Chef Joël Robuchon recently visited Las Vegas in what has become a thrice-yearly tradition during which he oversees the seasonal transformation of the menu and décor for his two eponymous restaurants at MGM Grand, the Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star Joël Robuchon and the Four-Star L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon. During a rare breather in his busy schedule, Robuchon sat down with us to talk about his new 18-course menu, his views of vegetarianism and how he’ll celebrate a decade of fine dining in Vegas.
How often do you visit Las Vegas?
About three times a year right now. There’s a long period in the summer where, from May until about September or October, it’s really quite calm. We come during the winter, spring, usually, and then just before summer.
Regarding your seasonal menus, what’s your method for deciding what’s on, what’s off?
As a general rule, it’s based on the ingredients we find at that time, period. And the menus are established based on those ingredients. We try to bring in a few new dishes and new presentation methods, which are completely original, which will invigorate the service.
Are there any ingredients you are not able to get in Las Vegas?
I am sure there are some, but then I really don’t look for ingredients that I can’t find. I don’t try to impose ingredients upon Las Vegas. I really try to work with things that are accessible to me. We have exceptional produce — even sea urchin, which I thought I would never find here. There are sea urchins of exceptional quality coming out of Los Angeles. There is some amazing chicken from California as well; the one I tasted today was incredible, and this was a farmer from around the corner. Just a few minutes ago I got to taste beef that was phenomenal. Perhaps the hardest thing to find is the fish. But even the seafood that we find here suits me perfectly. And I don’t know if people realize, but our cheese trolley is almost completely made up of American cheeses; I am proud to put American cheese on my cheese trolley.
What is the idea behind your 18-dish Degustation menu?
There are three really important elements: It has to be modern, there have to be a few innovative dishes and a few traditional dishes. We’ll have some customers who love new things, some guests who love things that are out of the ordinary and we’ll have those who love traditional dishes. This is exactly what we find in this tasting menu, all three of them.
Why are some of the courses composed of a trio of two-bite dishes?
If we were to serve those [18 dishes] to you individually, you would have [those] two bites and then you would wait another five minutes for the next dish. However, in the composition of these [trios], we have three dishes that are not only integrated and harmonious with one another in flavor and follow one another on the menu, but also with regard to the [others two dishes], that are simultaneously presented on the plate.
You recently launched a vegetarian menu called Food & Life, aimed at offering healthier high-end cuisine. How does this differ from your Degustation tasting menu?
Well, there may actually be two of these [Food & Life] menus: One, which is eight or nine dishes, will be the true Food & Life menu; then, we will have a secondary, which will be adapted from our [Degustation] tasting menu, which is 18 dishes.
I heard you might even make a move toward presenting a vegan menu?
I’m not going to insist too strongly on that, but it is eventually a move. It’s something that I’m certainly learning, something I want to make sure is done correctly, especially with all the changes that we do seasonally. But one thing there will be absolutely none of is gluten. We are removing all gluten from the [Food & Life] menu. But this [vegetarian] menu, if I think about it, there are no eggs — so, we’re getting there. It’s still very difficult, and we have to be cautious before we actually fully unveil the menu [as vegan]. In the U.S., there are quite a few vegans and vegetarians, but even in Singapore, where I have restaurants, there are a lot, perhaps even more than the U.S.
How do you justify the $445 price to someone who is wondering how the vegetarian version could be the same price without meat?
There is actually a lot of work that goes into vegetarian dishes, and it’s not necessarily the produce that’s expensive. In this case, it’s the man-hours that go into preparing all of these dishes. If you think about the tomato dish, just that one dish itself and the garnish, it really does take a lot of work. It’s the work that justifies the price. In our profession, labor is the most expensive cost. The general public is not aware of it, because they know that certain vegetables are cheaper than animal protein.
What else will you change out for the summer season?
We change the presentation of the plates and the room, the flowers, the colors. We want a harmony with the table itself and the presentation of the table with the room — and I mean small touches, such as the ribbon tied around the napkin. We’ve been doing this for 10 years.
