Joël Robuchon and the Quest for Perfection

FRANCOIS GUILLOT/AFP/Getty Images)

Yesterday the French government reported that Joël Robuchon, the most Michelin-starred chef on the planet, had died from complications related to pancreatic cancer. He was 73. By most accounts, Robuchon was a tyrant in the kitchen, a madman obsessed with perfection, and a genius. Pete Wells of the New York Times breaks Robuchon's career into two parts: the culinary wunderkind who, at age 36, received his first Michelin star after opening Jamin in 1981 (and the maximum three stars only three years later), and the seasoned veteran who opened L'Atelier de Joél Robuchon in 2003, not caring what those Michelin critics thought, and redefined high-end dining. (This whole gastronomic experience where customers can pay thousands of dollars to sit on stools around a bar while chefs cook what they want? You can thank—or blame—Robuchon.)

Exactly what did it take to become a three-star Michelin restaurant in the span of four years? Eric Ripert, who runs his own three-star establishment, Le Bernardin in New York, remembers marveling at the silence in Jamin's kitchen. "It suddenly clicked," he writes in his memoir, 32 Yolks. "Everyone was so quiet because they were scared. There was no screaming, no plate-throwing, no bruising claps on the shoulder like I was accustomed to. The fear of not meeting Robuchon’s demands was all it took to terrorize everyone into submission. Multiply that by the fierce desire we all had to cook to his standards and it was no wonder everyone was so tense." (Of course Ripert had this revelation only after he decided to work there.)

As for the dishes themselves, a staggering amount of labor went into them with many minute details only Robuchon—and certainly not the customers—would obsess over. Take, for instance, the decorating process for assiette belle de mer au homard (a lobster salad that in itself consisted of 20 steps). Robuchon insisted on covering each plate with edible dots.

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 painting red dots around a plate, I couldn’t tell if Robuchon was a genius or a madman. The answer, of course, was both.

For Ripert, it was simply not possible to prepare every single dish for the entire dining room in the time required—Robuchon demanded nothing be made ahead of time. So Ripert cheated. He made parts of dishes beforehand and stored them strategically throughout the kitchen, which worked handily—until he got caught. Upon discovering these ready-made components tucked inside a refrigerator, Robuchon asked, "What in the world are these doing here, Ripert? Are you a magician?" He went on to rant, "Now I know why you’ve been serving this shit for so long. It’s because you’re cheating. You want to kill my restaurant!"

As Ripert later thought to himself, "How had I expected him not to know? This is the man who would look at a scoop of apple on my lobster salad and declare it too white."

One other bit of insanity: The kitchen was punished if customers did not finish everything on their plates. "Look at your salad!" Robuchon barked at Ripert, who "looked at the plate in horror: one piece of lobster and a single dot of apple remained."

When I interviewed Ripert at Le Bernardin two summers ago, the chef was adamant that despite all the haranguing, Robuchon was never violent. Ripert also sent him a copy of his memoir and in the dedication noted that he owes much of his success to him. "He has always been very kind to me. He sent me to America. He helped me a lot in my career." Ripert then added, "The only thing that happens to me really is that every two or three months, even after the book is published, I have a dream that comes back and comes back, and I basically failed miserably in America in my career, and I am back in his kitchen."