Robuchon's love affair with Japan

Joel Robuchon, hailed as "chef of the century" on his death this week, drew great inspiration from Japan, where 10 establishments now bear his name.

Foie gras paired with wasabi, Japanese-style open kitchens and a fierce work ethic: Joel Robuchon, hailed as “chef of the century” on his death this week, drew great inspiration from Japan, where 10 establishments now bear his name.

The world’s most-starred Michelin chef developed an immediate love for sushi, sake and Japan itself after arriving for the first time in 1976, his luggage bulging with “forbidden or unknown produce like shallots, tarragon and chives,” he once recalled.


In this file photo taken on November 13, 2012 French Chef Joel Robuchon (L) and Japanese chef Hirohisa Koyama toast in the restaurant L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon in Paris. 

Yosuke Suga, who worked with Robuchon for 17 years, said he would often talk fondly of Japan.

“He arrived at Narita airport and saw how (the handrails) of the escalator were cleaned meticulously. And he said to himself, ‘Japan is somewhere I can work’,” said Suga, now 41.

Kenichiro Sekiya, head chef at Robuchon’s “L’Atelier” in Tokyo, says the Frenchman quickly became inspired by Japanese ingredients.

“He used wasabi, soy sauce, yuzu citrus and shichimi (a blend of seven spices with chili) to give accents to various food,” said Sekiya, 38. “Japanese have fixed ideas for the spices so it’s hard to break them. But Robuchon did his own interpretation and used them in his own way, which Japanese wouldn’t normally do.”

One of Robuchon’s most famous innovations — the concept of the “Atelier” (or “workshop”), where customers dine close to the chefs, perched on high stools at a bar counter — was also inspired by Japan.

“He wanted a connection with customers over a counter. Sushi chefs in Japan make sushi in front of customers and communicate with them,” said Kazutoshi Narita, a chef who worked for 10 years at Robuchon restaurants in Tokyo, New York and Taipei.


The restaurant "L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon" in Tokyo

In 2003, Robuchon opened his first Atelier restaurant in the central Tokyo district of Roppongi and his photo still overlooks the chefs there, dressed all in black as they prepare meals in full sight of the diners.

He would fly to Tokyo at least three times a year to oversee his restaurant empire and would rarely miss an opportunity to enjoy his beloved sushi at Sukiyabashi Jiro, where US President Barack Obama dined with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

“Apparently sushi was just sliced fish placed on rice to him at first,” Sekiya said. “I heard he became fascinated after learning sushi was actually something more delicate.”

Robuchon also fell in love with sake, a fermented drink made of rice, and recently opened a shop to promote the drink in Paris. Like most chefs, Robuchon was known to drive his staff hard and the famous Japanese work ethic appealed to him.

“He was very demanding in terms of quality but we liked that a lot. We respected that and were happy to work with him. We’re maybe a bit masochistic,” joked Suga.

After his death from pancreatic cancer in Geneva on Monday, Narita went to Robuchon’s three-starred chateau in Ebisu to honour his memory — with champagne and cheese.

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