Everything Joël Robuchon Taught Me About Life & Food

August 15, 2018
Photo by Bobbi Lin

I always say that from Julia Child I learned more about married love than I did about food. From Joël, I learned more about life than about food.

Here are a few of his words of wisdom:

We were cooking something rather complicated, and I was to put the mixture through a tamis five times. Rather impatiently, I asked, “Does it really matter that we do it five times?” He replied, “There is no little thing that makes a difference. It’s all the little things put together that make a big difference.”

I once asked Joël what it felt like to be Number One, the best. He replied, “I do my best every day. No one else around me does his best every day. So I become the best.”

My favorite, of course, is: “As cooks, our job is not to make a carrot taste like a mushroom, but to make a mushroom taste as much like a mushroom as it can.”

Taken in the Roman ruins of Vaison-la-Romaine for my 40th birthday celebration in 1986. In the photo: Martha Shulman, Julia Child, Maggie Shapiro, Joël, and his wife Janine. (I was at home cooking!) Photo by Al Shapiro (Paul Child off to the side, taking a photo as well)

How we got together in the first place: At that early period of Jamin in the early 1980s, I had the luxury of time. As restaurant critic for the International Herald Tribune, I would visit a restaurant three times. Once on a weeknight with my husband. Once at lunch with several female friends. Once with a couple on a Friday night or weekend. Then, if I decided I would write about the restaurant, I’d introduce myself on the last visit and ask if I could spend a day in the kitchen. That’s what I did with Jamin—and Robuchon and I hit it off immediately. Soon I was walking the 20 minutes from our apartment to Jamin to spend the day in the kitchen and begin working on Simply French.

There is no little thing that makes a difference. It’s all the little things put together that make a big difference.
Joël Robuchon

He was tough, even brutal in the kitchen, but once his temper was cooled, he would hug the guys. I remember him screaming, “Eric, you’ll never touch my lamb again!” because the lamb had not been trimmed to his desires. Another time he threw a bowl of mashed potatoes at a chef. When the chef asked what was wrong, Joël just responded, “You figure it out.” The chefs took it all as an average day at work.

He attracted the greatest loyalty I have ever seen. Many of the chefs that were working with him in the 1980s are still with him now.

When we were shooting the cover of Simply French, he put the chicken in the bread oven, feet still attached. Walter took me aside and said, “This will never fly in New York.” Then I suggested to Joël that we roast and photograph the chicken two ways, one with the feet, one without. He screamed, “I won’t cut off the feet. That’s a professional fault.” Needless to say, we shot it both ways.

As I cook every day, I can hear him standing over my shoulder, suggesting to season at the beginning, season at the end—not all at once. To place a roast chicken at an angle against the edge of an overturned plate, with its head down and tail in the air, to heighten the flavor by allowing the juices to flow down through the breast meat.

The recipes I make the most often from his repertoire are, of course, his method for roasting a chicken, his deep-fried langoustines with basil (or truffles if it’s the season), and his daurade ceviche, still served at L’Atelier today.

How has Joël Robuchon inspired you? We'd love to hear your memories and stories in the comments below.


