Talking With the Complete Joël Robuchon

Read this from a Zagat Buzz newsletter … quite a good read about one of the most celebrated chefs in the world.

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Learning to cook from Joël Robuchon, whose world-renowned restaurants stretch from New York to London to Tokyo and back again, might seem intimidating, to say the least. But the chef’s latest cookbook, The Complete Robuchon, is anything but. Commencing with a simple introduction on the art of eating, it offers rudimentary explanations of cooking techniques – from braising to microwaving to sous vide – along with over 800 recipes. Everything involved in the creation of a meal from stock to garnish is covered while also placing the dishes within a practical and historical context.

In New York to promote his new book, Robuchon sat down with The Buzz to talk about the importance of technique, the differences between French and American home cooks, why he’s against molecular gastronomy and more.

Zagat Buzz: Your cookbook includes both contemporary recipes and ones most French home cooks should already be familiar with. For whom is it intended?

Joël Robuchon: This book was written for the general public. The recipes are fairly simple and easy to prepare so that many people can follow them. Of course I also include some more sophisticated recipes, because even the amateur cook likes to do something special! I also wanted to give people the basic savoir-faire or know-how to be able to cook well. A lot of people come into my restaurants and ask, “How did you make that delicious vinaigrette?” or something like that. The recipe is usually quite simple, but it is the technique that makes a difference.

ZB: Do you think this is the most approachable cookbook you’ve ever written?

JR: Yes, for sure. The way I designed this book was by picking the 800 recipes that I found to be the most accessible from a list of 2,000, and dividing them up into chapters that are preceded by simple explanations of what the food group is and how best to choose, prepare and cook it. I think I give more information than in any of my previous books, which is helpful to both the amateur and advanced cook. It is practical information that will help people understand how to cook better.

ZB: How does the cooking style and method change from restaurant to home?

JR: In a restaurant, you have so much more available to you in terms of equipment. You have the option of making a lot more things because you have the tools to do so. At home, however, you are more limited in what you have and therefore what you can make. One thing I have always noticed throughout my years is that Americans always have so much more equipment in the home than the French do. Even now. You walk into an American home kitchen and they have a garlic peeler, an egg cracker and all sorts of gadgets. The average French home cook has a pan, a knife and a whisk.

ZB: So would you say that equipment is the main difference between the French and the American home cook?

JR: Well it is quite difficult for me to say, because I am not too often in an American home kitchen, but yes, Americans were always ahead with their gadgets. I used to come to the U.S. just to get a meat thermometer because we did not have it in France yet. I was the only chef in France with one at the time when I brought it back.

ZB: The subtitle of this book is “French Home Cooking for the Way We Live Now.” In what ways has French home cooking changed from the way it was 10, 25 or 50 years ago?

JR: Because travel has become much more common and things are transported much easier than in the past, products have become much fresher. If you did not live near the sea 50 or even 25 years ago, it was very difficult to get fresh fish. Now you can get it almost anywhere. Also, in the past, French chefs would hide their meat or produce under thick starchy or creamy sauces, perhaps sometimes to cover up food that is past its prime. Not that I have any problem with cream or butter. Americans tend to shy away from such things because they like to eat healthier, but my family has been eating lots and lots of butter for years and everyone is very old and healthy! But now everything is more pure and you are able to identify foods served to you much easier than in the past.

ZB: So, do you think that making all foods readily available anytime, anywhere is always a good thing?

JR: No, actually it is quite a paradox. It is good because things are fresher and there is more variety, but it is bad because there are fewer adherences to seasonal foods. I think that older people are able to understand the benefit, both health- and tastewise, of eating seasonally, because at some point it was their only choice. But I am quite surprised to discover that many young people are totally unaware of the season of a certain produce.

ZB: Some people complain that cooking at home becomes too expensive if using esoteric ingredients that are barely used and spoil quickly. Did you consider the cook’s wallet when designing the recipes in this cookbook?

JR: If you open the book and point to a recipe and say ‘ok, this is what I am going to cook’ and then go out and buy all of those specific ingredients, yes, it will be expensive. But this cookbook is not meant for that. This book supposes that you are cooking regularly and that you will pick a recipe based on what you already have at home, not the other way around. For example, if you have a lot of carrots, find a recipe in the book with carrots. In this fashion, cooking at home most certainly will save you money.

ZB: Another cookbook released in the past month is Grant Achatz’s Alinea cookbook, which has lots of pretty pictures and recipes that are nearly impossible to replicate at home – unless you keep needles and various chemicals handy. What do you think of so-called molecular gastronomy?

JR: Although I do not want to critique anyone or his or her work, I am personally very against it. I have been working very hard for over 20 years to make sure that my products are free from additives or anything unnatural. If you are talking about the kind of molecular gastronomy that uses additives or synthesized products, that to me is unnatural and something that goes against my work and my will. Firstly, because this is a relatively new practice, we have no idea what the long-term affects are of consuming such substances, and I cannot imagine them being good. Also, it seems to me that if a mistake is made in the kitchen while practicing this molecular gastronomy, it could have a grave outcome for the diner. So, no, this is not something that I myself would ever support.

ZB: Finally, is there a particular recipe in this book that is nearest to your heart?

JR: My mashed potatoes, of course! They are very simple, I just use potatoes, milk and butter, but everyone always asks for more.

– Christina Livadiotis

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