An afternoon with Joël Robuchon

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A few weeks ago, i was on a coffee break when i received a call from Bren Herrera of Flanboyant Eats“I’m doing an interview with Joël Robuchon. I need you to translate.” she said. I poured the coffee over myself. “You, you.. want me to talk to God!?” i think was my answer. Needless to say, i quickly agreed.

The two-hours interview and cooking demo was filmed at L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in New York City a few days ago and this post is a behind-the-scene sneak peek. Look for the footage on Bren’s blog (and here too) in a few weeks and possibly on NBC daytime. I’m very grateful to be part of this unique experience. Thanks Bren!

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Joël Robuchon operates eighteen restaurants in cities worldwide, in Hong Kong, Las Vegas, London, Macau, Monaco, New York City, Paris, and Tokyo, with a total of 25 Michelin stars among them - the most of any chef in the world. He’s considered by many the most influential French chef of our generation for his work post-nouvelle cuisine era which earned him the accolade in the media of Chef of the Century. A Meilleur ouvrier de France himself he has mentored distinguished chefs such as Gordon Ramsay and Eric Ripert and he still employs some of the finest chefs on the planet.

When we met, Mr Robuchon had just received the news that the much-respected Miele guide, which reviews 450 fine restaurants in 16 Asian countries, voted L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in Hong Kong the number one restaurant in Asia, while his Macau and Tokyo venues came in at number 3 and 20. Does your head spins yet?

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I admit i was a little bit nervous. I have never done live translation before but i was quickly put at ease by Mr Robuchon’s hospitality and by Bren’s infectious energy. The camera started rolling while my friend Marc of No recipes took pictures (all the photos on this post) and the relaxed conversation started in front of the bar and covered topics ranging from Cuban food to the aesthetic of Japanese food.

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Mr Robuchon invited us to the kitchen to demonstrate a quick recipe, a langoustine wrapped in brick pastry with basil, deep fried and served with a basil puree. Bren was put on the spot and asked to prepare a langoustine on her own. She did so well he jokingly offered to open a Cuban restaurant with her: “You don’t mind partnering with me as long as i bring the money, right?”. You’ll see the great chemistry these two have on the video.

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You can tell a master chef from looking at the small details. And fine cooking is a succession of masterfully executed small details. Joël Robuchon doesn’t season the same way the rest of us mere mortals would. He takes a pinch of salt and leans over closer and with complete focus sprinkles it over the surface evenly, almost like if he was conscious of where each grain of salt would fall. He repeated the same operation with hot chili. I don’t know if i’m the only one to notice but he’s intense.

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The seasoned langoustine was wrapped in brick pastry (like filo, but finer and more crepe-like in texture) with a basil leaf. “If the basil leaf is too big you should remove the central vein”, noted Mr Robuchon. He wrapped it up and secured it with a toothpick.”The toothpick should always go sideways”, he said.

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The little langoustines packets were deep fried in grapeseed oil, or any neutral oil at 180′C (that’s 350′F). “You should pay close attention to color, when it’s the lightest shade of golden brown, it’s ready”, he said.

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And ready it was, the langoustines had the perfect mother of pearl shine when cut into. Bren was put in charge to sauce the plate with the basil puree. ” I’m gonna do little dots because i know you like little dots, Mr RobuchON!” She said with her warm latin accent. To which Mr Robuchon answered with a big smile: “C’est Robuchon, pas du Reblochon!”

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Bren surprised everybody when she said she wanted Mr Robuchon to try a flan she had made a day earlier in DC and brought with her. The delicate operation of unmolding a flan had to be done in front on nothing less than the Chef of the Century, two of his trusted chefs for more than 15 years (one of them is a MOF) and the filming crew with camera rolling. Bren is fearless.

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The operation went without a glitch. As you can see the flan came out beautifully and Mr Robuchon and his crew digged into it, pushing each other for the bigger portion.

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Mr Robuchon complimented the fact that it was extremely smooth and creamy and without any air bubbles in the middle. “A sign of a very good flan!”. He was even more impressed by the fact it was cooked in a pressure-cooker. I told Bren afterward she should start a mail-order flan business. It was really that good.

