Chef of the century

Rumours of Joel Robuchon's demise have been greatly exaggerated. Restaurant Joel Robuchon, that is - the Singapore outpost of France's acclaimed "Chef of the Century" - where talk is rife of its imminent closure, hot on the heels of its compatriot Guy Savoy at Marina Bay Sands.

The man in question is none too pleased - at naysayers betting on his restaurants (including the upscale casual L'atelier) going belly up. Such rumours have dogged them since they first opened and may have intensified because their three year lease is up. But Mr Robuchon confirms that he has just signed on for another six years. And - the high-end Robuchon restaurant is seeing more covers than before, thank you, making it an even better performer than the more affordable L'Atelier.

The 69-year-old is in town this week as part of a punishing schedule that has him jetting around the world to oversee his ever-growing empire of restaurants.

It's rare for someone of his stature - the iconic chef has 28 Michelin stars at last count, the most in the world - to be personally visiting every restaurant in his stable, but it says something about the longevity of a career in an industry dominated by the World's 50 Best list of celebrity chefs and the perennial pursuit of the next big trend.

"He doesn't want any more restaurants," laughs his right hand man Philippe Braun, who helps to translate for Mr Robuchon. "He tries to refuse the demands but if it comes from people he is close to like people who have been working for us or famous friends like Jean Reno who wants to open a L'Atelier in New York, he says 'yes' and then he has to deal with the challenges!"

He also has no time for restaurant guides or media-driven polls of what constitutes quality or the latest trends. In fact, he jokes about journalists falling into the "trap" of guides like the World's 50 Best where "the best restaurants in the world are those which poison their clients", in a cheeky reference to the food poisoning cases that hit The Fat Duck (and then Dinner by Heston) and Noma.

But more seriously, he was a member of the jury at the World's Best and "it is not the best guide in terms of impartiality and the way it works". The voting is based a lot on "friendship" and "if a restaurant is very popular in the media it will get the most votes". Instead, Mr Robuchon puts more store in the Michelin Guide, which he says doesn't have a big lobby behind it.

He thinks it would be good if the guide came to Singapore, so that it can at least set a standard of quality that restaurants can measure themselves against. He says it in the context of his theory that an element of "protectionism" in the Singapore culture makes it tougher for a foreign name to be accepted locally - which could explain the rumours about his restaurants and Guy Savoy's closure.

"It is surprising that Guy Savoy is very good around the world but not in Singapore," he notes drily. "Or maybe it is because Singapore people have the right taste and people around the world don't."

He stresses that it's just an observation, but as a personal friend of Mr Savoy, he feels the restaurant got short shrift. "I have a lot of respect for what he is doing, maybe his cooking is not to the taste of Singapore people but he is still a high-level chef." He adds that the last time he spoke with Mr Savoy, the latter told him that he did not want to continue in Singapore as it was a tough environment and he did not feel welcome.

The opposite is true of Mr Robuchon, who's built up a loyal Singaporean fan base, some of whom even follow him wherever he goes. "I see more Singaporeans in Macau than I do here in Singapore!" he laughs. At Sentosa, high rollers fill most of the seats at the gastronomic restaurant, which accounts for its edge over L'Atelier. There's also no denying the Robuchon emphasis on consistency and quality, made even more special when its exceedingly humble and hospitable founder is in town to personally greet his guests.

He readily admits that it wasn't easy to open in Singapore. The hardest part of transporting a foreign concept is to bridge the cultural gap between his team and the local employees and partners. "It is about us bringing our culture, and adapting to the local one," he says. "It takes a very long time to 'bend' all this together to get an efficient team."

Such were the difficulties that it was "only a few months ago that we were finally happy with the team", he explains. "But we were not at the level we wanted for a very long time."

While fads come and go, and media pundits have all but declared French cooking a slow-roasted dodo in favour of Peruvian, Nordic, Japanese and Spanish cuisine, Mr Robuchon believes otherwise.

"There's a lot of demand for French restaurants in cities like Tokyo and Hong Kong, and in emerging countries where they are developing their tourism. In Paris, the restaurants are still very full. Maybe people overseas are not aware of the names of the very good chefs but their restaurants are always full."

However, "the direction for gastronomy is to be more casual, but there is still a need for very high gastronomy", he says. "There will be a lot fewer outlets in the world but these establishments will be at the very top level and very expensive."

Vegetarianism will also evolve, especially as "it becomes harder to increase world production of animal protein". When opening in Mumbai, he became fascinated with Indian vegetarian cuisine and thinks that is the way cuisine will go - not Indian per se but the use of spices and healthier eating in general.

Young chefs will also lead the way, especially now that they have more opportunity to travel and stage at top restaurants, and exchange ideas on social media. "The overall standard is going up," he says. "These chefs are able to mix all the techniques they learned from their travels and create something really exciting."

Being in his position doesn't mean that he's above learning from trends, even if he doesn't follow them. For example, he is good friends with Ferran Adria and even tried some of his molecular cuisine techniques but when he saw how he was "going too strong into additives, I stopped".

So far, following his own heart - while being open to other opinions - has served him well. And if there's any more talk about closure, one look at the way Mr Robuchon discreetly hovers over the kitchen and mingles with his guests says it all: he's here for the long haul.

This article was published on April 19 in The Business Times.

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