As the world mourns the recent loss of famed French chef Joël Robuchon, many wonder how he came to be the “Chef of the Century.” Already an acclaimed chef by age 30, Robuchon collected the most Michelin stars of any chef, ever, and had in the past 15 years started a revolutionary movement with his return to haute cuisine. Let’s take a look back on how Joël Robuchon became a top fine-dining chef.
Joël started his culinary early on but it wasn’t exactly his goal. He entered the seminary in the village of Mauléon, Deux-Sèvres at the mere age of 12. He was intending to study to be a Roman-Catholic priest. The seminary put him to work in the kitchen and the rest is history. By fifteen, Joël was an apprentice pastry chef at the Relais du Poitiers in his hometown. The restaurant promoted him to a full chef and by 21 he joined the apprenticeship “Compagnon du Tour de France”, enabling him to travel throughout the country, learning a variety of regional techniques that would later influence his style.
At the young age of 29, Robuchon had already earned a head chef position at the Hotel Concorde La Fayette in Paris. There he was in charge of 90 chefs that served over a thousand dishes a day. By thirty-one, he was awarded the coveted Meilleur Ouvrier de France for his craftsmanship in culinary arts, setting his future path in place.
On His Own
In 1981, at 36 years old, Robuchon opened his first restaurant, Jamin in the Rue de Longchamp, in Paris. It was an immediate success and consequently earned him 3 Michelin stars within the first three years. With Jamin he began to build an international reputation. In 1989, France’s culinary mavens Gsault and Millau named Joël “chef of the century.” To describe Joël Robuchon as a cook is a bit like calling Pablo Picasso a painter, Luciano Pavarotti a singer, Frederic Chopin a pianist” – food writer Patricia Wells
Perfection was king for Robuchon at Jamin. He ran his kitchen with the zeal of a boot camp sergeant. You can see his influence today in his former protege Gordan Ramsay. Robuchon dishes were technically brilliant and beautifully presented. In contrast, his restaurant had a relaxed atmosphere not common to haute cuisine.
“There’s always something that could be done better.” -Joël Robuchon
In 1994, he opened the self-named Restaurant Joël Robuchon in Paris. Critics immediately hailed it as the best restaurant in the world. The acclaim would be short-lived, however. Just one year later, he shuttered the doors and shocked the world when he announced his retirement. He had seen too many peers burn out and suffer from medical issues due to the intense nature of the work. Robuchon was determined to have a different fate.
Joël’s retirement was predictably short as the renowned chef was soon back in the spotlight in 2003, this time with his L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in Paris. The refined bistro concept proved an instant hit. Over the coming years, Robuchon went on to open 26 different ateliers, tea salons and bars under his name in over ten different countries. These restaurants hold an astonishing collective 31 Michelin stars, the most of any single chef in the world.
The world lost Joël Robuchon August 6, 2018, after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. His legacy will live on in his restaurants, his books, and his lasting influence on the world of fine dining. For more stories of the culinary world, also explore these 6 Must-Read Chef’s Memoirs to Inspire.