This past Monday, Aug. 6, many of us awoke to our regularly defined morning routines only to peer at a phone encumbered by missed calls, text messages, or emails — a knot of apprehension hurriedly building in the pit of our stomachs and our hearts as we willed the news to be wrong, that somehow, the information projecting itself in the dim light was incorrect.
A week full of contemplation and many heartfelt conversations later, many of us remain in shock; finding difficulty in picturing this invincible entity we once knew and loved to have moved on without us: leaving us clinging to a hope and against all rationale that at any instant, this indefatigable culinary idol would enter any of the eponymous restaurants he allowed his team to reside in, those infallible eyes analyzing as they had so naturally done thousands of times before. A hope gently replaced by disheartening actuality.
In anticipation of the ceremony to be held in his birthplace of Poitiers today, the past few days have seen a great number of writers and restaurateurs speak to the loss which the industry has suffered; yet his character, the person behind the toque, seems to have slipped beyond the grasp of our collective declarations. His past has been written and recanted, his untamable achievements celebrated through written and spoken word. Yet the tribute that will survive him is far more important than the flame he placed at a low temperature beneath the potatoes being passed, time and again, through a fine mesh sieve; the true flame of importance being the one he lit within hundreds and thousands over decades, a fiery belief that cooking was more than a job, not limited to the poor or uneducated, but an art to be refined, developed, and most importantly, relished in the present with those one loves.
A literal “who’s who” of chefs, from Eric Bouchenoire and Frederic Anton to Eric Ripert and Tomonori Danzaki, are some of the most celebrated by the youngest generation of today’s culinary enthusiasts and act, whether knowingly or unbeknownst to them, as living tributes to his past through the impalpable mark he left upon each. Respective generations following the inception of his first restaurant in the budding ’80s saw countless formidable chefs who have gained independent notoriety and success, yet this subsisting homage has not finished, as the pages of history continue to be detailed with those he left a mark on.
There were few fortunate to work with him, yet all in the industry grew up reading about his legend. An invigorating dance over egg shells, working for such a perfectionist saw many a student seek out one of those discerning eyes as they inspected the work at hand, hoping beyond hope for a simple nod of approval at a task well done, often replaced with a soft and genuine smile should the students’ gaze linger too long, awestruck simply by his presence.
Many cringed to think of what would happen if he came by and in his silent demeanor took a knife from their hand so as to articulate in a manner more adept than words the proper technique or finish he desired, yet those initiated found that they lived for such moments, an opportunity to learn directly from the master (to watch Picasso paint, or Chopin compose, paraphrasing Ms. Wells). His professionalism and attention to detail otherwise undetected by the masses was then so much more impactfully and elegantly harmonized with a temperance he would display outside of a dinner service, warmly greeting each member of his team individually, joking about a new baby, a bad haircut, or just a smile so characteristic of a bon-vivant.
Surprisingly, his students — all generations of them — lived for a small pat on the cheek.
More affectionate than words could account for, his ability to translate through a simple and affirming pat on the cheek that he was proud of something they had done was worth any amount of hours spent stressfully anticipating his oversight.
So how to begin to even attempt a tribute to such a man? Glorified in news journals and books, displayed in innumerable awards spanning the globe, the world pauses to thank him for what he showed them, what he prepared for them, how he taught them to eat first with their eyes, how to cook through love, or cook simply — and well. The world thanks him not solely for the prodigious integrity which propelled him onto a stage enabling him to impact so many, but for the depthless passion he exhibited, the love, that chase for perfection which countless Chefs have since reflected and embodied in their own careers. And despite many greats having studied beneath him, his book is not yet finished, the ink not yet dry, the hand still scribbling madly:
The 25-year-old demi chef de rang in Tokyo, the 24-year-old commis in Las Vegas, the 9-year-old who tasted his mashed potatoes: those hundreds even now spread among the globe — in Hong Kong or Paris, Bangkok or New York — who have only been blessed with even such a small window of opportunity as to have timidly shaken his hand; those impacted in a momentary instant in time that will nonetheless persist a lifetime in their eyes, have not yet begun to shine, or to tell their stories.
His story is not over. The people he brought together have a commonality stronger than friendship, a web more interconnected than gastronomy. We had Monsieur Robuchon in our lives, if only for an instant, and we thank him for the opportunity to do so.
We will collectively hold you in our heart Monsieur Robuchon; not just as our chef, but our mentor, our friend, our family. You will be missed, but more importantly, you will continue to be honored in those you have left behind, if only for a short while.
Sebastian Dumonet is the former director of operations for both Joël Robuchon restaurants at the MGM Grand and 2015 Eater Young Gun. He is currently the vice president of food and beverage for VOS Hospitality, opening the first Greystone Hotel in Miami Beach.
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