It wasn’t the Michelin stars or the fact that his white-tablecloth establishment in Paris was once considered the best restaurant in the world. No, what New York City restaurateur Danny Meyer most vividly recalls about Joël Robuchon, who died Monday at age 73, was the French master chef’s foray into the world of casual dining.
Opened in the early 2000s in both Paris and Tokyo, L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon was a breakthrough in French gastronomy — an affordable (at least in terms of Michelin Guide standards) experience in which your meal was served at the counter in full view of the kitchen. Inspired by Japanese and Spanish tapas restaurants, Atelier (French for “workshop” or “studio”) gave chefs and restaurateurs around the world the freedom to rethink the standards of haute cuisine, including Meyer, the man who helped create such celebrated Manhattan restaurants as Gramercy Tavern, Eleven Madison Park and the Modern inside the Museum of Modern Art.
“He understood that what you get on a plate matters more to people than how luxurious the accommodations were,” Meyer said in a telephone interview Monday morning.
Meyer said that Atelier made such an impression on him that he incorporated its influences into the Bar Room, the refined-but-casual concept he opened at MoMA in 2005, less than two years after Robuchon debuted his own bar-style restaurant in France and Japan. Like Atelier, the Bar Room at MoMA doesn’t require a reservation, or a small bank loan, to dine there.
“It took a lot of courage to break tradition from what was expected in France,” Meyer said.
Perhaps not widely known, Robuchon created Atelier after he had retired from the kitchen, around his 50th birthday, to focus on a television project that would pass along his vast knowledge of French cuisine. But the bricklayer’s son found that he could not rest on his laurels, which included Jamin, located in Paris’s 16th arrondissement. Robuchon earned his third Michelin star in 1984 after Jamin had been open only three years, often cited as the quickest any chef ever netted three of those coveted stars. Robuchon later moved Jamin and renamed the place after himself. In 1994, Patricia Wells, then restaurant critic with the International Herald Tribune, called it the best restaurant in the world.
But in 1996, Robuchon shocked the culinary establishment by shutting down his three-star restaurant. He was exhausted. “The first time I saw snow was when I was 50,” the chef told the Telegraph in 2013, “because I’d never had the time before.”
In the same interview, Robuchon talked about his reemergence in the restaurant industry with Atelier. In all his travels, Robuchon had watched as diners gravitated toward more casual dining, a trend that had apparently escaped the notice of Michelin inspectors. Michelin was “just out of touch,” he told the Telegraph. “Everything needed to be more relaxed, to match the spirit of the time.”
“He showed people like me that you can have a high-end restaurant and also cook for the masses!” texted José Andrés, the Washington chef, restaurateur, disaster relief worker and humanitarian.
Like so many chefs and diners, Andrés loved Robuchon’s puree de pommes de terre, or his dish of pureed potatoes, which the Frenchman debuted in the early 1980s at Jamin. The butter-heavy preparation would become Robuchon’s signature dish, one demanded at his many restaurants around the world. Robuchon, Andrés noted, made a “dish of the dirt into something sublime, as only he could do.”
“He brought cuisine into the modern world,” texted Edward Lee, the author and chef who operates restaurants in Louisville and the District. “Whether we know it or not, all of fine dining is influenced by him. We are all cooking some variation of Joël Robuchon’s cuisine.”
Andrés remembered Robuchon as a celebrity chef who was not caught up in his own fame and influence. Years ago at an event in Beverly Hills, Calif., Andrés recalled that Robuchon was struggling to plate a dish of his pommes de terre. Andrés’s 11-year-old daughter, Inés, grabbed the legendary chef’s jacket and said, “Don’t worry, chef. All will be good. I will help you!”
“He gave her a kiss and told her, ‘You will help me alone!’ ” Andrés recalled. “I never saw a person more caring! My daughter loves food and cooking, and I know that this moment I’m describing had an impact on her that still endures in her DNA!”