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We sat at the bar and got into a long conversation with topics ranging from what he thought about being called the Chef of the Century to mentoring his chef Takeo Yamakazi at his restaurant in Monte-Carlo, whom Bren had met a few months earlier. We talked about his feelings when he closed the legendary restaurant Jamin in Paris in 1996, his semi-retirement and what inspired him to start over again.

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He gave us his opinion on fusion food and told us how much he dislike molecular gastronomy. He talked about his food purveyors and the relationship he has with them. He showed us a plate of fresh, tiny porcini mushrooms he had received that morning and talked about respecting the food we cook and eat.

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Joël Robuchon struck me as someone passionate about his craft who gained stardom status in spite of himself. He’s a discreet character who doesn’t care much for the showbiz side of the business but who attracted fame anyway simply because genius doesn’t need trumpets. Quite a refreshing encounter in a midst of a generation of chefs with tattoes and over-inflated egoes. He was modest and even spiritual at times, so much in fact that i couldn’t help think to myself: “He’s way more zen than you, dude.”

More than anything, Mr Robuchon seemed at a very good point in his life. The fabulous 3 star Michelin restaurant that made his reputation in Paris in the 80′s and 90′s also kept him prisoner of his own fame until he decided to break the chains. And he never looked back. Now he’s traveling the world, learning about different food cultures while reigning over his restaurant empire. And wherever he is, you’ll find him cooking on the line. Even after a long flight.

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Bren went for the photo-op and what a photo-op! On Bren’s right is Philippe Braun. Mr Braun is Mr Robuchon’s 23 year business partner and executive chef of the Paris restaurant. On her left is Mr Bouchenoire, a Meilleur Ouvrier de France, who’s also the executive chef of La Table de Joel Robuchon. Both are incredible chefs.

Mr Robuchon who had already been very generous with his time took a few more pictures with the crew and signed cookbooks. And we said goodbye. What an afternoon!

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Special thanks go out to Michelle and Dana who were both terrific assistants, Marc of No Recipes for pulling off great photography without proper lighting. Without him there would be no preview for you to see. And thank you Mr Cameraman for forgiving me for forgetting your name. And of course a big thank you to the Star of the show, Bren of Flanboyants Eats who made this memorable experience possible for all of us.

Et biensûr un grand merci a vous, Mr Robuchon!

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  • http://www.cococooks.blogspot.com Courtney aka glamah

    Wow! How fun you got to meet Bren and Robuchon! Marc took amazing photos. A day you will not forget.

  • Barry Frangipane

    You got to spend the entire day with Bren? Wow! Oh, and Mr Robuchon was there too. You two were very fortunate. Great photos, Marc.

  • http://rasamalaysia.com Bee

    Congrats Zen, you did it!!! Now, you are even closer to your dream. I am so happy for you.

    BTW, that langoustine wrapped in brick pastry with basil is my FAVORITE. I had it at L’Atelier in Las Vegas, so good. Where can I find langoustine???

  • http://www.clumbsycookie.blogspot.com clumbsycookie

    Oh you, you lucky you! You even look serious in some pictures, lol! What a pleasure it must have been, I’m glad you got the chance to do this!

  • http://blog.susanscooking.com Susan

    That was a great read. Thanks for sharing. What a great opportunity!

  • http://ouichef.typepad.com Oui, Chef

    Wow Zen, how incredibly exciting! Some of the most memorable meals I’ve ever had have been at Chef Robuchon’s restaurants. I can’t imagine what a thrill it must have been for you to meet him, congratulations! I love that he still works the line.

  • http://vanillakitchen.blogspot.com dawn

    wow! I’m still in shock! you were sooooo lucky. I don’t know what to say as this is all such wonderful news. you kept your cool my little french friend indeed. I would not have been so chill, noo.
    props to Marc too.
    did that woman really pull a flan out of her purse? LOL

  • http://www.restaurantzoom.com RestaurantZoom

    Wow, time with Joel. Amazing superstar talent. Everything he touches turns into a creative masterpiece. Way to go:-)

  • http://www.alittlebitofchristo.blogspot.com doggybloggy

    bravo – what an absolutely memorable experience!

