'Flaubert of the kitchens' hangs up his tea towel

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In a land where taking food seriously means taking Delia Smith seriously, it is not easy to understand the excitement that had the whole of Paris trembling like the jellies at an English kiddies' birthday party this week. Joel Robuchon, the world's greatest three-star Michelin chef, had vowed to quit the kitchen when he reached the age of 50. No one believed he would, but this week he did.

In the modestly-named "Joel Robuchon" eaterie, Mr Robuchon threw in the tea towel and named his successor. Sensation followed sensation. With one flick of his whisk, he created the world's first six-star chef. "Of France's 35 three-star Michelin chefs, Only Alain Ducasse has the talent to run my restaurant," Robuchon declared.

Ducasse, known as the "other prince of Monte Carlo", will be keeping his current position as top chef at the world-famous Restaurant Louis XV in the principality, but will combine this with the Paris job. The Joel Robuchon restaurant will be called the Alain Ducasse after Robuchon cooks his "last supper" there on 5 July. The 45 seats among the Nina Campbell decor of the top temple of gastronomy are all spoken for, and as the establishment is booked up three months in advance, it is now too late to reserve a place at one of the hallowed tables.

Most of us will never know what his signature starter, Gelee du Caviar a la creme de chou-fleur even tasted like. For those of us who think in terms of chipped, boiled, roast, mashed and jacket, we will never even taste in our dreams any of the 100 recipes for the potato, by the man for whom doing things with spuds was an art-form.

The Robuchon clientele will certainly notice a difference when they become the Ducasse clientele. From the time he opened his first restaurant in Paris in 1981, Robuchon used traditional recipes, simple products and the finest ingredients, for which he charged a fortune. His starter alone now comes at 300 francs and the average bill is 1,600 francs per person.

"By the purity of his style he became the Flaubert of the kitchens," said Ducasse.

In 1995 Robuchon was awarded the Legion of Honour by Francois Mitterrand, and there were obvious suspicions that the late president, whose favourite dish was apparently La fameuse tete de cochon was simply making sure he could always get a table.

We do not know how pure or impure the Ducasse style will be, but we do know he is a very different kettle of sardines from Robuchon. Nine years ago, having survived a horrific air crash, Ducasse signed a contract that no other leading French chef dared put his name to. Not only did he agree to create what his employers planned to be one of France's greatest restaurants. He guaranteed to get three stars in the coveted Michelin Guide or lose his job.

At that time, anything that was not Beluga caviar or Dom Perignon champagne was looked on with suspicion by the top eaters. But within two years Ducasse won his three stars with his daring nouvelle-Mediterranean cuisine and at 33 he became the youngest chef in the history of the Michelin Guide to receive the accolade.

As for Robuchon, he will no longer be putting in his customary 18 hours a day in the kitchen, but he is talking of a new life giving lectures, launching a lunchtime TV programme, commuting every three months to Japan... and continuing his research into the psychology of cuisine.

The Italians sometimes delay their gratification longer than the French. On 18 April, 1948, a young Italian Communist Party militant called Nilde Iotti put a bottle of champagne on ice and listened expectantly to the election results on the radio. But for her, it was a bad night: the Communists lost, the Christian Democrats won, and the champagne remained unopened.

Forty-eight years and three days later, a 76-year-old Mrs Iotti finally got to uncork that bottle as the centre-left Olive Tree coalition celebrated their historic victory over Silvio Berlusconi's centre-right last Sunday.

She didn't say what the champagne tasted like; one wine expert said it would probably be fine but altered somewhat by resting so long on the shelf. A bit like the Italian Communist Party itself, which has mutated down the decades into an entirely new party.

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