A star in the kitchen: Joël Robuchon (2/2)
L-R: Chefs Philippe Gobet and Joël Robuchon
Leading chef Joël Robuchon, who came to EHL at the start of December 2016 to receive an honorary professorship, is perhaps best known for his Atelier concept, whereby restaurant guests watch the chefs prepare dishes right in front of them.
In an hour-long session with EHL students, he spoke on a range of subjects including his new institute, women chefs, healthy cuisine, as well as his business plans.
Here are some of the highlights of the question and answer session:
After exploring Asian cuisine have you thought of trying your hand in North African or Middle Eastern cuisine?
Robuchon: I’m interested in all types of food. I’m most familiar with Moroccan cuisine, which is a major cuisine, where there is an exceptional mastery of spices. It’s true that I can’t diversify myself too much; that is why I’ve focused mainly on Asia.
Without exception, all countries where I’ve been have something that I can learn from. In the examples you mentioned, there is plenty to take away. In Morocco, I learned a lot about spices, in particular, but I can’t go everywhere; I already have 30 restaurants.
What is French cuisine’s place in the greater scheme of global gastronomy? Is there still a sort of French supremacy?
Robuchon: All types of cuisine, all around the world, are interesting. For French cuisine, it’s all about mastery and technique. Nowadays, I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but there is less and less ‘true’ cuisine: everything is simple.
Take, for instance, at restaurants in Paris, a salad consists of a few slices of tomato and mozzarella. Many of today’s meals are missing real cooking. In French cuisine, there is technique and mastery.
I intend to restore a little honour to the dishes that have forged the reputation of French food, while updating them, making them less fatty, less rich but which require the full range of technicity and mastery. I think French cuisine has this advantage at least.
Chinese cuisine also has this kind of mastery. Today, when you travel around the world, I’m surprised at how many French restaurants you see. Admittedly, you see fewer gourmet restaurants and more and more simple eateries, such as bistros, but I’ve travelled to Japan three or four times a year since 1976, when there were very few French restaurants, very few high-quality restaurants.
In recent years, small French restaurants have been popping up all over the place; not only in France but around the world. I think it is this mastery of technique that is driving French cuisine; all important chefs have visited France and learned a lot. I’ve even had the biggest US chefs send their chefs just to learn the techniques of French cuisine for two or three months. Yet, I’m not saying it’s the best in the world.
Why are there so few women in this field?
Robuchon: A few years ago, when I was just getting my start, it was a very physical profession and the women tended to be bigger and stronger, especially the ladies from Lyon. It was always really hot – although women tend to fare better in the heat than men - and you had to carry copper stewpans that were really heavy.
It was an extremely physical job. Nowadays, most kitchens are not as hot, the restaurant is air-conditioned, the pots and pans are lighter. You said that there are not a lot of women in restaurants – of course there have always been a lot of women working among the front-of-house staff – but there are now more and more female chefs, especially pastry chefs. For instance, most of my pastry chefs are women.
In my Atelier in Paris, the head chef is a woman. Let me explain the difference between a man and a woman in the kitchen. Men learn how to cook, women do not need to learn in order to cook – it has always amazed me. I don’t know if it’s the maternal instinct or what.
I see female chefs who work with me, who have never prepared a certain dish before pulling them off with their own personal touches as well, which is absolutely incredible.
Women have a bright future in cooking. There will be more and more and they will be increasingly recognised for their excellence. And I recently learned that the Michelin guide for Belgium is going to create a special distinction for all the starred female chefs.
Joël Robuchon is patron of EHL’s new Master Class in Culinary Arts which is scheduled to begin in February.
Translation by Andrew Brenner