We eat first with the eyes. Where do you find inspiration for your elaborate plating and presentation techniques?
For me, the presentation is extremely important as, first and foremost, it determines whether or not we are going to enjoy a dish. It’s true that a dish which is well presented will excite the appetite. A dish that isn’t as good [on the eye], we automatically don’t want to eat it. So, the presentation really is first and the presentation is an outcome of the dish. Once the dish is made, then we’ll select the plate and then we’ll select the manor on which we can valorize that dish. We don’t begin with the plate and say, “I want to use this.” We begin with the dish. We begin with the recipe. Following that, we look for the best presentation and the best plate.
Are there any chefs in particular with whom you enjoy collaborating?
There are a lot of very talented young chefs coming out of the woodwork currently. In this city, I’ve done a large number of collaborations: José Andrés and Alex Stratta [for two]. And it’s always a pleasure to work with these people, because — especially when I don’t know them personally or professionally — it’s interesting to learn their philosophy and the manner in which they work. One’s culinary prowess is certainly a reflection, to a certain extent, of the man or woman themselves.
What are your thoughts on hospitality as being either a natural or a learned talent?
Americans are well placed in this domain. When you go into a store, you are well received for the most part. There is always a financial incentive. But even if people don’t buy anything, they are still, for the most part, well received. In France, it is the exact opposite. It’s almost as if you are annoying the store clerk, because you are trying to buy something. I can critique because I’m French. There is an automatic instinct to be serviceable and hospitable in this country. In Las Vegas, we don’t necessarily have a very strict or difficult service standards. But there is a technique which needs to be taught and needs to be learned. You do need technique to produce certain things, such as [table-side] carving stations in the restaurant.
Any plans for September, when your Las Vegas concepts turn 10?
We started speaking about it yesterday. Last night we had two guests, two very loyal guests, extremely loyal guests, and this was a guest who asked us if we were going to celebrate. She told us she absolutely wants to be here to celebrate, so you’re the second person in this many days who’s asked us that question. So it’s something that is important because it was a guest that asked us first and it was she who brought it to us; it is not only important to us but to our guests as well. And you’ve been here longer than I have. You’ve been here 15 years, perhaps you can see better than I, but there are very few fine-dining restaurants and very few chefs who have been able to retain their position [for a decade]. I mean, look at Alex Stratta as an example — he no longer really exists in Las Vegas, and there are a lot of fine-dining restaurants that have not been able to survive in this environment and in this city. So, you have to keep supporting us for a few more years.
Over the course of the last decade, what have you observed about the Las Vegas dining scene?
I’ve certainly noticed that fine dining has been on a downward trend. In response to that, I see larger and larger restaurants, which really do more numbers, larger cover accounts per day, but it is always a new concept. And it’s constantly a turnover of [new] concepts eliminating old ones. That’s what’s interesting for me in Las Vegas is to see that.
Where does a chef at your level go from here? Do you go up, out and bigger? Do you go inward, deeper or more technical?
I’ve known both of those periods — growth exterior and growth interior. When I was 50, I was in my restaurant from morning till night. I never went anywhere, and people used to cite me as the example. I was always present in my restaurant. Then, I [also] knew the secondary experience, which is to travel quite a bit. If it would be possible to [have] both simultaneously, that would be the ideal, because you really can’t imagine the amount you learn by traveling the world. You discover so many new techniques and so many new manners of doing things, new products and ingredients. I’ve discovered Chinese cuisine, all of the cuisines around the world. And what’s beautiful is that today, in every country in the world, there’s a phenomenal restaurant. I know that it’s always good to say that a chef has to stay in a restaurant, but then the chef has blinders on. You have to see what’s happening in other locations in order to do it correctly yourself. When I was at José Andrés, again to cite an example, what I got to see was these beautiful ovens and all of these new techniques or new manners of presenting food, and I think that that’s really progress.