  • http://cookandcraft.wordpress.com mel harjono

    great report ZenChef!

    “Whether it be a fish or a mushroom, we’re taking a life. Therefore a cook ought to treat food with utmost respect.” — Joel Robuchon. He does sound like a Zen Master! :)

    that total focus and intention, even on simple things like spreading the salt is also very Zen-like…

  • http://www.flanboyanteats.com Bren

    hahaha! someone asked if I really pulled my flan out of my purse! No, I didn’t but it came close. It was very well protected in a gift bag, so as to remain tight in the space. S, thanks for your time in helping me do one of the most important things of my career, to date! Only you and I know what this really means!!! ;) Thanks for sharing with your readers how it all went down. And, yes, readers, please do come back to my blog for a 3 part series on my meetings with Mr. Robuchon.

  • http://manggy.blogspot.com Manggy

    Ah! So now I know what he looks like! I can’t wait for the rest of the details- the food looks fab. I think you have nothing to feel inferior about, but hey that’s just my judgment!
    Def. concerned about his aversion to molecular gastronomy, though. I’m sure there he will draw criticism for it.

  • zenchef

    Courtney — Thanks! I will definitely not forget.

    Barry — You’ve gotta see the video. Good stuff.

    Bee — Thanks!! It was a lot of fun. Check with your local fish market for fresh langoustines. The frozen ones aren’t so good.

    Rita — I knoww. I look serious. Scaryyy! :)

    Susan — Thanks!

    Oui, Chef — He worked the line the night before, after a 7 hour flight. He’s a trooper.

    Dawn — It wasn’t a purse but it could have been. lol

    Zoom — I agree. He’s a true genius.

    Doggy — Thanks!

    Mel — I thought about that. You’re right! He’s the original zen chef. :)

    Bren — Looking forward to read your three part serie. Again. Thank you!

    Marc — He made some very good point about why he dislikes molecular gastronomy, though. He said you don’t need top quality ingredients when doing molecular stuff since it’s transformed into foams, powders, jellies..etc. You denature it so much you can’t really tell. I tend to agree with him.

  • http://tnlocavore.typepad.com Kristina

    What a great blog post! You can tell how thrilled you were and I’m thrilled you got to experience that! And while he may be very zen, you shouldn’t ever doubt your own zen-ness!

  • http://www.mangotomato.blogspot.com Olga

    How absolutely fun! Being bilingual has so many perks ;)

    Now I wonder if there are any famous Russian speaking chefs!

  • http://www.RecipeGirl.com Lori @ RecipeGirl

    WOw, what an exciting post!! You must have been beside yourself, really!

  • MrGnocchi

    Great Interview.Great Photos and a nice Read!! Mr.Robuchon is the type of Chef I aspire to. And that Langoustine dish looked good!
    Thanks.

  • http://mochachocolatarita.blogspot.com mochachocolatarita

    oh wow! frame that, laminate that…or to rita: right click, save picture us, photoshop and replace zenman’s head with own. lalala

  • http://www.stirthepots.com Jeremy

    Good show!

  • http://staceysnacksonline.com stacey snacks

    What a great way to spend a Sunday.
    Marc’s photos are fabulous, as always. You look nice in a vest!

  • http://dolceinewyork.blogspot.com Dolce

    What a great afternoon… Sigh… Thank you for sharing :)

  • http://www.kalofagas.ca Peter

    Congrats Stephane (& Bren) for snagging the interview of an important food influence in M. Robuchon. I too would be nervous but I’m glad he was most approachable & amiable.

  • winebrilliant

    What a nice recap of the afternoon, and an insightful review of Mr. Robuchon’s interview. It is great to hear it from you since linguistically you understood both sides! It was definitely an afternoon I will never forget. Marc took fantastic photos, and you feature really good ones in this blog. Great job!

