Eating the Road: An Interview with Star Chef Joel Robuchon
“They are two delicacies that both go to the same place,” chef Joel Robuchon responds in French, which his translator relays to me in English. Though my French is elementary, I sense the spirit of his works from his soft laugh. If you’d ever had any notion that French food was the pretentious and exclusive purview of fine dining, Robuchon, who some critics have called the best chef in the world, is out to dispel that notion.
Robuchon is the Michelin-stared chef and owner of two world-class Las Vegas restaurants, his eponymous Joel Robuchon, an exquisite and formal dining gem tucked in a secluded corner of the MGM Grand Las Vegas, and L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon, a more casual and free-spirited venue virtually next door. Rubochon’s empire extends around the world, from 25 Michelin stars in restaurants that all reflect his passionate French cuisine, a style predicated on an impossibly simple elegance — and a dab of exclusivity. He also has recently opened a Japanese restaurant in Monte Carlo.
At age 65, Robuchon is not so much slowing down as he is turning his attention to restaurants like L’Atelier, a French term for workshop, where he emphasizes a simpler more casual version of what he does. At L’Atelier, Robuchon pulls back the curtain to reveal the secrets of his brand of French magic. The open kitchen allows chefs and diners to interact. Want to know what that ingredient or this sauce is? Just ask. The chef is right in front of you.
Both of Robuchon’s Vegas restaurants combine elegance and style, precision and charm, yet each takes a different approach. At L’Atelier, casual elegance with an energetic atmosphere. At Joel Robuchon, the classic fine dining experience. Both share a common denominator, though: an easy manner that is both welcoming and attentive and a staff that is at the top of their game.
“Most of the management team has worked for me for a long time. They know my expectations. Secondly, it’s about motivation, and people are really motivated to work in this environment. It’s all about excellence and quality. I don’t know if you noticed, but the employees are all very happy.”
It’s true. A few of his staff, overhearing our conversation, subtly nod in agreement, unaware that anyone is watching. But Robochon is. He watches everything, as you’d expect of someone who operates two of the best restaurants in Las Vegas–and many of the best in the world. That’s not to say his staff are robotic or automatons. Over the course of a couple meals at both Joel Robuchon and L’Atelier, I found the service warm and invitiing. At L’Atelier, for example, one waiter shared stories of growing up on the Pacific, as I did, and how that colors our understanding of global cuisine. At the more formal Joel Robuchon, a waiter from Morocco described each of the dishes with a passion that seemed to come from his soul.
There is a common thread among those who create great food, I have noticed, a joie de vivre that perfumes their food. Robuchon’s cooking bubbles over with that passion, which he expresses in the pristine quality and seasonality of his ingredients, and which he can’t always anticipate from his test kitchen in Paris. He may fly into town prepared to serve one dish, when he suddenly abandons that notion for something that a farmer just picked or that just arrived from a favorite fishmonger.
“I am able to see the quality for myself when I come here,” Robuchon says.
Spending even a few minutes with Robuchon, you quickly realize how deeply he understands and values quality– in ingredients, cooking, service, decor, every small detail that, together, create a dining experience. “I have a disadvantage in that I do not speak the language (English) so I look at body language. I understand the culture” Robuchon’s great equalizer is the way he studies his customers’ approach to his food.
Robuchon quickly admits that not everything he dreams up translates to a winning dish. The chef jokes as we discuss some failed experiments, but he retorts that cooking is “…the only thing I know how to do, so what else am I going to do?”
I laugh, he chuckles. I start to ask another question when Robuchon begins to rummage through his pockets. Obviously distracted, he pulls out his phone. Is he going to make a call in the middle of our conversation, I wonder? I pause, but he wants me to continue talking. As I finish my question, he lifts the phone to my face to show me something.
In a constant stream of French bobbing with a few interspersed English words, Robuchon is describing a photo on his phone. “I have the idea…it’s not quite done…it’s not the masterpiece…it’s a complicated dish,” he rattles. It’s a recipe he’s been working on in his Paris workshop that highlights California tomatoes. The dish looks complicated, like a science project gone awry. But even through an LCD photo, you can still sense his passion, his artistry, his devotion to creating the wonderful food he has chosen to be his life’s work.
“It’s not about having the fork, here or there, it’s about hospitality, bringing people together. When people (come) to these restaurants, I want them to feel my DNA. That is the important part.”
Zeke Quezada is the Las Vegas Editor for EscapeHatchDallas and Guide to Las Vegas for About.com, and, since he’s a media star, he rarely pays for anything in Vegas. If it’s on the Las Vegas strip, Zeke has swam, slept, eaten, drank or lounged there.
A version of this story first appeared in govegas.about.com.