In 1996, the year he officially (if temporarily) retired, celebrated French chef Joël Robuchon identified Ferran Adrià as his "heir" in an interview on the French television station TF1 and called him "the best cook on the planet." This caused an unimaginable scandal in France and reportedly induced much hair-tearing on the part of other prominent French chefs who had thought that maybe they were in line for the succession.
What did Robuchon really mean? In an article about Adrià and the avant-garde in Spain appearing in the New York Times Magazine in 2003, Arthur Lubow wrote that when he asked Robuchon about the incident, "he backpedaled a little, saying carefully, 'Ferran is the best cook in the world for technique.'"
But Robuchon had more to say. In 2009, in an interview in L'Express, he explained his comments thus: "At the time, I was retired and they asked me who, in my opinion, had replaced me as the No. 1 in gastronomy. When I said 'Ferran Adrià,' I was accused of wanting to cut the grass out from under the feet of the French contenders. Today, surprisingly, everyone agrees with me: Ferran Adrià is undoubtedly the most brilliant creator in the world."
At the Tokyo Taste event in Japan the same year, though, he said that, while he greatly admired Adrià, he considered him "perhaps the best chef in the world" (italics mine).
I wanted to talk to Robuchon, to ask him myself what he really thought — and what he had really said, or meant to say — about Adrià. I made numerous attempts to make an appointment with him when I would be passing through Paris.
His secretary always replied that he'd be traveling or otherwise unavailable on the dates I'd mentioned. At the end of our last exchange, in September of 2009, when I said I'd be in Paris briefly in October, she mistakenly forwarded me an e-mail addressed to Robuchon. "Should I tell him that you'll be out of the country on that date?" she asked.
Unfortunately, his response didn't come to me too — but after that, his secretary stopped responding to my e-mails. Maybe Robuchon has said all he wants to on the subject.