New York: Joël Robuchon Strides In
JOËL ROBUCHON’S flight from Paris to New York last Wednesday landed at 5 p.m., two hours late. Without even checking in at the Four Seasons hotel, he went directly to its new restaurant, L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon, which is scheduled to open to the public today.
With only a week to go before the restaurant’s debut, any stress he was feeling did not show. He was ready to get to work.
Mr. Robuchon, a Michelin three-star chef whose creativity and perfectionism have kept him at the pinnacle of the culinary world, has become conspicuously active since he “retired” 10 years ago, expanding the number of restaurants that bear his name and changing his approach so that it’s more casual. He made his first foray into the particularities of the American palate last year in Las Vegas. He describes that venture these days as a warm-up for the scary, tough crowd in New York.
Last week, he was finally seeing his latest restaurant in its completed state — clearly he knew the clock was ticking. His first reaction was general approval.
Then he took a closer look.
The woven black vinyl Chilewich placemats were redundant on black pebbled leather tabletops and had to go. Ditto the red water tumblers with rims that were too thick. The ice cream in a cherry dessert wasn’t working to his taste either.
The next morning, back in the restaurant, he was still obsessed with details. His slightly hooded, piercing blue eyes seemed to miss nothing.
From a few of the seats at the dining counter, the signature feature of the Atelier de Joël Robuchon format, he noticed that it was possible to glimpse the fluorescent-lighted back kitchen. That was wrong: the show kitchen in front was all he wanted seen. Doors would have to be installed. In addition, some of the messy working parts of the black granite front kitchen were ruining its looks and would also have to be concealed.
His entourage, including a group of managers from Paris, responded to each request with a crisp “Oui, Chef.”
After warmly greeting the pastry chef, Kazutoshi Narita, who had been in the Tokyo and Las Vegas versions of the restaurant, and for whom he is full of praise, he segued into the ice cream. “The dessert had that perfect combination of crunch and unctuousness, but the ice cream should not be made in a Pacojet,” he said, a convenient extra-fast, $3,500 Swiss appliance that is used in many high-end restaurant kitchens. “It never melts. Ice cream has to be creamy, like velvet. Pacojet may be easier to use, but easy does not mean best.”
Then, addressing the waiters in their black mandarin-collar suits, he asked if they were too warm. Most of them assured him that they were just fine.
All but a few of the waiters, who represent about a dozen countries — France, incidentally, not among them — are longtime employees of the hotel who have spent a month training to work in the new restaurant. They even learned some basic French. About two-thirds of the kitchen staff is new to the Four Seasons, including the chef, Yosuke Suga; the sous-chef, Gregory Pugin; the pastry chef; and his assistant, Satomi Kanai. These four have worked with Mr. Robuchon for years.
By mid-afternoon on Thursday (T-minus-6 and counting), Mr. Robuchon had reorganized some of the work stations in the kitchen, decided to change the dinnerware and insisted that spaghetti be added to the menu as a plat du jour. “You have to have spaghetti,” he said. “People love it, especially when they only want one dish, and when they bring their kids.”
Even though L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon is by now a formula, in concept, design and menu, each one he has opened has required similar tweaking. “It’s normal,” he said.
New York is his fourth, with London to follow in about a month. Offers have been made for him to open in Chicago and Singapore.
“The interest I’ve had in this concept has convinced me that its informality and conviviality, where you can have just one dish or a whole dinner, is the way people want to eat today,” he said. “In addition, you have the theatrical aspect, of being able to watch the food prepared.”
Formula or not, Mr. Robuchon has qualms about New York. “New York is difficult,” he said. “It’s hypercritical and unforgiving. Look what happened to Ducasse.” He was referring to the devastating reception that Alain Ducasse, another Michelin three-star chef, received in June 2001, when Alain Ducasse at the Essex House made its much-anticipated debut.
Although plenty of Americans have eaten at L’Atelier in Paris, he said, he had heard that in general, Americans were not sophisticated diners, and also that he might be disappointed in the quality of the kitchen staff he would have to hire. He said that by opening in Las Vegas before New York he could see for himself with an out-of-town preview.
“I was astonished at how receptive the clientele in Las Vegas has been,” he said. “Americans are much more open, with fewer fixations about what they would or would not eat than the French. And the biggest surprise was how accomplished and professional the Americans in the kitchen and dining room have been. It was totally contrary to what I was led to expect.”
He said that Mr. Suga, who worked at L’Atelier in Las Vegas, thought his American staff there was superb.
Salah Hamad, who has been a waiter at the Four Seasons for 13 years, said he looked forward to the challenge of working for Mr. Robuchon. “He smiled at me,” Mr. Hamad said. “I’ll do my best for him. It’s like working for a god.”
When Mr. Robuchon turned 50 and announced that he would retire at the top of his game, saying he was tired of haute cuisine and all the formal folderol that it involved, it rocked the world of food. Then his announcement in 2002 that he would open L’Atelier, a 36-seat, counter-only restaurant in Paris on the Left Bank, was just as stunning. By 2003 he was back in the restaurant business in France. (He had first tested the waters by opening a version of it a few months earlier in Tokyo.)
Within a year after the opening in Paris, Ty Warner, the owner of the Four Seasons hotel in New York, began to court him for his hotel, as a replacement for the Fifty Seven Fifty Seven restaurant. “Everybody was saying he was the greatest chef in the world, so I ate in all his restaurants and I was convinced,” Mr. Warner said.
L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in New York is a little different from the others. For one thing, it has been incorporated into an existing space with a blond wood, somewhat Art Deco style by I. M. Pei, who designed the hotel. The Atelier’s look, created by the French designer Pierre-Yves Rochon, is sleek black with touches of burgundy. Mr. Pei was consulted on the design and Mr. Robuchon approved every piece of kitchen equipment.
Unlike the other Robuchon restaurants, this one has a counter that seats only 20 and is of blond wood; the others are black. Beyond it, the black open kitchen is typical of the other Ateliers.
The restaurant has another 30 seats, at tables with banquettes. But the menus for both parts of the restaurant are the same, with a list of about 20 dishes served either as small tasting plates ($12 to $78) or larger, conventional portions ($17 to $88), at both lunch and dinner. The restaurant will also offer tasting menus. Desserts are $15.
In the weeks before the opening, Mr. Suga said, he worked with each dish and sent photographs of them to Mr. Robuchon for his approval. Many of them, like a gazpacho with golden croutons, langoustines in crisp pastry, rack of lamb with fresh thyme, and a precisely layered dish of eggplant, mozzarella and tomato, are the same as in Paris, Las Vegas and Tokyo. The menu will change seasonally and Mr. Robuchon plans to be in New York each month.
As for any thought of re-retiring for real, now that he is busy building an international empire of Ateliers, Mr. Robuchon just gave a half smile and shrugged his shoulders. For now, he was just too busy thinking about the placemats, glassware and spaghetti.
By: Florence Fabricant
PUBLISHED IN: The New York Times DATE: August 9, 2006