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Joel Robuchon Opens in Shanghai. Does It Matter?

On celebrity chefs and a 5,000rmb dinner.
Last updated: 2016-04-15

The famous "Oeuf Caviar". 498rmb.

The parade of dishes at my 5,000rmb meal at L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon, which officially opened on the Bund last week, went like this: butter, foie gras, caviar, gold leaf, caviar, caviar, butter, butter, foie gras, foie gras, butter, dessert. On the menu, they are named things like "L’Ouef de Poule" and "Les Huitres", but other ingredients are secondary. A meal at L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon, where you can spend 500rmb on a single egg, is heavy. The luxury is gratuitous. The egg, and everything else, is just an excuse for more caviar or foie gras.

The cooking is outdated and boring, and the décor is ugly to boot.

All of this luxury reminded me of the beauty of vegetables, in a roundabout way. After oysters drowned in butter, foie gras strapped to a beef tenderloin, foie gras as a shooter and foie gras weaseled into a pigeon breast, all I wanted was a plate of vegetables. Something green. The 538rmb plate of langoustine ravioli might have done it -- not the fat ravioli themselves, which were suffocating under a thick tan blanket of yet more foie gras, but the promise of “braised cabbage” as part of the dish.

Naturally, the cabbage was cooked in butter. I should have known.

Robuchon, the chef is a deity. Robuchon the brand -- L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon -- is a bore.

The food is luxury for luxury’s sake, and I like luxury. But when the chef won’t even let a virtuous dish like sea bream carpaccio out of the kitchen without spoonfuls of caviar, when you can’t tell the difference between the plug of butter for the bread and a dish of mashed potatoes, it’s just pandering. Of course, this stuff tastes good. It’s all fat. Put this much foie gras on a chicken foot and Michelin will give it three stars. If, as Wikipedia says, that Joel Robuchon’s cooking “was seen as harking back to a more authentic… cuisine… focused on making each ingredient taste of itself” then the lesson from a meal at L’Atelier de Robuchon is this: the natural flavor of everything in the world is either butter or foie gras.

One is butter, one is mashed potatoes. But which?

Stylistically, the food is fussy and outdated. A million perfectly spaced drops of parsley oil around the border of a plate once passed for haute cuisine. Today, it looks like OCD, or perhaps cook abuse. (As each dish came out, fussier than the last, I couldn’t help but say a prayer for the poor soul responsible for the squeeze bottle.) It is franchise fine-dining, operating on a menu that appears to have been standardized in about 1986. The red-black-and-mirror décor might have come a bit later -- 1990s drug dealer chic.

Robuchon is hardly the first person to sell China a stale product. Kenny G. The Eagles tour. Sisqo the “Thong Song” guy playing at Arkham last year. Robuchon is just the latest. He’s the expat finance guy, the expat trade guy, the expat real estate guy all coming to this side of the world with something to sell. He just happens to wear a chef’s jacket, not a business suit.

Neither is Robuchon the first celebrity chef to hear that the pockets of China are lined with gold. The Pourcel brothers laid the groundwork for this, just a few floors up from where L’Atelier de Robuchon is today. (Bund18 didn’t learn its lesson from the success of Mr & Mrs Bund, apparently. Instead, they’ve gone back to boring chefs and chain restaurants, circa 2004: L’Atelier de Robuchon, Hakkasan, and now Ginza Onodera, a Tokyo chain with expensive addresses in Paris, New York and Los Angeles, among others.)

Wolfgang Puck is trying to sell the 1980s in Xintiandi. Alan Wong is doing the '90s at Shanghai Centre. Yves Mattagne did seafood for a while at the long-gone LAN Club. Paco Roncero and Mauro Colagreco are now doing “modern European.” Martin Berasategui sold his name to a historic villa in Xuhui Park several years ago and then ghosted. (I asked him for comment in 2015. His daughter told me he hadn’t been involved for the last year and that he “wasn’t interested in talking about this time.” It’s now closed.) Christian Le Squer, who received his third Michelin star at Paris’s Four Seasons Hotel Georges V this year, is also shilling pastry for Le Cake (below).

This is both fine and outrageous. Chefs are entitled to cash in too, I suppose, but it would be nice if they put up a warning sign for potential diners: “Just here for the $$$$.”

In Shanghai, the only big-name chefs relevant to an actual dinner, the ones who have a reputation that actually translates into something more than just a paycheck, are Jason Atherton and Jean-Georges Vongeritchen. Atherton, who is currently in the process of taking over Asia, gifted us Commune Social and Table No. 1. Jean-Georges Vongeritchen, who has been here so long the last emperor must have invited him, has given us Jean-Georges, Mercato and Chi Q. The difference between these restaurants and the celebrity cash-ins is that they stay modern and up-to-date. Fine dining -- let’s just call it cooking good food, and forget all the bullshit that likes to ride along (the expensive silverware, glasses and table cloths) -- is a dynamic process.

So, does it even matter that Joel Robuchon has opened a L’Atelier here?

At my most cynical, I find it not just irrelevant but offensive: Robuchon as the Louis Vuitton of the chef world, wringing the last money out of his Greatest Hits, turning himself into a brand for a brand-crazy part of the world. He’s not the first and he won’t be the last, but he irks me the most: a combination of dated food, media hype around his Michelin Stars™, the idea we are being “graced” by his presence, the outrageous prices, and his bald money-grab in Asia.

There is now a L’Atelier de Robuchon in Bangkok, Hong Kong, Taipei, Tokyo, and Shanghai, all with more or less the same menu. There’s a reason Joel Robuchon doesn’t have a string of L’Atelier restaurants in Europe -- fine-dining has moved on. In the rest of the world, these restaurants wouldn’t be called a workshop (the atelier part); they’d be seen for the museums they are. Also, Joel Robuchon is 71 years old. What the hell does he need all this money for? Is Asia his retirement plan?

At moderate cynical, I see some positives: he is keeping all the people with more money than sense in one place, so they are easier for the rest of us to avoid, and he is stuffing them full of heart disease.

Catch me on a sunny day, and I’ll even admit that it might be a good thing that a few dozen young cooks are getting exposure to some new techniques. (Though this takes me back to cynical. It will not be long before some of these guys peel off and start covering every dish in the city with foie gras.)

I don’t have a problem with the actual cooking or the chefs, per se. Technically, they are excellent, and that is to be expected. The opening of L’Atelier de Robuchon in Shanghai would only be news if it was a catastrophic disaster -- raw chicken, shouting waiters, that kind of thing. After spending four hours at the restaurant last week, I can say that hasn’t happened.

The machine is working just fine.

It can be annoying, though. Most seats are set around a large Japanese-style counter, which the waiters stand behind, leading to a couple of problems. Every time the staff wants to fill your drinks, they have to lean across the counter, but can only reach far enough to pick up your glass by its lip, leaving their fingerprints (and whatever else is on their fingers) on the rim of your glass. Neither are their arms long enough to easily pick up empty dishes in front of you, which means you either have to help them by clearing your own plates across the counter (and these are not Sproutworks prices), or feel like a dick while they try to get their Go-Go Gadget Arms working. Breadcrumbs and silverware become a similar problem.

So, Shanghai gets another celebrity chef, and he’s got a lot of Michelin stars to boot. Who cares? L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon is for the expense account set and for people chasing brand names, and Joel Robuchon has gone from a once ground-breaking chef to just another boring global brand, taking up space where something interesting might actually happen.

People don’t buy a Hermes Birkin bag just because they need something to carry their things around. And people shouldn’t go to L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon just because they want dinner.

"Dinner for two"

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the company that Christian Le Squer worked with. It is Le Cake, not 21Cake.