There’s not just one way to become a great chef. As anyone who’s ever tried proper fried chicken, or scoffed down a traditional Neapolitan pizza will agree, it doesn’t have to be all about the glitz and glamour of fine dining. Sometimes, simplicity is at the core of making something truly delicious.
This philosophy was at the heart of everything that world renowned chef Joël Robuchon, who died from pancreatic cancer today at the age of 73, tried to do in the kitchen. The legendary French gastronomist, who was awarded the title of “Chef of the Century” in 1989, has left a legacy that has influenced almost every famous cook across the globe. His cooking empire, built on perfectionism and clarity, spanned three continents and dozens of cities across the globe. A mentor to the likes of Gordon Ramsay and Eric Ripert, his affect on the direction and style global food cannot be underestimated. He will be missed.
Born in 1945 in Poitiers, western France, Robuchon did not start out wanting to work in the kitchen. His first love had always been the priesthood, and he went to the Châtillon-sur-Sèvre seminary as a teenager. It was there that he was put to work in the kitchen and found his true calling.
From washing pots, he rapidly progressed through the cooking ranks, becoming a head chef at the age of 29. His first major accolade followed soon after, when he was awarded the Meilleur Ouvrier de France and named as “France’s best craftsman”.
Clearly, success suited him. He would go onto open the legendary Parisian restaurant Jamin, which would become a basecamp for Ramsay and Ripert on their own journeys to culinary fame and fortune. In addition to his ‘89 “Chef of the Century” title, Robuchon would also pick up a 1987 award for France’s best chef from the legendary Michelin guide. His star was only getting higher.
Increasingly influenced by Asian flavours and cooking techniques, Robuchon opened restaurants everywhere from Las Vegas to Singapore to Bangkok, acquiring accolades everywhere he went. At its peak, the empire had accrued a record 32 Michelin stars - something no other chef has come close to achieving.
Robuchon is widely agreed to have revolutionised modern French dining. Though he didn’t shy away from using wildly extravagant ingredients in his cooking, some of his most famous recipes were all about minimalism. His mashed pommes puree recipe, for instance, contains only four ingredients, yet is widely agreed to be one of the best ever. In a 2014 interview with Business Insider, he said that, “The older I get, the more I realise the truth is: the simpler the food, the more exceptional it can be."
Beyond the kitchen, Robuchon grew to become one of the most well-known faces in French media. After temporarily retiring in 1995, he hosted a slew of successful television programmes, which introduced new audiences to his modern style of cooking. He elevated simple things to extraordinary status and made exceptional food feel attainable to every cook. Though there are plenty of shouty chefs who may be more recognised today, there’s little doubt that they wouldn’t be where they are without the master.