Joël Robuchon on His Return to NYC and More

By Kathleen Squires  |  October 7, 2013
Credit: Kathleen Squires

Joël Robuchon is the most decorated chef in the world, and though his empire stretches throughout 17 restaurants in eight countries, Americans have only two spots in Las Vegas, Joël Robuchon and L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon, to enjoy the cuisine of the celebrated “Chef of the Century.” That is until he returns to New York City (his original L’Atelier within the Four Seasons Hotel in midtown, closed in June 2012). We sat down with the chef of all chefs as he swooped into Las Vegas for the Food & Wine All-Star Weekend, in order to personally cook a six-course dinner for his many followers. During our talk, we learned details about his much-anticipated return to New York; about his fondness toward vegetarian dining; and how animated he becomes on the subject of burgers. We also discovered how we can’t hear him say “Le Burger” enough.

Zagat: The rumor mill says you are planning a return to New York.

Joël Robuchon: New York is my favorite city in the world. I am very happy about the possibility of going back to New York as there is an incredible clientele in New York. A lot of great relationships were formed over there and we now see a great number of New Yorkers visiting our restaurants. It really is the capital of the world and I want to be there. We have still to sign on the dotted line for a new restaurant space which is currently in negotiation with the owner of the building.

Zagat: Is the space you are eying the former La Mar Cebicheria at 11 Madison Avenue?

JR: It is not the space at 11 Madison Avenue. The current location was actually a Japanese restaurant at 47th and Fifth Avenue.

Zagat: Will the concept be L’Atelier or something different?

JR: It will definitely be L’Atelier. But this will be a L’Atelier that opens to the street, very accessible with a direct street view into the restaurant.

Zagat: Why do you think L’Atelier did not work within the Four Seasons hotel?

JR: But it did work well. It was always full. The difficulty was working within the constraints of a hotel. The new L’Atelier will be its own entity. It will be a freestanding restaurant.

Zagat: Where else can we look forward to new restaurants from you?

JR: Bangkok, beginning of next year. Another one that will be opening in the course of the year will be Mumbai. What I like very much about Mumbai is not only their ability with spices but their ability regarding vegetarian cuisine. Vegetarian cuisine is becoming more and more important. I think it is the wave of the future as more and more people begin to eat vegetarian, so it interests me to open there if only to learn more about that aspect of cuisine - the forefront of the reason why I accepted to open in Mumbai is to learn. Even with a very simple dish such as lentils, they are able to put forth an incredible dish.

Zagat: At your restaurants throughout the world, which I understand you visit on regular rotation, what differences have you noticed among the palates of Americans, Europeans and Asians? Do you tweak your dishes to accommodate those differences?

JR: Sometimes there are changes in the seasoning. So there are certain dishes that we can add in certain spices or there are other places where we have to salt a lot less, such as Japan. There are other countries such as China, Hong Kong, Macau, where the texture of the dish is extremely important. When I say that there is a texture that is appreciated in Asian countries, they appreciate the texture of tapioca or pudding more than Europeans and Americans do. It is very interesting to discover all of these different cultures and it affords us a lot as well, because every time we go to a different country we learn so much. And that is one of the advantages of being in Las Vegas. In Las Vegas, there is such a mixture of clientele of different cultures. But from what I have noticed, when a dish is well prepared, anybody in any country will appreciate it

Zagat: What are some of your favorite restaurants to eat in the US?

JR: (Laughs). Are you trying to create some enemies for me? But there are a few restaurants to me that are sentimental. For example, Eric Ripert worked with me for quite some time and I sent him to the United States. So I like to go to Le Bernardin. But there are a lot of restaurants I really like. I very much appreciate the cooking of Daniel Boulud, Jean-Georges and Thomas Keller. And I also enjoy the restaurant Masa in New York, even though it is very expensive.

Zagat: I understand that you are judging the “Burger Bash” event tomorrow. What constitutes a good burger?

JR: Here’s a surprise: I don’t eat many burgers!

Zagat: But I read that you ate an In-N-Out Burger here in Las Vegas recently.

JR: I think that may have been the first time I had a burger.

Zagat: What did you think?

JR: I am mostly impressed by the way that people eat a burger. People bite into a huge burger and nothing runs down the side of their face and nothing falls out of their hands! But in terms of making the burger, I would say the quality of the produce, the quality of the products—the bread, and, of course, the quality of the meat, determines whether it is a good burger or not.

Zagat: How did you put together the famous “Le Burger” on the L’Atelier menu if you don’t really eat burgers?

JR: Le Burger is a burger with a very strong French accent, but a burger nonetheless. Le Burger is not a classic burger. Le Burger is my idea of a burger, with foie gras. Le Burger is one of the favorite dishes of my American clientele.

Zagat: How is operating a restaurant in Las Vegas different from other places in the world?

JR: It is very difficult for a restaurant of this caliber. Not many people knew Joël Robuchon when I first came. But it was very difficult to build that reputation to become known. What is wonderful is that we have so many people who come and say, “We have only come because our friends told us to come.” And that word of mouth is astonishing. We’re seeing a decline in the number of fine dining restaurants in Las Vegas, especially ones of this nature. So for a fine dining restaurant, there needs to be a customer base that is there for it, and you have to have an exceptional quality, and you have to always ensure that you are searching for and working towards the best possible outcome. I have a lot of restaurants in places with casinos—Monaco, Singapore, Macau, here in Las Vegas—and we see a similar customer base in those four restaurants. And it is certainly the large casino players who come to dine with us and that is of great advantage to us.

Zagat: Speaking of casinos, which is the bigger gamble? Opening a new restaurant or betting a pile of money on roulette?

JR: Most people, especially those who come to Las Vegas, would rather put their money on the roulette table. They look at it as the safer bet!