Joel Robuchon serves Shark’s Fin with a French flair and he doesn’t see anything wrong with it
Joel Robuchon doesn't let controversy get in the way of haute cuisine. Acclaimed one of the greatest chefs of the 20th Century, the 61-year-old Robuchon was in Macau recently to visit his spectacular restaurant, Robuchon a Galera, and not to just correct the sauce. He was out to produce as many as 20 new dishes, many based on local ingredients, for his quarterly gala dinner.
Among those local ingredients, he said in an interview, was l'Aileron de Requin: shark's fin.
Asked if he was aware of the controversy over shark-finning, in which fishermen hack off the animal's dorsal and pectoral fins and toss it back into the sea to die, Robuchon shrugged. As many as 100 million sharks are estimated to be dying every year to feed demand for fins, a fact that drove environmentalists to mount a relentless attack on the Disney Corporation over Hong Kong Disneyland's now-discarded plan to serve shark's fin soup at elite wedding banquets.
"But in order to eat you have to kill one life anyway," Robuchon said through an interpreter. "It is always this way, the fish, viand, the legume."
Asked for the recipe, Robuchon replies, "Ah, no, it is a secret. But it will not be in a soup, it will be cooked in the French way. It will go onto the menu if... I think we will keep the ones that are received best by the guests."
And so, mes cher amis, when the gala dinner was served on May 27, there it was: L'Aileron de Reqin en croustille, petite fleur de capucine et feuelles de coriander en tempura. Shark's fin served with tiny crusty nasturtium flowers and coriander leaves in a tempura batter.
Everything we eat must die.
Robuchon is expanding his operations in the Pearl River neighborhood. In partnership with Alan Ho, the nephew of casino supremo Stanley Ho, he will open a new restaurant, his tenth, in Hong Kong in October. He won't reveal many details this far in advance of unveiling the new spot in the Landmark office complex in Central, although it is to be another edition of his acclaimed L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon, four of which already exist in Paris, New York, Las Vegas and Tokyo. The master chef came out of retirement with a drastic change in style from haute cuisine to open the L'Atelier chain, called by Conde Nast Traveler "the world's best coffee shop cum sushi or tapas bar," with counter-only service and no reservations.
"It is very much a family restaurant where the cooking is very much in front of the guests," Robuchon says. "For example you take the fusion cuisine, some people say that fusion is confusion and the concept of this restaurant is quite the opposite. It is la cuisine de verite, mange la verite. It is a way of cooking that is very fast and very easy, and the product has to be perfect. The concept will be based on the idea that the consumer will want a kind of proof cuisine, they will want to see the product, they want to taste it, they want to recognize it. They want it to be cooked in a way so that you can feel the very taste of the product. Simplicity and truth."
L'Atelier is about as far away as possible in concept from Robuchon a Galera, which is considered by many to be Asia's finest pure French restaurant and a striking contrast to the Hotel Lisboa, the garish cross between a bird cage and a wedding cake owned by Stanley Ho. A remarkable antithesis to the rococo gambling palace in which it sits, Robuchon a Galera is all starched napery and damask with only 10 tables seating 55 diners. The draperies are Thai silk. The glassware is Reidel. The cutlery is Cristofle, as are the silver tureens. The porcelain is Bernardaud from Limoges. In a burst of true excess, the fibre-optic lights twinkling in the ceiling are tipped with Swarovski crystal. The wine list is an astonishing 35 pages long and features as many as 3,000 wines, most of them classic French although there is a healthy sprinkling of Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Australian and American ones also. The kitchen is tucked discreetly away and dinner is served by a corps of superbly trained servers.
L'Atelier is to be a long way from that. "It will not be like this," Robuchon says from the depths of an overstuffed chair in the antechamber to the Macau restaurant. "I think today what is very important for people who go to the restaurants is also the atmosphere, not only what is in the plate but in the context in which you are eating, and this will become much more important in the future."
