“Cooking is creating emotion,” says Joël Robuchon, the man with the most Michelin stars in the world. “That’s success.”
I’ve just told him an entirely ridiculous and scarcely believable thing, yet he answers as though it’s not the first time he’s heard it: when I ate at the restaurant that bears his name, the only one in Las Vegas with three Michelin stars, I took one bite of the second starter, put down my fork, and covered my face to stifle a sob. The perfection of the dish, like an exquisite piece of music, had brought tears to my eyes. Told you it was ridiculous.
You may put this down to the generous wine pairings that accompanied the nine-course taster menu, except this was early in the four-hour meal. Stranger still, the dish was a carpaccio of foie gras and potatoes covered with black truffle shavings – and I don’t usually like foie gras. Or truffles.
There’s more. A couple of hours later, the first pudding arrived – and it made me laugh out loud. It was served on a sky-blue dish, with a colourful rice-paper kite floating among clouds composed of fruity mousses and sorbets. A time warp on a plate: an instant transport back to the joys of childhood.
A chef who can make you laugh and cry? No wonder Robuchon was awarded “chef of the century” by the Gault Millau guide in 1989.
“You get a lot of young chefs who have a lot of savoir-faire, a lot of technical knowledge,” says Robuchon of his proteges. “What’s important is to convey to them a cuisine that is made from the heart.”
Robuchon throws everything into his art. His temper was once legendary: after suffering numerous tongue-lashings, one young protege finally tore off his apron and walked out for good when Robuchon hurled a plate of inferior langoustine ravioli at him. The young chef was Gordon Ramsay.
Robuchon is calmer now, or so he says: “It’s a different age, now. Things are done differently.” Even so, there was a noticeable tremor of mildly fearful anticipation among the staff when I dined there at the imminent arrival of the great man. The restaurant’s head chef took me into the bowels of the kitchen to show me something which, he said, he seldom shows anyone: 20 duck carcasses were hanging from hooks in a cold storage. Robuchon would be tasting each one before declaring which was fit to grace his spring menu.
Robuchon smiles when I tell him this. “We found our duck,” he confirms. “It’s of an exceptional quality, from a little farm in California. It must be tasty, and a good texture. Most are too white, too bland. We tasted 20 caviars, too, to choose three.”
The attention to detail pays off. Even the olive oil with the bread is so good I’m tempted to tip up the little plate and drink it neat. The decor, too, is perfectly judged: high ceilings, widely spaced and very few tables, and French windows leading to a green wall that gives the illusion of an outside terrace, despite it being in the middle of the vast MGM Grand casino. “Because the plants have to be replanted occasionally, we sometimes find they have returned to us with new guests. The diners sometimes say: ‘What’s that noise? Can you turn the music down?’ And we have to say: ‘Those are crickets! We can’t do anything!’”
It may seem strange to those who don’t know Las Vegas to find such a bastion of sober French sophistication thriving there. Robuchon even declines to speak English – our whole interview is conducted in French. But Robuchon sees no contradiction.
“I love Vegas,” he enthuses. “It really has the most wonderful shows, the greatest performers.” Robuchon’s restaurant owes its early success, he says, to Céline Dion, who came when it was almost empty a few nights after the opening and loved it, telling all her friends. Now well-heeled diners sometimes fly in from LA on private planes to eat there and fly back the same night.
“There are so many sophisticated places here. And you can visit the Grand Canyon, the lake, it’s magnificent. I love the ambience here, there’s a mix of people from all over the world, who have all come here to relax and enjoy themselves.
“And there are always new concepts, new trends. If there is a success in one place you find it immediately somewhere else. There’s lots of Asian cuisine now: Hakkasan, Morimoto, Nobu, Zuma. Happily, despite changing fashions, my restaurants stand their ground.”
Robuchon nearly didn’t get this far. He actually retired in 1995, burned out, at the age of 50. The son of a bricklayer who was apprenticed to a chef at 15, he says he is “from a generation when there were no rest days: working Saturdays, Sundays, holidays. They felt that to be a good chef you had to stay in your restaurant day and night, but I think now that’s a mistake. When you rest, and see people, and travel, you pick up so many influences and ideas.”
Those travels reenergised him, and he came back with a bang. Two decades on, he heads up 26 restaurants and bars from Montreal to Macau, with openings imminent in New York, Geneva and Miami. How does he keep tabs on them all? A self-confessed tech addict, he gleefully calls up on his mobile phone a nine-panel grid of moving images. They are all, it turns out, live feeds from the kitchens of all his restaurants around the world – Big Chef is watching you.
He is halfway through developing a huge cooking school in a converted monastery in Poitiers, France. Housing 1,500 students, its philosophy will be, he says, “from master to disciple rather than teacher to pupil. Most cooking schools teach theory, but this will be hands-on: it will have restaurants, bakeries and bars, all open to the public, giving students on-the-job training.”
It will be his legacy: an army of mini-Robuchons spreading into kitchens across the globe. “I’ve seen so many cooks who had exceptional knowledge,” he says, “and it followed them to the grave. There is an old African proverb: ‘When a grandfather dies, it’s a library that burns.’”
I ask him about the science of food, which the likes of Heston Blumenthal are so keen on. Robuchon’s clearly not one for flashy molecular gimmicks: “When I was young, they said in the future that you’d just take a pill and never have to eat. That will never happen,” he scoffs. But he has, he says, been learning from food scientists and nutritionists. “I’ve lost a lot of weight in four months while eating wonderful food,” he says. “Healthy eating is the way forward.”
He is particularly interested at the moment in how texture contributes directly to taste. He has spent a long time obsessing over developing the perfect tomato salad, “so good it doesn’t even need any olive oil or dressing”. The secret, apparently, is not the salt itself, but the exact size of the grains. They must neither be ground too small, nor left too chunky.
To judge the value of a chef, he maintains, you should look at how they fare with the simplest products. “When you get complicated it’s easy to surprise. But the older I get, the more I think: ‘Faire simple, c’est très compliqué’. It’s complicated to make something simple.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010