Joel Robuchon : France's Finest Chef Reflects on the 'French Paradox'

Scott Kraft, is Paris bureau chief for The Times. He interviewed Joel Robuchon in his restaurant

Don't be misled by all those burger joints on the Champs Elysees. The French still care deeply about food, and masters of la grande cuisine are held in the kind of awe Americans reserve for sports heroes, generals and long-dead statesmen.

So when Joel Robuchon, whom many regard as the finest French chef of the 20th century, announced recently that he would close his vaunted Paris restaurant next month, the feeling of loss was profound. Letters poured in, imploring him to reconsider. A group of fans signed a petition in hopes of changing his mind. He heard a plea from a 91-year-old Frenchwoman, who had the misfortune of having reserved a table for next September, two months too late. Alas, there is no more room. The dining room's 40 seats have always been booked months in advance.

"The sympathetic testimony from my clients from around the world has really moved me," Robuchon says. "It is perhaps what I regret most, that I will lose contact with so many exceptional people. When I quit, I lose all that."

Yet, the matter is closed. The opulent restaurant Joel Robuchon will serve its last supper in Paris 16th arrondissement on July 5, when it will close for two months and then reopen under the name and guidance of Alain Ducasse, 39, another celebrated French chef.

"It is better to stop when all is going well than when things are going badly," said Robuchon, 51, one recent morning. A small, friendly man with black hair, he was dressed in his crisp white chef's tunic and seated on a sofa outside his kitchen.

"Creating deluxe cuisine is like playing a sport," he continued. "Always competitive. Always challenging. And if you slow down a bit, you can no longer return to the top level."

Joel Robuchon is one of only five Paris restaurants, and 20 in France, with three stars in the prestigious Michelin Guide. And most food critics consider Robuchon's restaurant the best in the land.

It is, certainly, one of the most expensive--serving a seven-course meal for $200. Wine is extra. Ordered separately, dishes range from the melted eggplant cannelloni with tuna filets in virgin oil ($40) to the spiced lobster with asparagus and morel mushrooms ($110).

Robuchon's success story began in modest surroundings. Born a month before D-day in the countryside of southwestern France, he went to a private Catholic seminary at age 12 to study to be a priest. But his most pleasant moments were spent with the nuns in the kitchen, where he peeled vegetables and basked in their attention. When his parents divorced, a shortage of money forced him to leave school. At 15, he was looking for a job, and, again, the place he felt happiest was the kitchen. He worked his way up and, in 1984, three years after opening his Paris establishment, then called Janin, he won his third Michelin star.

Robuchon isn't giving up on the business entirely. Though he is, he admits, "rather timid," Robuchon has agreed to do a series of shows on cooking for French TV. He will keep his interest in a restaurant in Tokyo, and hopes to one day open a cooking school. Even so, he and his wife expect to have more time for their family--two children aged 24 and 30 and a granddaughter born earlier this year. And, perhaps, Robuchon says, he'll even spend time at the local tennis club--where he has been a member for a decade and has yet to play a set.

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Question: How do the French eat today? Is French cuisine becoming lighter?

Answer: In recent times, many people have criticized French cuisine, saying it is too heavy and has too many rich sauces. But today the best nutritionists in the world, even in America, recognize that the two countries with the lowest rate of heart disease are Japan and France. In France, the region where there is the least heart disease is the Southwest--and that is where they eat the most fat.

So, there is a French paradox. What's more, you know that Japan and France are the two countries with the most old people. Even the oldest woman in the world is French. Every nutritionist in the world is asking themselves how one can live so long, and with so little heart disease, on French cuisine.

Q: But even French cuisine is changing.

A: Yes, it has changed a lot in recent years. In France today, people no longer eat as much heavy food and fat as they did 15 or 20 years ago. These days, French cooking, through the influence of "grande cuisine," has become a bit lighter. And we are beginning to discover the original flavors of our produce.

Q: But what do you think is the reason for the French paradox?

A: In France, we have a geographic situation that is very exceptional, and it creates produce that is completely exceptional.

One sees it, for example, with wine. You can't tell me that the French vintners work better than those in California. Go and see how the Americans work in the Napa Valley. You will be surprised at their seriousness and the materials they have. California makes an excellent wine, and it is true that it is now becoming a very, very good wine. But it will perhaps never reach the level of French wine--even if we in France work less well. That is possibly because of climate and soil.

Why do we have such good butter? Because we have milk that is so good. On the other hand, American beef is better than French beef.

All around the world there are good produce, but we, in France, have a special geographic situation that allows us to create a wide variety of great produce.

Q: So the French paradox is related to the quality of the raw materials?

A: I can't say for sure, but it is true we have good produce. Not necessarily in the big cities, but if you leave the cities and go to any of the markets in the countryside, you can find excellent produce--high quality and total freshness. There are not many countries that have the luck to have such good poultry, beef and fish.

Perhaps, too, the paradox is related to our culture, our way of eating. In France, we eat a small breakfast and we eat a big lunch--a lunch much bigger than dinner. That is becoming lost in the big cities, but it still exists in the countryside.

That is reversed in many countries. I go often to Japan and the Japanese now have adopted the American style. They eat a big breakfast, practically skip lunch, and eat a big meal for dinner.

Everyone knows it is not good to eat a lot in the evening, and the Japanese are beginning to see the same incidence of heart trouble as in America. That is new.

Q: But French eating habits, too, are changing.

