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

June 09, 1996|Scott Kraft | Scott Kraft, is Paris bureau chief for The Times. He interviewed Joel Robuchon in his restaurant

PARIS — 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.

*

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.

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