A Single Night at Joël Robuchon's Paris Atelier Changed How I Cook Forever

A Single Night at Joël Robuchon's Paris Atelier Changed How I Cook Forever

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Dana McMahan
Aug 7, 2018
(Image credit: Roslan Rahman/AFP/Getty Images)

When I heard the news Monday of celebrated chef Joël Robuchon's passing, my mind flashed back seven years to a singular night in Paris — a turning point in my love for food.

On the last night of an incredible trip to Morocco and France, my husband and I had a decision to make: We had come in under budget on the trip, and I felt the distinct urge to use it on something important. Of course the sensible thing would've been to take that cash back home. But who wants to be sensible on their last night in Paris?

So we hatched a plan. We'd call the concierge and ask if he could get us a last-minute table at our dream restaurant, L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon, just down the street at the top of the Champs Elysees in the lower level of the (fabulous) Drugstore Publicis. If it wasn't possible, we'd stay in our robes and have room service.

A New Food-Lover's Quest for the Best French Food

You see, my husband and I had gradually evolved from the fast-food and packaged-food ways of our college years to becoming (what we then still un-self-consciously called) foodies. We found a love for food in our various travels and through elaborate meals made from farmers market finds, but we had yet to dine at a temple of cuisine such as Robuchon. It was so, so beyond what we could imagine spending on just one meal. We had, of course, read about his food, and lingered outside his St. Germaine restaurant dreaming of what was being prepared inside, but never seriously considered joining the rarified club of diners. Until now.

I was obsessed with all things French, their food in particular, and Robuchon represented the pinnacle of cuisine in a country where even the simplest of dishes — a picnic baguette prepared by yours truly with cheese and butter — was something to dream about. Imagining beautiful French ingredients in the hands of a legendary chef like Robuchon, who had racked up more Michelin stars than any other chef, elicited the same wistful yearning as would a gleaming toy store's window to a kid at the holidays. And now I was to be turned loose in that toy store!

My One Magical Night at Joël Robuchon's Paris Atelier

The concierge rang us with the electrifying news shortly after 6:30 p.m.: We'd be having dinner at the counter at L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon Etoile that very night in just a couple of hours. This was no time to play it cool; I literally jumped up and down on the bed.

We decided to go all out and spring for the tasting menu — seven courses of stunningly composed small plates, each a foray into a world of stratospheric talent I had vaguely imagined was out there. Naturally, the purée de pomme (his celebrated mashed potatoes, showered in black truffle shavings) stole the show. I also remember the sweet perfection of the Coquilles St.-Jacques, the tender, plump scallop that melted beyond the seared golden first bite. Each course was a study in the simplicity he'd built his legacy on — only a few ingredients, no over-the-top presentation. You knew with one look, with the first bite, that the very restraint told the story of the immense care and thought behind the dish.

Of course, the luxury of dining at a place like this didn't come cheap. The meal was expensive (like, really expensive), but the thing was, I told myself then and still feel now, that it wasn't just about sustenance or food as fuel or even money — it was about one last night in Paris and celebrating everything beautiful about the city I love. It was about learning what waited beyond the confines of the food world I'd known up until that point. It was educating my palate and opening my eyes and experiencing artistry at that level up close and personal. Which is to say, it was worth every euro and I'd do it again in a heartbeat.

A Lesson for the Home Cook: Elevate the Everyday

I came away from that meal being inspired as a home cook. We had only begun to scratch the surface in our few years of avid cooking, and even if only a handful of people in the world could aspire to cook in the same realm as Robuchon, in some ways it was enough to just know it was possible for humans at all. We could learn from his obsession with the utmost quality in ingredients, with his insistence on honoring the most humble of produce. I mean, if mashed potatoes — a dish I ate every day of my childhood, the very definition of a basic meal component — could be elevated to international stardom under the right hand and with the right technique, what else was possible with the everyday foods I knew?

And while it certainly doesn't require blowing the bank on one extravagant meal to be a full-fledged gourmet, I can trace the night my sparking love for food blazed into a full-blown passion to that one night, and that one meal from Joël Robuchon's kitchen.

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