The arts of every epoch can each claim a master who transforms all that has gone before. For the cuisine of our century, that master is the French chef Joël Robuchon. With a single-minded passion for perfection, he has taught the world about both the purity and the marriage of flavors, the harmony of ingredients, the subtleties of creating a menu and the dignity of every ingredient no matter how grand or how commonplace.
Having started out at a small restaurant in the town of Poitiers, in central France, Robuchon had reached the top of his profession by 1984, when he was 38 and his first Paris restaurant, Jamin, won the coveted Michelin three-star rating. If food were fashion, then Robuchon would be Coco Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent and Christian Dior rolled into one, and in the Eighties, he changed the way we think about what we put on our plate. He lured us with the most mundane ingredients, elevating the potato to new heights at a time when grand Paris restaurants seldom served the lowly tuber, bringing newfound honor to crusty sourdough bread when it was unusual for restaurants to bake their own, sending our senses into overload with masterly green salads accented with sage, dill, chervil, tarragon, basil and mint. His sublime and simple pure chocolate tart is still copied throughout the world.
I first met Robuchon in the winter of 1981, shortly after he opened Jamin. His style was already shockingly modern--food with lots of dots and rounds and little vegetables infinitesimally cubed--and his flavors were as pure as a clear blue sky. Over the next dozen years, that style evolved dramatically, growing to include French comfort foods--long-braised leg of lamb from his Poitiers childhood, slow-roasted goat showered with fresh spring garlic and parsley, a simple roasted pigeon served with shoestring potatoes.
There was mourning on July 5, 1996, when Robuchon, at the age of 51, closed his second Paris restaurant, a landmark that bore his name. (He's now a partner in the Château Restaurant Taillevent Robuchon in Tokyo and has a cooking show on French TV.) But there was hope amid the sorrow, for he was shutting down a kitchen filled with protégés. The talented young chefs with whom he had surrounded himself had generally stayed with him for years rather than the usual few months. Several had already gone off on their own: Eric Ripert to New York's Le Bernardin, Maurice Guillouët to the Château Restaurant Taillevent Robuchon, Dominique Bouchet to Les Ambassadeurs at the Hôtel de Crillon in Paris. With Robuchon's retirement, three others began coming into their own, each developing a highly personal style that nevertheless pays homage to the master.
THE MASTER OF BALANCE
After many a late dinner at Robuchon's between 1989 and 1996, I would wander into the kitchen at midnight and find Frédéric Anton in charge, often with a worn copy of Le Répertoire de la Cuisine, the French chef's bible, in his hands. I knew that he was planning for the future, but I had no way of knowing how brilliant that future would be.
Anton was responsible for ordering, and then accepting or rejecting, every fish, every leg of lamb, every potato that came into Robuchon's kitchen. That experience stood him in good stead when, in 1997, he took over the kitchens of Le Pré Catelan in the Bois de Boulogne, at Paris's western edge, where he has been able to illustrate with remarkable bravado everything he learned in the school of the master. Anton's food is distinctly Parisian and distinctly modern--that is, it consists of a repertoire of classical Parisian dishes updated with modern cooking methods and the increased inventory of ingredients available to the late-20th-century chef.
Consider, for example, the rotisserie-roasted guinea hen that he used to serve with gratinéed pumpkin cannelloni: traditional grilled poultry was paired with a decidedly non-classic pasta. Or his rabbit with mushrooms and black radishes, with brochettes of fresh rosemary and giblets: a classic fricassee that was paired with some not-all-that-common seasonal vegetables and a plenitude of fresh herbs. In his menus, a single seasonal ingredient sets the stage and is then showcased to its best advantage. He braises pork to a melting tenderness with giant branches of mountain thyme and gives risotto a French-style creaminess, embellishing it with both crispy grilled pancetta and soothing wild mushrooms.
Acidity and balance of flavors have become his trademarks. He seasons crushed potatoes with red wine vinegar, deglazes a hazelnut butter with a touch of lemon juice, flavors sea scallops with a bouillon scented with orange and star anise. To create a new menu, he makes a list of all the main ingredients in season and another of the spices, herbs and other accompaniments that might go with each one, and then expands from there. "I don't want to be known as a theme chef who specializes in herbs, or spices, or fish," he says. "I just want to use perfect ingredients and treat them simply. I am a cook, and that's all I am."
