Robuchon, whose globe-encircling operations include restaurants in New York, Montreal and Las Vegas, died in Geneva, Switzerland on Monday of cancer. He had been diagnosed with a pancreatic tumor over a year earlier.
Born in Poitiers, France, in April, 1945, Robuchon initially prepared for a religious life, entering a seminary at the age of 12. There, he discovered his path. “Between studies and prayers,” he told GALA Magazine in 2014, “I found a moment of relaxation compared to the religion training, when I helped prepare meals in the kitchen. That’s when I decided not to consecrate myself to the priesthood but to cooking.”
When his parents divorced at 15, Robuchon left the seminary to work at a local inn. “I started scouring casseroles, lighting the ovens early in the morning, plucking the fowl in the afternoon, folding linen and mowing the lawn,” he said. “You worked 14 hours per day, without rest, for periods which could last six months.”
After apprenticing in several restaurants around France, Robuchon arrived in Paris, and found work at La Vert Galant and in 1966 went into service at the Berkeley, a fashionable café whose clientele included Salvador Dali, Onassis and Callas.
At 29, Robuchon moved into hotel kitchen service—where he found himself heading a 90-man kitchen brigade—and after attaining his first Michelin stars, he stepped away in 1981, opening a restaurant which became a legend: Jamin.
A small side-street restaurant near the Trocadéro in Paris, Jamin earned its first Michelin star in its first year of operation. Its second and third came immediately after. It was a feat never before achieved in the Guide’s long history.
Robuchon himself wryly attributed success to the fact that at the time of Jamin’s opening, joking to La Nouvelle Republique that “the potato had been banned from Paris’ great restaurants.”
“My mother served puree regularly with Sunday chicken,” Robuchon said. “We’d go to the family farm to find them. The potatoes were the base vegetable in our house.” His home-style, ultra-buttery puree became the gold standard for mashed potatoes.
Like Paul Bocuse, Robuchon’s cooking was as refined as possible but true to his basic love of country cooking. Named Chef of the Century by Gault & Millau in 1990, Robuchon was as much a French culinary attraction as truffles, and reservations at Jamin as hard to come by and just as expensive.
At the height of success in 1994, Robuchon accepted the offer of a large prestigious restaurant and shuttered Jamin. Enigmatic and deeply private, he stayed very briefly at the new location on Avenue Raymond Poincare before announcing his complete retirement from cooking.
He reemerged on the culinary scene in 2003, opening his first L’Atelier restaurant operations in Tokyo and Paris. In 2017, Robuchon opened his 12th outpost of L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in New York City, and revealed to the New York Post he had overhauled his diet to lose 60 lbs. “My menu is full of antioxidants and nutrients now,” he said. “I have so much energy…I wouldn’t be able to live the way I do now without my diet.”
According to Eater, the chef had multiple restaurant plans in the works at the time of his death.