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Restaurant world loses an icon

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Joel Robuchon, the world’s most decorated chef, died on Aug 6 in Geneva at the age of 73, but not without leaving an impact on Singapore where he had two restaurants before their closure at the end of June.

JOEL Robuchon, the world’s most decorated chef, died on Aug 6 in Geneva at the age of 73, but not without leaving an impact on Singapore where he had two restaurants before their closure at the end of June.

His eponymous Joel Robuchon restaurant was the only one awarded three stars when the Michelin Guide was launched in Singapore in 2016. With its closure, there is no more three starred restaurant here.

According to French press reports, he succumbed to cancer which had plagued him for several years. He underwent surgery for a pancreatic tumour last year.

However, he hid it well and never let on that he was ill, even as he spoke publicly about changing his own diet for health reasons. A few years ago, he even teamed up with a renowned Russian acupuncturist and neuropharmacologist Nadia Volf to co-write a cookbook titled Food and Life which focused on food and recipes with healing benefits.

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Despite his 24 Michelin stars, accolades and near-messiah status in the culinary world, he lived simply. When he first "retired" in 1996, said the French newspaper Le Figaro, he had worked for 30 years and was badly affected by the premature deaths of his friends Alain Chapel, Jean Troisgros and Jacques Pic.

He moved to Spain, at the foot of Peñón de Ifach, in the province of Alicante.

But he came out of retirement in 2006 and built an overseas empire of restaurants base, including his eponymous Joel Robuchon and L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon restaurants at Resorts World Sentosa.

When they opened in 2011, he brought the glitter of a true three Michelin-starred fine French dining experience to Singapore. However, it is understood that the restaurants were not doing well in the past few years, and due to contractual issues, the two restaurants were closed at the end of June. There are plans to re-open L’Atelier in the Orchard Road or downtown vicinity but it is unclear if they will still go ahead.

Over the years that he visited Singapore, chef Robuchon developed a love for local food, especially fresh seafood - including chilli crab. He also had his share of Singapore friends including BT’s wine columnist N K Yong and his wife Melina. The couple often hosted Mr Robuchon and his team at their home, where Mrs Yong - an acclaimed home chef - would cook his favourite mee goreng.

Like everyone else who heard the sad news, Dr and Mrs Yong said that the culinary world had "lost a giant".

As Mrs Yong put it: "He was a man full of humility and without any airs, even for such a prominent figure."

Added Dr Yong: "We have lost a good friend."

Mrs Yong: "The last time we saw him was over a year ago and he was extremely well, enjoying his food and after dinner cigar. There was no indication at all of any illness."

Sebastien Lepinoy of the two Michelin-starred restaurant Les Amis, started his career at the age of 18 under the mentorship of chef Robuchon. He literally grew up with him as, at the time, the older chef worked much closer with his chefs than he did in his later years.

Chef Lepinoy remembers fondly how "he increased my salary every six months - he asked for a lot in return, but he was very good to me".

He added: "He was a very simple man. Even though he was successful, he lived for a long time in a small apartment in Paris."

Vianney Massot, who was last cooking at L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon at RWS before it closed, said he did not know about his mentor’s illness. “Mr Robuchon did not share much of his personal life with us, as he did not want us to worry about him. I first met him in 2009 and he was my greatest teacher and mentor along with Eric Bouchenoir, his right-hand man. 

“I would not be where I am today if I did not meet Mr Robuchon. He taught me professional rigour and humility, which is somewhat lacking.”

Another of chef Robuchon’s close Singapore friends, public relations and communications veteran Lynn Yeow-De Vito was shocked at his sudden death.

She had met him several years ago when she was doing public relations for his Singapore restaurants.

"He was a genuine, loving friend to me and my family and to those who worked for him, he was a father figure and mentor. To the restaurant industry, he was the pope of gastronomy."

She added that he had never mentioned his illness although when she last saw him some months ago, he had already lost a lot of weight.

"He said he was on a diet."

He was the quintessential Frenchman - impeccably mannered, ever-gracious - and popular with journalists because regardless of how many interviewed him on his regular visits to Singapore, he would always give each one his undivided attention. He would pretend to cringe at "difficult" questions but was always open and candid in his replies. He was humorous, cheeky and affectionate.

He may have thrown a plate at Gordon Ramsay and made mashed potatoes that make you weep in delight, but Joel Robuchon was a light in the restaurant world, and will be sorely missed.