10 Years In: Joël Robuchon on Las Vegas and His Groundbreaking New Culinary School
On the 10th Anniversary of his Las Vegas restaurants, Joël Robuchon ponders changing tastes and building a legacy.
When Gamal Aziz (then the president of MGM Hospitality) approached Joël Robuchon about opening his first U.S. restaurant in Las Vegas, the lauded chef had his initial doubts.
"I thought it would be difficult to do in certain culinary aspects because it's in the middle of the desert," he remembers with a smile. "You see, for us in France, we automatically think of books we read as children, with cowboys and Indians, where you see a cowboy lost in the middle of the desert!"
But once he tried the produce he could access from California— and the quality of American wheat— he was all in. Ten years after opening, his avant-garde L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon and the three-Michelin-starred Joël Robuchon both remain top destinations among the city's fine-dining spots.
"As of today, I'm extremely happy that I'm still in Las Vegas," says Robuchon, who still holds the title of "most starred chef," with a total of 25 stars awarded by the Michelin Guide. This year and next, he is expanding to open eponymous restaurants in Miami and New York, as well as Shanghai, Montreal and Geneva. Also in the pipeline is the Institut International Joël Robuchon, a massive culinary school he's opening in a historic monastery in Montmorillon, France in 2017.
Below, this master of culinary ingenuity looks back on his past decade in the United States and shares his plans to enrich future generations through continued education.
How would you describe your style of cooking?
First and foremost, whenever you take a life— whether it's fish or meat or anything of the sort— you have to respect the fact that you have just taken a life. So, as a general rule, I never mask the flavor of the life that I've taken. I very rarely do anything more than three main flavors on any dish. And what's important in cooking, to me, is the taste. And I think that's the true job of a chef, to create this flavor profile, these flavors of each of the dishes, and I think that that takes a lot of technique and a lot of knowledge to do correctly.
How do you balance flavor with aesthetics?
To me, the first thing is definitely the flavor profile— the taste. Second place is the visual aspect of the dish, because we see it first with our eyes and we taste it first with our eyes. And if it's a beautiful dish, a visually astounding dish, they will be more receptive to liking it. A successful dinner is reuniting all of the senses, and sight being the first that we utilize.
What has surprised you the most about Las Vegas since opening two restaurants here?
There is something extremely unique in Las Vegas, which is that we have the ability to meet a very varying clientele— a wide range. We have both the local clientele but we also have Americans who come from different cities and regions, a lot of Canadians as well, and we have an enormous Asian clientele and certainly an international base, more generally. So for us, it's actually quite instructive to be able to listen to all these different cultures. And with this large variety of clientele, it's really made me realize that, when the food is good, everybody likes it.
How have you watched the culinary landscape of the city change over the past 10 years?
It seems like, as soon as anywhere in the world there's a new concept, we find it replicated in Las Vegas very quickly. There's always a new concept opening and competition between these different casinos. However, as of today, what we're seeing is more of restaurants who are there to serve a mass clientele— looking at a very large square footage, doing a large number of covers on a nightly basis. I mean, it's true that there are certainly a lot of people who pass through Las Vegas and they need to be fed, but that's where I'm extremely proud and very happy to have two very small restaurants which resist any temptation to grow outwardly and decrease the quality that we have.
What are the most notable changes you've seen in the culinary world as a whole?
First and foremost, we can see that gastronomy itself has very much evolved from a cultural perspective. And perhaps a lot of people don't recognize it, but there has been an enormous amount of revolution with regard to the health aspect of food— a lot less cream, a lot less sugar, especially in pastry kitchens.
Once upon a time, as a general rule, we'd cook to mask a product. And we'd surround this product, which isn't necessarily the best quality, with these spices or these sauces. And, as a general rule today, all around the world, we're seeing that the product has increased in quality and it is much better quality than it was in other days. So we have seen an evolution in that respect as well.
Lastly, I would say that the taste of customers has definitely changed, with the fact that we're now an international clientele. We have people who travel all around the world and therefore taste food from all around the world. People who didn't eat anything with spices before are now very interested in the different spices. And it's not just the flavor— it's in the texture too. Before we didn't attach any importance to the thought of texture, but now it's something that's very important when you are putting a dish together. So there's definitely an enormous revolution in that respect.
And I think, as of today, with social media being what it is and with the growth of the web, clients are much better informed than they would've been in other days. A long time ago, all you need is just one local newspaper to say that one restaurant is good for it to be full. Now you need fifteen newspapers and you also need social media to be supportive of that restaurant for it to be successful. So there's a considerable change in that respect.
Do you predict that things will continue to evolve in this way?
I think it will always evolve. I think customers these days are making a lot better judgments and tomorrow they'll continue to make better personal judgments, with regards to food, than yesterday. As of today, these consumers need to be guided in order to discover the restaurant. But, once they've discovered it, they will be able to make that decision for themselves. And that was not the case before. Years ago, we could say "this is a good restaurant" and people would think that it was a good restaurant even though it wasn't good. Whereas today, they go to a restaurant and, if they don't like it, they themselves will say that they don't like it. And I think this will continue to evolve, with social media being as strong as it is today.
And there are certainly dangers attributed to it as well. Because even when a restaurant is well-established, it can still quickly be broken down. And there can certainly be some jealousies and rivalries. If you see a chef who is very well-spoken on television or becomes very recognized by social media, then this chef can rise to the top of the culinary game, even though this person might not have the technique or the mastery or the skill, which they need to know. But that just speaks to the fact that, four or five years from now, we won't be speaking about them anymore. A true test of a good chef is their ability to adapt and to stay long-term and continue to be at the top of their game.
What is next on the horizon for you?
There is one project which is very near and dear to my heart, in the region where I was born, which is in the center of France. It's where I went to seminary until the age of 15, next to an ancient monastery. I'm going to be taking that over and we're going to be creating a school where we'll be able to teach 1,500 students a year. And my goal is not just to create a school where there's just education. It's more the ability to transmit what I've learned to this new school and it's a dream I've had for a long time. As of a certain age, it becomes our role and our responsibility to transmit this knowledge we've amassed. And this should be opening, if everything goes as planned, in 2017. It's going to be 10 acres. It's going to be enormous, so we're very excited about that. There's always something on the horizon— always ambitious projects which drive us forward. It's fun, it's enjoyable, it gives me a lot of satisfaction. But for me, the biggest satisfaction is to see young people that have worked with me in the past be successful in their own right; It's very important.