Joël Robuchon interview: Tips for spotting a great restaurant
Read highlights of a never-before-published conversation with Joël Robuchon, the world-renowned chef who has died aged 73, and Bordeaux châteaux owner Bernard Magrez from their time as business partners.
A few years ago, I interviewed Bernard Magrez and Joël Robuchon in Bordeaux when they were running the restaurant at La Grande Maison together.
As the partnership ended, the interview was never run. But I found myself looking for it again this week after learning of Robuchon’s death, aged 73, reportedly from pancreatic cancer.
The partnership between Robuchon, a chef with an unparalleled 32 Michelin stars to his name, and Magrez, owner of four cru classé properties in Bordeaux and more than 50 wine estates worldwide, was always going to be worth following.
It ended in 2016, as some of you may know, but one of my favourite food memories remains a meal that I had at La Grande Maison just after it opened in December 2014; one of those meals when you don’t mind what it is costing you, because the quality is just so exceptional, and the service so unforced and effortless that you feel happy to be part of it.
It was no surprise that less than a year after opening, the restaurant received two Michelin stars, and it has retained those today under chef Pierre Gagnaire.
In honour of Robuchon, here are some highlights from my interview with both him and Magrez on choosing a good restaurant, their perfect meal and gastronomy in general.
Magrez paid tribute to Robuchon when I contacted him this week. ‘It was a pleasure to work with him, such a talented man,’ he said.
What are the details that you look for in a great restaurant?
Joël Robuchon: The welcome is key. I am always looking at the small details, such as whether the table been dressed carefully.
If there are wrinkles in the tablecloth, you know that others things behind the scenes will have seen similar shortcuts. I like a restaurant to smell good, not just for the promise of great cooking, but rather to be assured that nothing is interfering with the scent of the food itself.
Service has to be kind and effortless, not academic, I want it to feel spontaneous and from the heart. And above all I want to feel that the chef loves what he does. Cooking is an act of love, and that love must be transferred to the guests.
What is your favourite dish to order in a restaurant?
JR: A good steak-frites. That is one of the key dishes that you can order in a restaurant anywhere – and is often where a chef can show off his skills through the simplest of dishes by choosing the best cut, preparing it to perfection.
Bernard Magrez: When I see it on the menu, I always order the white asparagus of Les Landes region in southwest France. When these asparagus are good they are marvellous, especially served with a simple vinaigrette sauce.
How has your philosophy on food evolved?
JR: I still believe that the quality of the cooking is paramount, but when I was young I wanted it to be sophisticated. I was always looking to be blown away. Today it’s the opposite. I know how difficult it is to be simple and still remain exceptional. It’s the hardest combination to achieve, and today I regard it as the greatest success, because it is all about the pleasure of the client.
As I get older I return to the truth of flavours. I hate not being able to identify what I eat. As a chef, I ask myself if we have the right to take the life of a fish or an animal if we are then going to transform it beyond all recognition. We must show respect for the food we eat and the clients we are preparing it for.
I am also aware as I get older of a desire to pass on what I have learnt. I came up through the Compagnons de Tour de France system, where French craftsmen from stonemasons to carpenters learn their skills from the generation before them. It has given me the belief in transmission of skills from master to apprentice – and so in 2018 I will open the Institute International Joël Robuchon in an attempt to give back some of what I have been taught in my life.
[He opened this in late 2017, in the Maison-Dieu de Montmorillon]
How did your childhood affect how you relate to food today?
JR: I am the youngest of a family of four, and after the (second world) war we had very little money. My mother would buy large loaves of bread that would have to last for days at a time.
And every time that she broke off a piece of bread for us, she would make the sign of the cross over it. That gesture marked me deeply, and I have always carried it with me, especially as I first began cooking in a seminary; working with nuns to prepare food.
BM: I had almost forgotten about that in my own childhood, but this was true for my family also. Bread was sacred, and my mother also made the sign of the cross whenever she shared it with us.
It was an important part of the symbolism within the Catholic faith, but also a reminder to us to appreciate what we had.
What is your favourite apéritif?
JR: London hotels made the best cocktails in the world. Their barmen really know how to make a great cocktail, and make it convivial. When staying in London, I love the style and warmth of The Covent Garden Hotel and The Soho Hotel, both part of the same small group. And for my aperitif of choice, I love a well-chilled glass of Taylor’s port.
BM: For me it’s a Campari, I like the bitterness of it to wake up my tastebuds before a meal. Or a good gin and tonic. And it’s not just the gin that must be great, but the tonic also.
JR: The best gin and tonics right now are in Spain – they serve them in a huge glass, with a long spoon. The waiter will rub the rim of the glass with a lemon, then pour the gin over the ice, and follow that by pouring the tonic from a great height, emphasising the bubbles. It’s a wonderful spectacle. Next time you must come with me to Alicante where I know a great bar…
Why do you think Bordeaux, in particular, has had such a culinary awakening in the past few years?
BM: This has always been a region with great potential for gastronomy, but it is only recently that people are starting to see the food as equal to the quality of the wines. Bordeaux has been redefining itself over the past few years, opening itself up to the wider world. Six years ago we received maybe two million visitors per year, today that number is closer to six million.
JR: Bordeaux has become the garden of France. I am from Poitou in the Limousin region, which is very beautiful, but Bordeaux is particularly blessed geographically. The range of produce here is incredible, from tiny fresh oysters, to endless vegetables, fruits, chickens, meats, foie gras…I have always loved Bordeaux wine, but when I used to come here with my parents as a child, the city itself was soot-encrusted, hidden under layers of dirt. Today its beauty is incredible; you feel it as soon as you arrive.
Editing for Decanter.com by Chris Mercer
You may also like: