In most fields of life, receiving one star is as bad as it can get. But earning even a single Michelin Star is the lifelong dream of most chefs. Achieve two, and you’re in rarefied air; and just around 120 restaurants in the world have earned that coveted three-star plaque (and you likely can’t afford to eat at any of them). So the fact that French chef Joël Robuchon once owned a group of restaurants that tallied up 32 total Michelin stars in 2016—the most in the world—is astonishing.
For his work, Robuchon, who the Associated Press reports died on Monday at the age of 73, earned the nickname “chef of the century.”
Robuchon’s legacy isn’t just based on the fact that he knew how to collect the food industry’s most coveted awards. Angelique Chrisafis at The Guardian reports that the chef revolutionized the fine-dining world, rebelling against the entrenched tropes of French cooking, including an overly starched dining experience and unnecessarily complex techniques and recipes. Instead, the chef focused on simplicity and showcased the natural flavors of high-quality ingredients, elevating hearty, simple fare. He is known, for instance, for making the world’s best mashed-potatoes, buttery clouds that have been described as an "emotional" experience. Anyone who has seen the Pixar movie Ratatouille will understand Robuchon’s appeal; in the climax, a notorious restaurant critic turns up his nose at the rat-chef’s new take on ratatouille, a vegetable stew he looks down on as simple country food. But one taste transports him to his childhood and opens his mind. That's the effect Robuchon was after.
“The older I get, the more I realize the truth is: the simpler the food, the more exceptional it can be,” he reflected in 2014, reports Reuters. “I never try to marry more than three flavors in one dish. I like walking into a kitchen and knowing that the dishes are identifiable and the ingredients within them easy to detect.”
Robuchon was born into a working-class family in Poitiers, south of the Loire Valley, in 1945. His father was a bricklayer, and Robuchon originally considered entering the priesthood. But while working in the kitchen of seminary alongside nuns, he found his true calling and entered the restaurant world at age 15. He was a perfectionist with a strong work ethic and by age 30 he was running the Concorde Lafayette hotel in Paris, in charge of a 90-person kitchen.
His time in the trenches earned him the designation as one of France’s best craftsman in 1976. In 1981, he opened his first restaurant, Jamin near the Eiffel Tower. There, he perfected his mashed potato recipe (the key is the 2:1 potato to butter ratio). Jamin earned one new Michelin star per year during its first three years of operation—an unprecedented feat.
Robuchon’s reputation and empire quickly increased; by 1989, the guide Gault Millau had dubbed him the “cook of the century.” Despite his growing fame, in 1995, at the age of 50, he famously declared his intent to retire in order to sample some of the life he missed out on while standing in front of the stove. But that retirement was really more like a break: In 2003, he “un-retired” to open his Atelier concept, a chain of restaurants that drew inspiration from tapas bars and sushi counters to create a fine-casual dining experience. The forward-thinking concept required no dress code and offered a space for foodies of all stripes to sit at a counter around an open kitchen interacting with the cooks and one another.
By the time of his death, which Le Figaro reports came from complications of pancreatic cancer, Robuchon's dining empire stretched from Las Vegas to Shanghai. Robuchon had also embraced the celebrity chef label, penning books and producing popular French cooking shows to pass along his knowledge. An ambitious legacy project, an international cooking institute in Montmorillon, France, to prepare "the elite of tomorrow's gastronomy," he left unfinished, the AFP reports.
Tributes from fellow chefs and appreciative diners have poured out at the news of Robuchon’s death. “His name and his style embodied French cuisine around the world, symbolizing an art of living and the insistence on work well done, and expressing the richness of our traditions,” French President Emmanuel Macron said in a statement.
Jean Sulpice, the youngest to ever earn a Michelin star, tells The Guardian’s Chrisafis that Robuchon was a chef who “gave his life for this trade…[and had] such impressive talent that when you saw him, you’d almost tremble in front of him.” But it all comes back to those mashed potatoes, which Robuchon acknowledged really made his career. “Every time I make mashed potato, I can’t help thinking of him,” Sulpice says. “Because he knew how to show that cooking could be simple but good.”