  • http://www.norecipes.com Marc @ NoRecipes

    Nice write up! You did an awesome job in translating and didn’t come off as even a little star-struck:-)

  • http://purplefoodie.com The Purple Foodie

    I love that you’ve got such a detailed post with awesome photos (thanks, Marc!). I’ve admired Robuchon for a while now, so this is very interesting!

  • http://www.singleguychef.blogspot.com The Single Guy

    Wow, what a great experience, and thanks for taking us with you! That flan looked amazing, more so for the fact that she carried it from DC? She is brave!

  • http://zested.wordpress.com liz {zested}

    You’re so fancy – I lose track of my blogs for a few weeks and when I look up you’re interviewing world-famous chefs. well done!

  • http://culinarytypes.blogspot.com T.W. Barritt at Culinary Types

    What a fantastic experience! A great summary, and excellent photos by Marc! Just like being by your side.

  • http://www.bellalimento.com Paula – bell’alimento

    Amazing! What an incredible day for you all. Brilliant – genius doesn’t need trumphets!

  • http://eataduckimust.blogspot.com alice

    i just got goosebumps reading your post! what a privilege… I want to hear more about it when we see you in Kyoto!

  • http://fivestarfoodie.blogspot.com Natasha – 5 Star Foodie

    Wow, what an incredible experience! What a great privilege to meet the Chef of the Century!

  • http://blog.inomthings.com ila

    squeee! you talked to god… i’m very jealous of you. i love his dessert quote though, makes me think about what cooking is actually about.

  • http://www.steamykitchen.com jaden

    What great fun! It must have been such an honor meeting the master!

  • http://www.tasteslikehome.org Cynthia

    Outstanding! This was such a treat to read!

  • JD

    very cool! Thanks for sharing this with us.

  • http://www.bouchonfor2.com Mel @ bouchonfor2.com

    What a wonderfully detailed post… sounds like an amazing experience :) I love all the photos! You look very handsome in them, dare I say.

    Let’s go visit his restaurant in HK sometime soon, k? <3

  • http://www.dirtykitchensecrets.com Bethany (Dirty Kitchen Secrets)

    How exciting! Great photos :)

  • http://baconandrhubarb.blogspot.com Rachel (S[d]OC)

    What a great opportunity. Thanks for sharing.

  • http://www.passionateaboutbaking.com/vindee@airtelmail.in deeba

    Congratulations! What a great opportunity. Once a lifetime affair, & shared brilliantly. Great job by Mark on the pictures. No lighting? They are perfect!!

  • http://www.weareneverfull.com we are never full

    i totally thought i commented here. read it before work and must’ve had to jet before i got a chance to say anything. anyways, i’m sad we weren’t all able to meet up the night before. but this was an excellent write-up and kudos to marc for the pics. i’m so happy you were able to share this experience – i can’t think of anyone more deserving!!!

  • http://www.pigpigscorner.com pigpigscorner

    Lucky you! I’m very curious about the pressure cooker flan.

  • http://maisondechristina.wordpress.com christina

    Thank you for sharing this wonderful story. Haviing eaten at both Pierre Gagnaire and L’atelier de Joel Robuchon,I do agree with Chef Robuchon about not liking molecular cooking.

  • http://chicopea.blogspot.com/ chicopea

    What an unbelievable opportunity Zen! You look great out there :) Nice play-by-play.

  • Pjulny

    I ate at Joel Robachon paris one afternoon last year with my husband.they invited me into the kitchen and I plan to do it nexttime I go,having lived in Paris I am  a amateur cook and love to work in a kitchen for aday. I worked at jaques Cagna one day and severla other places. it gives me inspiration inthe kitchen.pjulny@aol.com

  • http://www.nursingwire.com/user/wilhelminarussell/history/ Valentina Flowers

    This is my first time i visit here. I found many beneficial thing in your blog site especially it’s discussion.

  • http://www.facebook.com/reina.wilson.12 Reina Wilson

    Hi, where can I watch the video for this story please?

  • Cheryl

    Wow! That is amazing!