A: Yes. Even in France there is a tendency--it's starting to happen in cities like Paris--to skip lunch. Maybe it's because people work harder. But, whatever the reason, there is more demand, even in the popular restaurants, for reservations at night than at noon. Ten years ago, there were many more reservations for lunch than dinner.

But you know well that when the United States does something, it's being done around the world 10 years later. We always seem to copy the United States, with about a decade delay.

Q: The French also are eating fast food, such as pizza, and more frozen foods. Does that worry you?

A: No, not at all. It's a style of life that corresponds to new food techniques and technology. It is true that it is nice when one is at home to be able to have a pizza or something else delivered.

I'm not against fast food. My son is 30 years old now, and my daughter is 24, but when they were children, they went to McDonald's and places like that. But I think that is good. My children also had the chance to come to my restaurant when they were younger, with their friends. And they were able quickly to perceive the differences. The more one eats and the more one tastes, the more one begins to appreciate.

It is not necessary to be against convenience foods. Meals that are made in advance or are frozen fulfill a need. And I'm not against them. Au contraire. I say one can make them better. And that is a challenge--to improve it more and more.

Q: Weren't you afraid someone would see the children of a grand chef at McDonald's?

A: Even that doesn't bother me, because I believe it's necessary for them to live like all other children and to discover a little of all these cuisines. They loved it because, at a certain age, all children love McDonald's for its ambience. It corresponds to the taste of children.

Myself, I drink Coca-Cola. Now, someone is going to say a grand chef who drinks Coca-Cola, that can't be. But I also use ketchup. One must be open to everything. Sometimes, you feel like eating a pizza; the next day, you may feel like couscous or paella, then, the day after, you eat some more refined cuisine. All of it is necessary.

Q: Do you think that French children today have taste?

A: Taste is developed by the diversity of the products one can sample. I think our children today may be missing an education about food. We must teach them to know their cuisine and to know the equilibrium of nourishment. That is very important for health.

Discovery plays an enormous role in learning about food, and that is something that children today, especially in our large cities, are missing.

A few years ago, kids from poor areas in France were asked to draw items of food. For a chicken, they drew a drumstick. For a fish, they drew a fish stick. Those are extremes, but there is a lot that needs to be done to help children discover good food. Children of past decades were much more prepared than our children today.

Q: What made you decide to close your restaurant in Paris?

A: It wasn't a sudden thing. Nearly 10 years ago, I told the Michelin guide that I wanted to stop being a restaurateur at the age of 50. The simple reason was that I had seen too many grand chefs around me, foreign as well as French, arrive at a certain age when their cuisine was no longer at the level of their knowledge.

Then, too, I noticed that many chefs--and this is curious--have died during their 50s of heart attacks. The incidence of heart problems in our profession is very high.

Q: Why is that?

A: Because it is a trade that is very stressful. When you reach a certain level, you pursue this trade with passion. You put everything into it. And that creates stress. This profession demands a lot, physically.

So, I saw all that. And my cardiologist has warned me, for several years now, to watch myself, to make time for relaxation. But I never had the time. Saturdays. Sundays. Even if the restaurant was closed, there was always work. I never relaxed. So I said I would stop at age 50, and now I have arrived at 51 and I've sold.

Q: What is required these days to run a top restaurant?

A: Today, the deluxe restaurant depends, especially, on the quality of the work. If that doesn't exist, it is very difficult to survive today. On the other hand, quality isn't always enough, especially in recent years.

Today, you have people investing heavily in their businesses and being nearly strangled by debt . . . .

It is true that the potential clientele for a restaurant like ours has diminished since the 1970s. There is still a clientele, though. I have many American clients as well as many Japanese and French. Most of our diners come from those three countries, but the largest number are French.

Q: What is the breakdown?

A: At lunch, we have 80% French and most of the rest are Japanese. The Americans come for dinner, where we have about 70% French, 15% Japanese and 15% or 20% Americans.

Q: Why are the French the majority?

A: For a simple reason--and here I'm going to make a confession: When I received three Michelin stars in 1984, I took reservations from everyone, and I found myself with a room full of Americans and Japanese. The Americans and Japanese said: "This is just a restaurant for tourists." And the French diners began to say: "This is a restaurant for foreigners and, therefore, not a good restaurant."

I understood the feeling, because when I go to restaurants abroad and see only foreigners, I ask myself the same question. When those restaurants are filled with people from that country, I am reassured.

Unfortunately, and it probably isn't good to say, but it was necessary to please our clients so that everyone was happy.

Q: So you limit reservations from foreigners?

A: We don't have lists. It is the maitre d'hotel who does it.

First, I must say that the restaurant is very full in advance. I have some French clients who come every two or three weeks for lunch, and some Americans who come regularly, so we have a number of tables that are taken for the entire year by the same people.

After that, the maitre d'hotel finishes the dining room with an eye toward a good mix, to avoid, for example, putting two tables of Japanese diners side by side.

It is dangerous to talk about this because it can be misinterpreted.

Q: Your reasoning is that it is better for both the French and foreign diners to have a predominately French dining room?

A: I am a restaurateur and my role is to give satisfaction to everyone. And if I didn't do that, then maybe even the Japanese would come in such numbers that they wouldn't be happy.

I tell you this now, but I've never said it before, because I was afraid people would say it was racism. It isn't that at all. It is for the pleasure of all our diners.*

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