Food & Drink

Japan helped inspire Joel Robuchon’s L’Atelier restaurants and a return to cooking

by Oscar Boyd

Staff Writer

The food world mourned the loss of one of its greatest talents Tuesday after it was announced that Joel Robuchon had passed away at the age of 73. The French chef had 11 restaurants, cafes and boutiques in Tokyo, and his death comes hard on the heels of that of Anthony Bourdain, another culinary giant with a love for Japan.

At his peak in 2016, Robuchon had 31 Michelin stars to his name, making him the world’s most distinguished chef. Seven of these stars belong to the chef’s Tokyo restaurants, which include the three-Michelin-starred Joel Robuchon Restaurant, as well as La Table de Joel Robuchon and L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon, each with two stars apiece.

Having started cooking at the age of 15, Robuchon rose to fame as the head chef of the three-Michelin-starred Jamin, a restaurant near the Eiffel Tower that he opened in 1981.

But in July 1996, he shocked the world with the sudden announcement of his retirement, citing the fact that his work in the kitchen had never allowed him the time to see “a snowy mountaintop.”

Robuchon spent the following years traveling to Japan and Spain, experiences that would inspire his eventual return to professional cooking. He did so in April 2003, opening L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon in Tokyo’s Roppongi Hills complex. This was followed by a second restaurant under the same brand a month later in Paris’ Hotel Pont Royal.

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L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon in Tokyo. | AFP-JIJI

At the time, the L’Atelier concept (the French “atelier” translates to “workshop”) was considered a breakthrough in French gastronomy and with these new restaurants Robuchon sought to make fine dining more accessible and affordable. The restaurants’ concept was simple: fresh ingredients prepared simply and served at the counter, in full view of the kitchen. It is a style that will be immediately familiar to anyone with experience of dining in Japan.

The Japanese influence did not escape the eye of Japan Times food critic Robbie Swinnerton, who concluded in his 2003 review of L’Atelier: “No doubt this approach to dining seems far more revolutionary in (Paris) than it does here in the land of sushi bars. … In essence, L’Atelier is a glossy example of what has come to be known in Tokyo as a ‘dining bar.’ But it’s not just the name that makes the difference. Nowhere in the city will you eat this well in this kind of setting.”

Robuchon’s first major project in Japan — Chateau Restaurant Taillevent Robuchon — actually preceded L’Atelier by nearly a decade, opening in a faux-Parisienne “mansion” in Ebisu in 1994. In 2004, it reopened as Chateau Restaurant Joel Robuchon, housing the much-lauded Joel Robuchon Restaurant, La Table de Joel Robuchon and La Boutique de Joel Robuchon.

Chef Joel Robuchon poses holding a fish in Port Grimaud, southeastern France, May 1984.
Chef Joel Robuchon poses holding a fish in Port Grimaud, southeastern France, May 1984. | AFP-JIJI

So prestigious was Robuchon’s cooking that when the Michelin guide launched for the first time in Asia as “The Michelin Guide Tokyo 2008” all three of Robuchon’s restaurants in the capital (Joel Robuchon, L’Atelier and La Table) received a star or multiple stars. In 2009, Joel Robuchon Restaurant received its third star, L’Atelier maintained its two stars and La Table received its second.

Robuchon was inspired as much by Japan as he inspired chefs and artisans here. In a 2009 interview, Robuchon described his cooking as “Japanese-inspired French cuisine” and noted his particular fondness for fresh wasabi, an ingredient that he used throughout much of his cooking.

His Japan-inspired L’Atelier series has spread across the world, with 12 restaurants in cities such as Las Vegas, Hong Kong and Taipei. And, in April of this year, Robuchon opened Dassai — a restaurant and cake salon that also houses a bar for sake tasting. The establishment, not far from the French presidential palace in Paris, was opened in collaboration with Dassai sake producer Hiroshi Sakurai.

Like Bourdain, Robuchon had a deep admiration for Japanese food and food culture, saying in a 2011 interview, “We can look toward Japan for the future of food; Japan most honors the seasons, has the simplest ingredients and the most beautiful presentation.”

That’s high praise indeed from a man that French restaurant guide Gault Millau once christened the “chef of the century.”