Joël Robuchon is a living legend in the restaurant world. He was dubbed “Chef of the Century” in 1989, before he came out of retirement to expand his empire with new restaurants in Las Vegas, among other places. Besides holding the most Michelin stars of any active chef, he’s one of the most influential culinary figures of all time. The Frenchman spoke with the Weekly, with his restaurant’s assistant general manager, Sebastian Dumonet, serving as translator.
How often do you come to Las Vegas? Certainly on a regular basis, three or four times a year and each time for at least a week. It’s been eight years now I’ve been making these trips, so I’m spending quite a while here when you add it up.
What are you focusing on this trip? Of course it’s new dishes, seasonal dishes. When I first came to Las Vegas I noticed all the menus remain the same, so eight years ago we did not change things. Now, menus change, items change, and so change is one of my main goals. In Las Vegas there are a lot of people who are very into food and beverage and it seems the majority are here not for business but to relax and enjoy themselves. Perhaps more in Las Vegas than anywhere else in the world I travel, there is a melting pot of customers, really a beautiful international base. It’s incredible to see all these different international reactions to the same food.
How have your opinions on Vegas changed over the years? Whenever something new comes up anywhere in the world, it always comes to Las Vegas first. It’s essentially tested in Las Vegas. In the last five or six years there has been this development of larger restaurants with more well known chefs. Here there are all these new restaurants increasing competition between multiple venues, constantly testing each other and making each other better.
You’ve received so many awards and so much recognition, as much or more than any chef. Is there one that means the most to you? The biggest reward is actually seeing customers so happy with what they’ve enjoyed that they make a reservation immediately before leaving, to turn around and say they will be back. That’s a real reward. It does happen often, actually. What we see is guests that dine at L’Atelier one night, as they’re walking out, make a reservation next door for the next night, or vice versa.
I think I read that traveling inspired the creation of L’Atelier. It is true. I was searching for a restaurant where I could create a wonderful atmosphere and energy as well as good food. In my travels I have seen, for example, if you look at the Japanese and the way they hold themselves, it’s very rigorous and very rigid. The one place they became comfortable was when they went to sushi bars and actually had the opportunity to exchange with the sushi chefs. In Spain, where there is high energy in restaurants, you see a lot of that energy in tapas bars. So I wanted to have a tapas bar or sushi bar and include the kitchen by making it a focal point of the restaurant, to allow the customer to watch a show and watch the dishes being made. If you look back 10 years, there was a hidden kitchen. I wanted to create a concept where you could watch the cooks prepare everything. So that is how L’Atelier was born, and today I’m very satisfied with the fact that the L’Ateliers in Las Vegas, London, Tokyo, Singapore, Taipei and Paris are all very strong venues, and I’m being asked to open many more. In the coming months we’ll be in Istanbul, Mumbai and Bangkok.
I asked a chef friend what I should ask you, and his question is: What is the future of fine dining? The future is that quality restaurants will go toward healthier cuisine. That’s not to say we should become nutritionists, but you can utilize good products that are good for you. Certain ingredients have a lot of antioxidants, for example, which have been proven effective against cancer. There are quite a lot of vegetarians these days, but I don’t think vegetables are the healthiest option because of all the insecticides and everything that is being injected into them. So for tomorrow, it’s finding ingredients that are pure, untouched. The reason why I’m moving toward Mumbai is the very strong vegetarian base in India, and they use incredible spice. But when you cook something, whether it’s meat or fish, you’re killing something in order to eat it, and you see a lot of places where people are beginning to protect these animals. A lot of people don’t want to kill rabbits to eat them, or foie gras because of the way the ducks are treated, or a lot of people don’t want to eat horse meat because it’s seen as a different type of animal. Tomorrow it may be sheep or goats, or one day we may not want to eat veal or cow.
Japanese food is becoming popular in Las Vegas, both in casino restaurants and in the neighborhoods. Do you think you would ever open Yoshi here? Oh, so you’re familiar with the Yoshi concept?
Only that it’s your first true Japanese restaurant. I did Yoshi in Monaco. For a lot of people, Japanese cuisine is a better dietary option because it’s very light, and it attracts a lot of women because they can pay attention to staying thin and healthy and not over-indulging. But in Monaco it’s a small restaurant, only seating 25 to 30 people. In Las Vegas you see very large restaurants, for the most part. If someone wanted to do a very high quality, small Japanese restaurant then we could certainly reproduce it. I find it difficult to do a restaurant with 200 seats and absolutely ensure each customer is satisfied. But it’s true that Japanese cuisine is very good and a growing success throughout the entire world. In fact, sushi has dethroned pizza.
What’s your favorite thing to eat at home? I just make myself a sandwich. (laughs) Certainly I attach a large importance to the quality of the bread. We make our own bread in-house, and I’m very proud of the bread we make here. I believe the best bread we make out of all our different restaurants is in Las Vegas because of the American flour. It really allows exceptional quality. But when the bread is good and you have good butter, a bite at 10 o’clock in the morning can still be a grand, grand dining experience. If I am by myself at home, I’ll take bread and steak, grill it very quickly on both sides, put a little bit of mustard on the bread, a little bit of butter, slice a few pieces of lettuce and tomato, put the steak on top and that is a wonderful meal.