By People Staff
September 18, 2006 12:00 PM

By his own estimation, Joël Robuchon should be dead by now. “I’d seen many chefs, both famous and not well known, die in their 50s,” says Robuchon. He’s not blaming high cholesterol; he’s talking stress, and his life makes for the perfect recipe. Shortly after opening his first restaurant, Jamin, in Paris in 1981, he became the youngest chef at the time (just 38) to earn the prestigious Michelin guide’s highest ranking: three stars. But the strain of maintaining that honor was stifling. Being called Chef of the Century by the French press only added to the pressure, which, he says, “was enormous. I told myself at 50, I would stop.” And he did—for a while.

Now he’s back, to the delight of foodies and celeb fans like Angelina Jolie, Andy Garcia and Eva Longoria. When he retired in 1996, Robuchon, 61, spent several low-key years in Spain, but his creative flame never went out. In 2001, he opened L’Atelier in Tokyo, serving modern French food in a relaxed setting with an open kitchen inspired by sushi and tapas bars. “People are stressed. Not everyone wants to go to mass every day,” he says of his break with France’s grand temples of haute cuisine.

Since then he’s expanded on his wildly successful formula with L’Ateliers in Paris and Las Vegas. (“I’m always on a plane,” sighs Robuchon, who lives in Spain with his wife.) Earlier this year, he expanded in the U.S. market with Joël Robuchon at The Mansion in Las Vegas and was met with rave reviews. “Can [any] food taste as exquisite as his masterpieces? I leave looking forward to enjoying his next great performance,” says frequent guest Celine Dion, who often goes for the 16-course $350 tasting menu with husband René Angélil. (Among the offerings: saffron basted lobster and frog-leg fritters.)

On Sept. 5, he made his New York City debut, with L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon at the Four Seasons. “Of all the openings I’ve been through, this is the one that scares me the most,” admits Robuchon, who pours his anxiety into shopping jags (he adores gadget shops). “New York is un grand morceau—a big deal.” Even so, he welcomes the challenge of the critics’ heat: “To evolve all the time, that’s my pleasure.”