Seven Questions For Joël Robuchon

The Chef of the Century on his approach to seasonality, the role of indulgence and avoiding family conflict

Photo by Jeff Green

Photo by Jeff Green

You like to visit Joël Robuchon and L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in MGM Grand in spring, summer and fall/winter. What’s your agenda for these visits?

To create seasonal dishes. Whenever I travel, I try to bring something new, something fresh, an invigorating idea or concept. We can’t sit back and relax. Something that always surprised me when I first started coming to Las Vegas 10 years ago was that the menus stayed stagnant from season to season. You have to change your dishes seasonally, and you have to change as much as possible.

Produce can now be sourced from around the world, allowing restaurants to work around seasonality. What’s your approach?

We really base our ingredients on what we have available to us. Yesterday, we had someone in to show us organic produce that was available in this season so that I could taste it. … I try to stay local. California, which may not be considered local in Las Vegas, really isn’t very far from here, so in some cases we are forced to go a little farther. Our cheese trolley has a little bit of French cheese, but I try to stay away from international ingredients. A good 70 percent of our trolley is actually California cheese or American cheese.

You travel a great deal. What are some of your favorite destinations?

Let’s be honest: I only go to the cities I want to go to. So I only open restaurants in places that I want to go to. There are certain locations where I’ll never open a restaurant because I never want to go there—some location that really doesn’t please me much. I’m not saying this because I’m in Vegas, but I very much enjoy Vegas. New York City is unique. Tokyo is a beautiful place. I like Hong Kong and Monaco as well.

[For relaxation], the countryside near one of my houses in Spain is one of my favorite places. Nobody knows about a very small city, Calp, just on the beach in the sun. It’s beautiful, [but] it’s too simple for a lot of people.

Dinner at either of your Las Vegas restaurants is an indulgence—in terms of price, time and even calories. What role does indulgence play for today’s diner?

I went to eat at Masa in New York recently. Although the price was a little elevated, it will leave a lasting impression. It’s not the type of restaurant you go to every day by any means, but it is certainly an experience.

Las Vegas has a large local base and a lot of regular clientele; we [also] have all these [visitors] from Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco, and they, too, are becoming amazing regular guests for us. Every time I come, I see people when I walk though the restaurant and they say, “Oh, we saw you last year!”

If I’m seeing these people on a regular basis, then it means that [they had] a pleasurable experience. It’s not as if they’re lacking in choices or variety with regard to restaurants. The biggest satisfaction I can ever take from this is to see regularity in clientele and to know that people do want to come back.

Do you have any projects you’re particularly passionate about?

I do. Mostly in France, because that’s where I live, but very recently we did an event at the Chateau Versailles to raise funds for cancer research. I work with a lot of oncologists because it really is the sickness of the century. We all have a friend or a family member who’s touched by cancer.

Health is extremely important, and my philosophy is to [reflect] that in my menu. I try to use a lot of antioxidants in my ingredients, turmeric and white tea, which is much better for you than green tea. I use a lot of ginger as well, ingredients that are very good for the health but not necessarily things that I’ll ever talk about on the menu. I believe you can do so much better for your health by eating intelligently.

Who are some of the chefs you’ve mentored who have gone on to have their own restaurants?

In the U.S., there is one who certainly comes to mind—Eric Ripert. He is just a good young man, and he has some exceptional qualities as a human being. The chefs that I knew at the beginning, who were perhaps not world-renowned, always taught me that I had to keep teaching.

The thing that makes me most proud is the young chefs who have given a lot of their time to learn and work with me, and who now have their own restaurants and their own success individually, independently of myself. We’re here for a short time on Earth, so we have to keep passing that knowledge on to the next generation.

I’ve seen you seated in your restaurants, signing piles of your cookbooks. What is the oddest thing someone has asked you to inscribe?

One of the funniest is when a man buys the book and asks me to dedicate it to his wife, which is a very romantic gesture, but then asks me to write: “So you can finally learn how to cook.” I always respond, “Are you serious? Do you really want me to write that?” It bothers me slightly to write it, but we’ve had it happen quite a bit. When it’s done as a joke, I can certainly understand. But there are some that seem to say it really genuinely.

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