Eric K. August 15, 2018
This means so much to me: “As cooks, our job is not to make a carrot taste like a mushroom, but to make a mushroom taste as much like a mushroom as it can.” The pomp and circumstance of show-off cookery tastes so much worse than simple home food, like perfect scrambled eggs or a barely-dressed green salad with lettuce that tastes like, well, lettuce.
David K. August 13, 2018
I just worked through the 'Simply French' book and found it a bit dated and laden with many complex and fat rich recipes. But several inspirational pearls there too. Thank you Chef Joel for raising the bar so high.
Francois D. August 13, 2018
I was an executive chef working at a Relais and Chateau property in NY in 1996 and had some vacation time. I ended up flying to Paris and doing an intensive stage for Robuchon on 59 Raymond Poincare, and it was a transformative moment. I came back to my NY job forever changed and inspired by it. It wasn't so much his cooking style that inspired me as it was his approach. He cooked cuisine actuelle, whereby food was to taste like it was rather than hidden. It was a cuisine based on simple, humble ingredients like cauliflower or ratte potatoes, yes those potatoes, and the easiest and most incredible chocolate tart. The beauty of which can be found in Patricia Well's book Simply French. RIP Joel, thanks for inspiring my career as a chef and as a budding food writer.
Eric K. August 15, 2018
Thank you so much for sharing, Francois.
SandraH August 12, 2018
Just something simple, but his method of making mashed potatoes using whipping cream instead of milk (and of course butter and kosher salt with a few flakes of sea salt at the end) changed the way I make it. So lucious. And why not use whipping cream if you’re going to make delicious mashed potatoes that everyone will love! Julia Child said to be fearless in the kitchen!
SandraH August 12, 2018
P.S. Thank you for the wonderful article and insight into Joël Robuchon. A great chef.
cv August 12, 2018
His original recipe used milk, *NOT* whipping cream (per "Ma cuisine pour vous", 1986 during his Jamin years).<br /><br />Here's the 1986 recipe translated by me from that cookbook:<br /><br />1 kg potatoes, BF 15 (a French cultivar)<br />250 g butter (up to 500 g butter per the footnote)<br />2 dl milk<br />Salt<br /><br />Prep<br />1. Peel the potatoes which should be of the same size.<br /><br />Cooking and finishing<br />1. Put the whole peeled potatoes in a saucepan and cover with cold water 2 cm above the level of the potatoes. Salt to the amount of 10 g per liter of water. Bring to a very low boil and cook uncovered until the potatoes can be easily pierced with a knife blade.<br />2. Drain rapidly and pass through a food mill with a fine grill. Put back in a saucepan.<br />3. Dehydrate the purée lightly over the stove while stirring, then add 250 g of cold butter in pieces, stirring energetically with a wood spoon. It is very important to work energetically to build elasticity.<br />4. Finish by adding 2 dl of hot milk little by little while stirring. Check seasoning.<br /><br />My notes: The highly prized BF 15 potato is not commonly found here in the USA. The best substitute from a commonly found commercially available American potato are probably Yukon Golds not fingerlings like some chefs have suggested. I have occasionally spotted Belle de Fontenay potatoes at my local farmers market. As one of the two parents of BF 15 potatoes, this would be a more appropriate substitute than Yukon Golds.<br /><br />Note that Robuchon had the advantage of using French dairy products (milk and butter) which blow doors on what is here in America.<br /><br />If he added salt at the end, it was probably sel gris de Guérande (a salt he specifically calls out as superior elsewhere in the cookbook).<br /><br />His notes: He also recommends salting the cooking water well so salt does not have to be added at the end. He states that the purée should be served immediately and cannot be reheated.<br /><br />Anyhow, that's his original "purée de pommes de terre" from Jamin.
cv August 12, 2018
To point out, the standout difference of Robuchon's mashed potatoes wasn't the milk. It was the amount of butter he used. If you add 500 g of butter to 1 kg of potatoes, that results in a purée that is nearly 1/3 butter, an astronomical proportion.<br /><br />That is the genius of his rendition, not the milk/cream/etc.
Erika H. August 12, 2018
beautiful, cv. thank you
Francois D. August 13, 2018
BF 15 or ratte potatoes. The other part is cooking the potatoes unpeeled in water with salt, garlic and herbs then peeling and pressing through a tamis. I helped make those as often as I could and remember burning my fingers as I tried to keep up with the young commis in the kitchen.
M S. August 13, 2018
With regard to the importance of butter not milk comment: Maybe! Have discovered really fine milk and it has a major impact on the dishes it is used in. Whole different thing than supermarket milk. As said throughout this articles and responses, every detail counts. Can't imagine the quality of both the butter and milk Chef R had available to him.
Eric K. August 15, 2018
Well said, Stuart.
M S. August 16, 2018
Thanks Eric. Actually reeling at the moment from discovering Richard Olney's bechamel in "Simple French Food." Three tablespoons of butter and flour each and a quart of milk cooked slowly down. Have access to a fine milk. Could be something.