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.”
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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.”
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.
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.