THE TECHNICAL WIZARD
For 15 years, from 1982 to 1996, Benoît Guichard worked under Robuchon's tutelage, and since I worked closely with Robuchon myself from 1982 on, I spent a great deal of time with Guichard. "Every day," he says, "I learned something new in the Robuchon kitchen." During the final days of Robuchon's restaurant career, Guichard was very much the faithful sergeant, delivering the master's orders to the kitchen staff and acting as disciplinarian, troubleshooter and officer of the copper casserole.
Guichard has much in common with Robuchon. He is fatherly to his staff but also quick to anger, especially when someone doesn't measure up. He is uncompromising when it comes to the quality of his ingredients, and he lets his suppliers know it. Apart from Robuchon, he is the most technically talented chef I have ever observed; I was often entranced by his deftness as I watched him perfectly sauté mushrooms, or season a rack of lamb, or lend the power of his palate to Robuchon's famous potato puree. And he has an obvious love of every food he works with. When he picks up a duck, a langoustine, a potato, he almost seems to fondle it as he figures out how he is going to bring out its best qualities.
In 1996, when he bravely reopened Jamin (which had been closed for nearly three years), he followed the 18th-century pastry chef Marie-Antoine Carême's maxim: "In the kitchen there are not many principles, only one. And that is to satisfy the client." I know that when people come in and ask him to prepare dishes that aren't on the menu, he makes them with pleasure. I think he would even roast lamb well-done if he were asked.
Guichard shares Robuchon's modesty and his sense of honor, and his cuisine follows suit. There is little fanfare. He serves up dishes that remind him of his childhood at his grandmother's knee in Mayenne, Normandy, such as beef braised for hours in a black cast-iron casserole, then paired with a deliciously moist macaroni gratin simmered in milk, as well as a sprightly rendition of cooked carrots deglazed with orange juice and infused with cumin. His cochon de lait, or suckling pig, is almost a love poem to the pig: an irresistibly rich and fortifying combination of braised, then roasted morsels, including cheeks and tail, highly seasoned with marjoram. And his tarte tatin, the classic upside-down apple tart, is one of the great versions of the dish.
THE INSPIRED INTERPRETER
My most vivid--and most compromising--memory of Eric Lecerf goes back to 1985 and Robuchon's kitchen at Jamin. Lecerf was in charge of the butchering, trimming and preparation of all the meat and poultry. One of the most renowned dishes on the restaurant's menu was a roasted rack of baby lamb, which had to be trimmed to within a millimeter of perfection. One evening it wasn't. As the cooked lamb passed the chef's eyes for inspection, Robuchon began bellowing: "Who did this to me! Who did this to me! Not you, Eric! Not you! You'll never touch my lamb again!"
You can be sure Lecerf learned his lesson. He was meticulous already; that moment marked the start of a search for perfection that took on a Robuchon-like religiosity.
Lecerf served as Robuchon's sous-chef during the glory years of Jamin, from 1982 to 1989. After that he did a one-year stint in St. Martin, in the West Indies, and then, from 1992 to 1996, he worked in the kitchen at Le Chapon Fin, in the small southern city of Perpignan, where he was awarded a Michelin star. In 1996, Robuchon took over the directorship of the newly created Restaurant de l'Astor in the Paris Hôtel Astor on the Right Bank, and he lured his former protégé back to Paris to serve as his executive chef.
Among the younger acolytes, Lecerf is perhaps the one most tied to the Robuchon style. "Does Robuchon dine at the restaurant?" he asks rhetorically. "No, but he is there, always, everywhere." Yet even as the master's most devoted interpreter, he brings his own unique voice to the Astor's kitchen.
Many dishes that were on the menu during the last days of Robuchon's restaurant remain, including steamed potatoes paired with oven-roasted tomatoes, fresh black truffles and shavings of Parmesan; a tiny (two-pound!) milk-fed leg of lamb braised and then roasted to a falling-apart moistness; and a massive veal shank that is browned and then braised for several hours in a stock deeply perfumed with garlic and bouquets of fresh thyme. Lecerf's own creations include his beautifully paired abalone and sea scallops, which he presents with a salad of fresh mixed herbs and wild cèpes; a sublime sole that he serves with braised baby artichokes; a dish of the smallest of squid; and the seldom seen Provençal sea cucumbers known as espardeignes.