Joël Robuchon, a French Chef Festooned With Stars, Is Dead at 73

By William Grimes

Joël Robuchon in 2017 at his restaurant L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in the Meatpacking District in Manhattan. He played with the language of classic French cooking, turning out dishes remarkable for their intoxicating flavors and their beauty on the plate.CreditSasha Maslov for The New York Times

Joël Robuchon, an endlessly inventive French chef who earned a record number of Michelin stars by recasting French haute cuisine in a personal style that emphasized intense flavors and precise technique, died on Monday in Geneva. He was 73.

The French government announced his death. The eminent oncologist David Khayat, a friend of Mr. Robuchon’s who said he was with him when he died, told the French newspaper Le Figaro that the cause was complications of pancreatic cancer.

Mr. Robuchon, best known in recent years for the chain of small restaurants he called ateliers, dazzled the French culinary world with his first Paris restaurant, Jamin, which earned three Michelin stars in record speed, a mere three years after opening in 1981.

Classically trained and deeply influenced by nouvelle cuisine, he played with the language of classic French cooking, turning out a series of dishes remarkable for their intoxicating flavors and their beauty on the plate.

They could be disarmingly simple. His butter-laden potato purée, one of many instant classics, consisted of four ingredients —potatoes, butter, milk and salt — but his labor-intensive technique of drying the potatoes and gradually introducing chilled butter and boiling milk elevated the dish far beyond its station.

More complex productions included caviar in a soft aspic with cauliflower cream, truffle tart and ravioli filled with langoustine in a vegetable and foie-gras broth.

Customers look at items at the bakery shop “La Boutique de Joel Robuchon” in Shanghai in 2018. Mr. Robuchon’s reach was global.CreditJohannes Eisele/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“Robuchon molds, melds, seasons, extracts the greatness out of everything from cauliflower to razor clams, foie gras to caviar,” Patricia Wells wrote in The International Herald Tribune in 1994, naming his new Restaurant Joël Robuchon in Paris one of the world’s 10 best restaurants. “Robuchon brings the palate to heights it never dreamed of,” she added.

At one time, Mr. Robuchon’s many restaurants had accumulated more than 30 Michelin stars, a tally unequalled by any other chef. In 1990, the Gault-Millau guide named him one of its “chefs of the century,” putting him in the company of Paul Bocuse, Frédy Girardet and Eckart Witzigmann.

“He personified perfection for a generation of chefs,” the three-star chef Pierre Gagnaire told The New York Times in 2002, shortly before Mr. Robuchon came out of retirement to start a new chapter with his casual atelier restaurants, which extended his reach to cities around the world, from New York to Shanghai.

Joël Robuchon was born on April 7, 1945, in Poitiers, in western France. His father, Henri, was a mason, and his mother, Julienne (Douteau) Robuchon, was a housemaid. At 12 he entered the junior seminary in Mauléon-sur-Sèvre, northwest of Poitiers, with the intention of becoming a priest. But he found a new vocation while helping the nuns prepare meals. At 15 he began an apprenticeship at the Relais de Poitiers, a hotel and restaurant in Chasseneuil-du-Poitou.

As part of a program called the Compagnons du Devoir, he traveled throughout France in his early 20s studying regional cuisines and mastering traditional techniques. At the same time, the new thinking about French cuisine that would evolve into nouvelle cuisine made a deep impression on him, especially the emphasis on freshness and integrity of raw materials.

“One of his favorite lines was, ‘Our job is not to make a mushroom taste like a carrot but to make a mushroom taste as much like a mushroom as it can,’ ” Ms. Wells, the co-author of Mr. Robuchon’s cookbook “Simply French” (1991), said by telephone.

Interior of L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon. His original idea for this and other restaurants like it was to create “a little place, with 15 or 20 seats, one or two people at the stoves, with a spontaneous, healthy cuisine based on what the chef finds at the market every day.”CreditDaniel Krieger for The New York Times

In 1966 he married Janine Pallix, who survives him, as do their two children, Sophie Kartheiser, who manages a restaurant in the Dordogne, in southwest France, and Louis, who recently opened a wine bar in Japan.

