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Joël Robuchon's Japanese Inspiration

How Japan influenced the greatest chef of the twentieth century

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Hena Shah

In mourning for the loss of another iconic chef following Antonio Bourdain's passing, we'd like to dedicate this post to Joël Robuchon, dubbed the "Greatest Chef of the Twentieth Century" and winner of more Michelin Stars than any other chef in history. A man who revolutionized the concept of fine dining in the West. We thought in tribute it was fitting to discuss one of his most important influences: the Far East.

Robuchon and Washoku

Washoku - meaning traditional Japanese food, is a term that probably doesn't cross many people's minds when they enter a Joël Robuchon restaurant. Little do they know the major role Japanese cuisine played in shaping Robuchon's attitude to restaurants and food. Robuchon first traveled to Japan at the age of twenty six and continued to return throughout his life. He was immediately taken by the country, its food culture and life. With the intention to mentor fellow pastry chefs in Japan, Robuchon instead found himself taking the position of student, which lead him down the path of creating the style of cooking he is most renowned for today.

Fascinated by how simple but flavorful Japanese dishes are, he began studying and familiarizing himself with Japanese cuisine. It is reported that the meal that was the most influential in defining Robuchon's future cooking was his visit to Sukiyabashi Jiro, one of Japan's most prestigious sushi restaurants. The restaurant is structured so that guests sit at a counter and watch the chefs meticulously prepare each dish from scratch. Observing how this allowed guests and chef to communicate with one another openly, Robuchon realized how this approach could be used to buck the trend for overly formal gastronomy back in France. The experience lead him to create his most innovative series of restaurants: L'ATELIER de Joël Robuchon. Instead of hiding chefs at the back of the restaurant and serving food underneath chandeliers and on pristine tablecloths, Robuchon used the counter setup he had found in Japan to bring guest and chef together. With atelier literally translating as workshop, chefs took center stage and prepared food directly in view of the guest and communicating with them as they go.

Robuchon brought elements of Japan not just into the restaurant but into the food itself. Deeply inspired by Japanese flavors, his menus regularly represented a blend of French and Japanese cuisine: foie-gras paired with wasabi, urchin imported from Hokkaido alongside Japanese eel caramelized in soy sauce. Japan also taught Robuchon much about the fundamental principles of cooking. Japanese cuisine works seasonally and often with very few ingredients. When he first visited Japan, sushi to Robuchon was nothing more than fish on rice. However, he soon learned all the specific intricacies that went into preparing a dish with just two ingredients.

In comparison to the complex, over the top richness of traditional French fine dining, Japanese food represented to Robuchon the perfect unity of simplicity and technique. That deceptive simplicity inspired Robuchon heavily, whose own dishes rarely featured more than three or four ingredients. His world-famous mashed potatoes for example only contain four basic ingredients yet the end result is a perfect representation of Robuchon's commitment to taste and technique. Japanese chefs train for very many years and work to a very demanding standard. This was a work ethic Robuchon admired and why he often returned to Japan to source his chefs.

Today there are six Joël Robuchon establishments in Tokyo, each serving a different take on French and Japanese flavors. The opalescent Michelin 3-star Château Restaurant Joël Robuchon opened in 1994, a French château in the heart of Yebisu Garden Place which has become synonymous with haute cuisine among Japanese tastemakers. However, perhaps the Michelin 2-star L'ATELIER de Joël Robuchon in Roppongi Hills, established 2003, best embodies the lessons Robuchon learned in his travels in Japan. Guests and chef communicate openly in a casual atmosphere where there is no pretension, only a focus on delicious flavors and food. As Robuchon once declared, "We can look toward Japan for the future of food." From one of the most decorated chefs in history that's the finest praise there is.

Joël Robuchon's childhood
Joël Robuchon's visit to Japan
Ageing with achievements
Joël Robuchon's retirement period
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