By Scott Mechura
EBS Food Columnist
I had every intention of following my last column about saffron with a brief history of another of the world’s most sought-after spices, but that will have to wait. I felt that we needed to acknowledge the life and career of the man who was awarded the title of “chef of the century” by Gault Millau in 1989.
I was recently having a conversation with my brother about how we are entering an era of losing many of our most respected and treasured musical icons—a few have already left us. We are also bidding adieu to some of the world’s greatest chefs.
We lost Paul Bocuse this spring, and on Aug. 6 the world lost chef Joel Robuchon, who died of pancreatic cancer in Geneva, Switzerland at the age of 73.
Chef Robuchon was an interesting contradiction. He was not so much an innovator but a keeper of tradition, while simultaneously turning it upside down. He was an early proponent of nouvelle cuisine, which, in the simplest terms, meant adding supporting ingredients, and showcasing the protein and finer ingredients on the plate, rather than cloaking them with a heavy sauce. It also meant accenting dishes with beautiful, edible garnishes—cutting edge in the late 1970s. Yet Robuchon was steadfast in his belief that a dish should almost never have more than three to four ingredients to allow every component to shine.
Simple mashed potatoes—his signature dish—is a perfect example. Considered the best chef of the century and he was known for his mashed potatoes. That should tell you how delicious they must have been.
If you’ve ever read his recipe, you see its emphasis on attention to detail and respect for the process. You boil potatoes, you mash them with butter, salt and milk, right? Not to him.
You don’t only boil potatoes; it’s a specific type of potato from France, called Ratte, and you boil them with the skin on and peel them by hand while still piping hot—a job left to young apprentices looking to earn their chef coat—and put them through a ricer to avoid even the smallest of lumps.
Then there is a specific order of adding the cold butter, the hot milk, and stirring vigorously for up to five minutes. And still, I have left some steps out.
This provides a glimpse into the detail and perfectionism that defined everything he did.
Robuchon received too many awards to list here, but a couple stand out above all others. Aside from being named chef of the century, he earned the most Michelin stars of any chef in history—an astonishing 31 throughout his portfolio of restaurants.
And then, Robuchon did something unexpected. Fearing for his own health after seeing a number of fellow chefs die from what he perceived as industry-related stress, he retired. At 50 years old, he hung up his apron, turned off the stoves, and walked away.
But that didn’t last long—he soon returned and built a global empire that would span three continents.
I have his cookbook, “L’ atelier of Joel Robuchon,” which I have referenced many times in my career. But now, I will hold on to it as if it were a painting by Picasso.
Scott Mechura has spent a life in the hospitality industry. He is a former certified beer judge and currently the Executive Chef at Buck’s T-4 Lodge in Big Sky.
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