In 1974, after cooking in several restaurants around France, Mr. Robuchon, not yet 30, was placed in charge of 90 chefs at the new Hôtel Concorde La Fayette (now the Hyatt Regency Paris Étoile), where the kitchen turned out 3,000 meals at a sitting.

Two years later he earned the title best craftsman in France, an honor given to chefs who survive a grueling competition.

“He won more competitions than anyone, and he introduced that aesthetic, that precision, that beauty on the plate, into his cooking,” said Eric Ripert, who was Mr. Robuchon’s fish chef at Jamin and is now the chef at, and a co-owner of, Le Bernardin in New York. “That was his signature, and it has never been duplicated with as much success.”

At the Hôtel Nikko in Paris, Mr. Robuchon earned two Michelin stars, and with the opening of Jamin, he moved to the front rank of French chefs. Restaurant Robuchon, which opened in 1994 on the Avenue Raymond-Poincaré, elevated him even further, with a homier, more robust style of cooking reflected in dishes like pot-au-feu of cured pork with buttered cabbage and truffles and roasted pigeon with potatoes fried in duck fat. The urge to simplify only grew stronger with time.

“The older I get, the more I realize the truth is: the simpler the food, the more exceptional it can be,” he told Business Insider in 2014. “I never try to marry more than three flavors in one dish. I like walking into a kitchen and knowing that the dishes are identifiable and the ingredients within them easy to detect.”

Mr. Robuchon, center, received the Médaille Grand Vermeil de Paris, the highest honor the city bestows, in a ceremony in 2016.CreditFrancois Guillot/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

At the height of his fame, Mr. Robuchon abruptly retired, haunted, he said, by the example of Alain Chapel and Jean Troisgros, great chefs who died early from the exertions of the trade. (Both died in their 50s.) He turned to broadcasting in France, appearing on the daily program “Cook Like a Great Chef” and the hugely popular “Bon Appétit, You Bet!,” which ran for nine years.

After a period of doing consulting work and traveling the world, Mr. Robuchon came up with a new concept, influenced by the tapas bars of Spain and the sushi counters of Japan. The idea, he wrote in his cookbook “L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon” (2006), was “a little place, with 15 or 20 seats, one or two people at the stoves, with a spontaneous, healthy cuisine based on what the chef finds at the market every day.”

Counters rather than tables looked onto an open kitchen, a design that he hoped would promote interaction between customer and chef.

L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon opened in Paris in 2003, followed by others around the world. When the New York atelier opened in the Four Seasons Hotel in 2006, Frank Bruni awarded it three stars in The New York Times.

He singled out for praise “a layered cake of smoked foie gras and caramelized eel that’s the stuff of dreams; a mélange of sea urchin roe, lobster and cauliflower cream that’s pure rapture; a pair of precocious sliders — made with Kobe beef, foie gras, caramelized peppers and the most perfect little brioche buns imaginable — that get my vote for haute burger of the new millennium.”

The restaurant closed after six years, but in 2017 Mr. Robuchon opened a new atelier near the Meatpacking District, which Pete Wells gave two stars.

Mr. Robuchon’s many cookbooks include “Joel Robuchon: Cooking Through the Seasons” (1995), “The Complete Robuchon” (2008) and “Food and Life” (2014), written with Dr. Nadia Volf. He led the editorial team that revised the Larousse Gastronomique, France’s premier culinary reference work, published in the United States in 2001.

This spring, collaborating with Hiroshi Sakurai, the director of Dassai sake, he opened La Boutique Dassaï Joël Robuchon, a restaurant and tea salon in Paris with a sake bar included.

Alissa Rubin in Paris contributed reporting.

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page B12 of the New York edition with the headline: Joël Robuchon, 73, French Chef Who Revolutionized Haute Cuisine, Is Dead. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe