Garnering an astounding 31 Michelin stars in restaurants worldwide and anointed “Chef of the Century” by the influential Gault & Millau guide in 1989, restaurateur Joël Robuchon carries on this tradition of French gastronomy with his iconic black and red-decorated restaurant in Taipei, L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon.
Robuchon began his career at the tender age of 15, later mentoring Gordon Ramsey and opening up namesake establishments in Bangkok, Hong Kong, Las Vegas, London, Macau, Monaco, Paris, Singapore, Shanghai and Tokyo, not to mention satellite tea salons and various outlets around the world. In the works now are plans to conquer Miami, Geneva and New York. Monsieur Robuchon officially retired in 1997 but he continues to personally oversee his restaurants, visiting each one at least once a year.
Heading the Taiwanese capital’s restaurant, Chef de Cuisine Olivier Jean has been studying under the tutelage of Monsieur Robuchon for nine years—four of those in Taipei. He has worked as sous chef in L’Atelier Joël Robuchon Étoile in Paris and as head chef in Restaurant Joël Robuchon, Monaco. Jean’s team includes three French chefs—sous chef Frédéric Jullien has been with L’Atelier for three years—and two Japanese. Monsieur Robuchon is said to be greatly influenced by Japanese cooking and style, and visits the country a few times a year.
Restaurants open and close so quickly these days it can make your head spin. Head Chef Olivier Jean explained that this tendency to get sidetracked is what actually derails a lot of great restaurants in Taipei. Too much fusion takes a kitchen off course of a solid foundation of good cooking.
“We have nothing to hide,” he said, ducking his imposing 6’4″ frame under the bar counter ceiling to talk to me. “We are passionate; we have good products; and we don’t over over sauce our foods”. He waved his hands over the spotless open kitchen, serious chefs and eager assistants quietly assembling intricate bowls of edible art with tweezers.
The decor of L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon does not stray from the award-winning chef’s signature black and red furnishings. Red leather stools adorn the counter; seashells, oversized baubles and pebbles line the display case. Robuchon is certainly consistent when it comes to the atmosphere—every restaurants follows an Asian decor formula (or, “1990s drug dealer chic”, wrote one reviewer, but then this same person also complained about the chef’s liberal use of butter. Who ever complains about butter?).
When he can, Chef Jean personally visits the farms that supply produce to the Taipei outlet. The fresh pea puree comes from organic Taichung peas; the black cod, kabocha (pumpkin) and scallops are from Japan; and the foie gras is flown in from Canada. Chef Jean pointed out that the restaurant is exceedingly careful about the provenance of its foodstuff.
He also took the time to patiently explain the process by which they make the signature Robuchon pureed potatoes. Fingerling potatoes are cooked with skin on, then put through a rigorous process by which they are blended by hand with a spatula, pressed through a sieve and hand whipped again multiple times, with French butter. One pound of butter for every two pounds of potatoes, or so rumour has it.
Once pureed, the creamy potatoes are kept warm at an exact temperature to keep the starches from breaking down, which can make the mixture gluey. The team does this twice a day, every day. Jean flexed his biceps to emphasise the man power that goes into the process.
(I have since found out, sheepishly, that Robuchon attained his first Michelin star with this very dish, first introduced at Jamin in Paris, in 1980.)
“He’s 72 and incredibly amazing,” enthused Chef Jean, when talking about Monsieur Robuchon. Passionately loyal toward his spry mentor, the 30-year-old chef declared that he is like a soldier, “… a Roman soldier. We are [all] like soldiers, all over the world. Our job is to protect his name”. I’m pretty sure at this point that Olivier pounded his chest—you could tell the tall, handsome and mild-mannered gourmand was pumped about Monsieur Robuchon’s next Taipei visit in the fall.
The staff is obviously dedicated and professional, but what about the food?
The a la carte menu changes every four weeks; the business menu, every two weeks. Then of course there are the daily specials that follow the seasons. “The main thing,” said the chef, “is that we make French food with good products”. He makes it sound so simple. Like three-hour mashed potato simple.
So when the eight-course degustation menu starts off with seasonal watermelon l’amuse bouche, Scottish salmon tartare with Imperial French caviar and gold leaf and succulent seared Hokkaido scallop with nutmeg-flavoured pumpkin, you forget that his idea of “simple” means simply good, not any less difficult to assemble (Remember the tweezers? That team never stopped creating while I was there.)
It’s so delicious because it’s made with heart and passion.
These courses led way to crispy baby artichoke nestled in smoky turmeric piquillo pepper sauce. The sharp heat lingered but was tampered by a glass of crisp Verve Cliquot champagne. Then came pan-seared duck foil gras with roasted pineapple; marinated black cod over fresh green pea and mint puree. These were garden fresh, a real treat. The main course was juicy lamb medallions with mini aubergine “cannelloni” and tasty roast garlic bud, paired with a complex, yet light, French Domaine Richard Cairanne 2014 Cote du Rhone Villages shiraz. This was accompanied by a simple porcelain pot of said Michelin-star pomme purée.
Many have called Robuchon’s style fussy and cluttered—for sure, the plates were adorned with dabs and dollops, pinches and sprinkles—but the taste was pure unfettered French cuisine.
More of a palate cleanser than dessert, the grapefruit sorbet with lemongrass jelly and rum granite would’ve been quite sufficient … that is, until my sweet grand finale was placed with some reverence in front of me.
I ended my almost three-hour feast with Robuchon’s signature sugar ball dessert stuffed with comfit apricot and hazelnut mousse. As I finished my shiraz, the waiter treated me to a finger of fragrant 2013 Muscat De Beaumes (there are reputedly 20,000 bottles of wine in the Taipei cellar). The sugar ball was pale yellow—a shiny iridescent globe on the simple glass plate. A dollop of Jasmine tea ice cream rested gently on the edge, decorated with slivers of gold leaf. Mint tea and the creamiest coffee macaron completed my exquisite degustation meal at L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon, Taipei.
They say the restaurant scene is not as big in Taipei as other major cities. Wages aren’t as high, and pockets aren’t as deep. Visitors forgo a fancy night out and head to the night markets for street food, instead. But Taiwan’s geography—as well as its organic regulations and certifications since 2009—enables for more farm-to-table experiences, more so than neighbours Hong Kong and Singapore. Robuchon’s Taipei restaurant has been going strong for almost nine years, with Chef Olivier Jean at the helm for the last four.
“We are a small family behind a big name”, said the head chef, before heading off to shake the hand of another patron sitting at the counter. Regardless of the food or decor, Chef de Cuisine Olivier Jean believes in the Robuchon name and product, and he always makes time for the customer.
Degustation menu NT $4480-6880 (US $147-225)
Written By: Adriane Rysz