Robuchon's four other L'Ateliers – literally workshops in French – are open to the world, with Spanish hams dangling from the ceilings and chefs laboring away in full view of diners seated in black and red Chinese lacquered interiors.
Despite his disdain for the concept, Robuchon makes his occasional bow toward fusion but he will make no bow towards la gastronomie moleculaire – molecular gastronomy – the revolutionary method of cooking pioneered by Ferran Adria in his Barcelona restaurant El Bulli. Molecular gastronomy chefs literally tear food apart, using centrifuges and liquid nitrogen among other tools, and reconstitute it in different forms. Although Adria is a friend whom Robuchon helped to promote, and although some food critics believe they can detect an Adria influence on some of L'Atelier's dishes, Robuchon gives a firm non to molecular cuisine.
Adria's cuisine, Robuchon says, "is a very personal one, but today there are a lot of chefs who are trying to copy him and they are making very bad copies and this is not helping Ferran Adria. I am 200 percent against this cuisine. I am against it because they are using all products like additives which are used in this molecular cuisines business. All these products which have been prohibited by the health services, the veterinary services, these ingredients have been banned from cuisine. The molecular chefs use these."
Traditional foie gras, for example, must be very fresh. "But in the molecular cuisine you can have any kind of foie gras, bad quality or not, because you deconstruct it, you freeze it, you transform it into a kind of powder and mix it with a kind of soup or a sauce and you can put it on dishes and you can use very bad products."
Molecular cuisine, he says, "is made for people who know nothing about food or cooking, it is made for people who just want to be amazed. They say this is wonderful, but they know nothing about taste or products or cuisine in general."
In cuisine as in all fields of life, he says, "there are new passions, new trends, and it is a kind of cycle, you are born, you live and you die. And it is the same with cuisine. You always come back to a more traditional way. There are some positive things about fusion cuisine, the techniques, the products that they use, but what I do not like at all is when you put a dish in front of me and you ask me to guess what I am eating. The mixing of products so that you do not recognize the taste of anything, this is something which I do not like."
Robuchon displays a refreshing willingness to use local products. Shark's fin is not the only local substance that will appear on his plates, in contrast to virtually every other European chef in Hong Kong, most of whom fly in virtually every ingredient they use. . Vittorio Lucariello, Neapolitan chef de cuisine at Grissini in the Grand Hyatt, for instance, is so concerned about quality that he even has his eggs flown in from Italy.
But, Robuchon says, "we use local products as much as possible. Except for very specific things which you cannot find here, for example white truffle, caviar, specialties like vegetables or fish or seafood, we use the local. For example in Macau, we are proposing dishes with the local crab, which is extraordinary."
The important thing, he says, is the technique, la cuisine de France. "In Japan, I found things which I did not know before, I used them, cooked them, cooked them the French way, and they have a French taste. White truffle is not French, it is Italian, but it is the way you cook the product. Here you can find a very small coral of crab, and when you prepare it in a specific way, you would not think it is not a French taste."
He will continue that pattern in Hong Kong with L'Atelier, but it remains to be seen how many of the new-style Robuchon restaurants will eventually emerge. His arch-rival, the nine-starred Alain Ducasse, has become "la Groupe Alain Ducasse", a vast luxury-food corporation, opening restaurants and chateaux across the world with lines of books and ancillary products. In addition to his top-class three-starred establishments, Ducasse has his own line, Spoon, which has drawn only faint approval from critics and diners alike. When Ducasse appears in Hong Kong to hold court, he is dressed in tweed, wearing horn-rimmed glasses, in contrast to Robuchon's appearance in a full white tunic with the neck rimmed in the French tricolor and toque blanche nearby.
Will Robuchon follow in Ducasse's shoes? He sniffs.
"The goal is not to make 100 restaurants. We have chosen big cities where we have decided to open, maybe there will be one or two more, and then we will stop. We will never be a Starbuck's."