a young apprentice in one of Robuchon’s first kitchens. He was responsible for plating a lobster dish, and the repetitive nature of that task nearly gave him an existential crisis: “If you were to take out a pen and a piece of paper right now and try to make a circle of ninety perfect, evenly spaced dots — even if you are a good artist, even if you take your time — I could look at the paper and tell you where Robuchon would find fault. Imagine trying to do those dots with a sauce made of mayonnaise and tomato compote. The sauce is cold and thick when you start, but if you work too long, it warms up and thins. Sometimes, as I spent hours plating red dots around a plate, I couldn’t tell if Robuchon was a genius or a madman. The answer, of course, was both.”

Robuchon’s dots grace a number of his signature plates. A starter on most of his menus involves a disc of caviar surrounded by exactly 72 evenly spaced dots of cauliflower cream. Each of those dots is topped with a nipple of parsley puree.

One of Robuchon’s most requested desserts is a glass of chocolate mousse topped with a thin shell of chocolate and three small puddles of apricot curd as well as three of raspberry puree. In fact, most of his signature dishes feature dots, whether they frame the plate like the minute markings on a clock or bleed into the background like eerily precise polka dot wallpaper. —Daniela Galarza


L’OEUF DE POULE MOLLET ET FRIAND

L’oeuf de poule, mollet et friand Robuchon/Facebook

Robuchon’s signature dishes take many forms, but the layering of textures and temperatures is a key element in his most memorable creations. Here, an egg is cooked sous-vide, breaded with flakes of brik pastry, and then flash fried, yielding what looks like a kind of inside-out eggs and hash. It is served warm, with mayonnaise, tiny dots of parsley puree, and cubes of chilled smoked salmon. A large quenelle of caviar crowns the crisped egg. Another version uses parmesan cream and Iberico ham in place of the mayonnaise and salmon.

The dish would be almost impossible without the precise temperature control that’s a feature of sous-vide cooking. Robuchon was a proponent of the technique, arguing (against critics) that when used properly this method of cooking would retain a food’s original color while enhancing its texture and flavor. —Daniela Galarza


L’OURSIN

Robuchon/Facebook

No other Robuchon creation drives home the chef’s visual focus than this Fabergé egg of a dish. The sea urchin parfait is served in a gold-speckled glass orb so diners can observe the layers: Orange sea urchin, the ferric lobster gelee in which it’s suspended, and the cauliflower cream that covers it all. It a still-life ornament of ocean, foam, and, thanks to verdant parsley coulis, a very geometrically precise breed of seaweed. In an our modern era of social media there are no shortage of dishes designed for the camera; this one almost feels created to place next to a collection of fine jewelry. —Ryan Sutton


LE CAVIAR

YouTube

During an otherwise ennui-inducing meal at Joël Robuchon’s Vegas outpost in 2010, a $500 study in foie gras, black truffle, and Chuck Norris (I sat near a framed portrait of the martial arts legend), a waiter sent over a little tin of caviar. Except this was more than caviar; layers of fennel cream and crab hid below the roe. I can’t say Robuchon was the first to attempt this bit of serving vessel-whimsy; he certainly wasn’t the last (see: Eleven Madison Park). What I can say, however, is that it was a perfect composed caviar dish. Too many chefs pair fish roe with ingredients that detract from it; Robuchon did the opposite, the sweet crab amplifying the maritime salinity of roe, and the fennel cream evoking the aromas of a Southern French soupe de poisson.

It evoked the sea so brilliantly that it was as if Robuchon were saying, We scooped it all up from the Mediterranean with this very tin. The preparation epitomized the chef’s preternatural exaltation of simplicity. The fact that mashed potatoes were effectively his signature dish is evidence of that, but for me, the fact that he could make caviar taste more like itself through technique and precise pairing is the greater achievement.

The preparation also clarified the fact that Robuchon is almost as famous for his international branding and commodification of fine dining as his cooking itself. In a pre-Instagram era, the rectangular dish that held the caviar had the following iPhone-thirsty slogan emblazoned on it: “Le Caviar par Joel Robuchon.” A quick online image search shows this preparation, and these words, have been on tap at the chef’s restaurants Bangkok, Hong Kong, Macau, and elsewhere. I’m certain the chef’s empire will surely live on — at least as long as there’s a Michelin guide to perennially recommend his venues over better local cooking — as will this spectacular dish and memorabilia-style plate. —Ryan Sutton


LA CAILLE

Robuchon’s quail Gary He/Eater NY

Paul Bocuse had his chicken, Escoffier was into pheasant, and Robuchon’s bird of obsession was the quail. In his most famous preparation, the quail’s breast is stuffed with foie gras — in either mousse or pâté form — poached gently in chicken broth, brushed with a mixture of soy sauce and honey, and then roasted until the skin is crisp and caramelized. When made properly, poking it with a fork is a little bit like breaking through the crust of a crème brûlée.

Sometimes made with pigeon, this dish is always served with a sidecar of mashed potatoes that have been topped with shavings of black truffle. Those who’ve had chef Daniel Humm’s roasted chicken for two will recognize this technique as well as the flavor combination of poultry, foie gras, a sweet glaze, and black truffles. —Daniela Galarza


LA LANGOUSTINE

Robuchon/Official

Though his food sometimes looked overly ornate, Robuchon could make a few ingredients and precise technique have impact. His langoustine preparations demonstrate this. In one version of La Langoustine, the meaty crustacean is served “en papillote croustillante au basilic” — wrapped in a basil leaf, then in a thin sheet of pastry, and fried until crisp. The result looks like what would happen if a har gow dumpling was deep fried. The pink flesh of the shellfish is visible behind the thin pastry, with the bright green basil shining through like stained glass. —Daniela Galarza


LES TARTES

Gary He/Eater NY

At every L’Atelier location Robuchon’s dessert menu features a selection of traditional French tarts, an ode to France’s long legacy of artisan bakers and pastry chefs, as well as the tarts the chef himself grew up eating. There are usually five on offer, almost always including a lemon tart as well as an apple tarte tatin. The rest rotate seasonally, and might include a tart made from pears and almonds, one made with yuzu or passion fruit, a raspberry tart, or one filled with chocolate ganache. They’re meant to be simple compared with the more elaborate desserts on the rest of the menu, almost like the American restaurant trend of serving a plate of cookies and milk for dessert.

I spent my first weeks at the L’Atelier in Paris making these tarts, rolling the dough until it was paper thin, fitting it into stainless steel rings atop a sheet pan, freezing it until solid, using a paring knife to even the edges, and then baking the shells which would then be filled with fruit purees or rich creams or citrus mousses.

The pastry chefs at each L’Atelier location are allowed some flexibility in which tarts they decide to serve, but that doesn’t mean they can be imprecise: The pastry chef I worked under walked around with a ruler up his sleeve and would whip it out without notice to measure the thickness of my tart shell, height of the finished tart — or even the length of a cook’s finger nails. No matter the dish or technique, there was no limit to the lengths Robuchon would go to demonstrate the importance of attention to detail. —Daniela Galarza

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