Beginnings and endings, light and shadows, highlights and depths, fond memories and final journeys. Paris is that sort of city – different things to different travelers at different times. For us, that summer, it had been all highlights.
At L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon
We were nearing the end of an intense two-month research plunge into the one-Michelin-star restaurants of France. We had gone deep – traveling to restaurants in Paris, Burgundy, Lyon, Cotes d'Azur, Provence; interviewing the chefs, spending time in their kitchens, photographing everything, and of course eating their food. If we hadn't known it before, one thing we learned for certain was that Michelin is very important to the chefs of France.
"Michelin is the only guide that matters," Chef Frédéric Robert of La Grande Cascade in the Bois de Boulogne emphatically told us, and each one of a couple of dozen starred chefs said the same.
Now, with twenty-two one-star restaurants figuratively and literally under our belts, it was important, we convinced ourselves, to visit at least one Michelin two-star restaurant before our culinary journey ended, to see if we could understand the difference, to try to fathom what it is the Michelin inspectors see and taste.
Which is why we were seated in L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon à L'Étoile, about as close as you can get to the Arc de Triomphe without being on top of it.
Joël Robuchon was a culinary legend. At the time of his death in 2018 he held twenty-eight Michelin stars around the world, including four in the USA. Robuchon's parcours, his path to becoming a chef, was similar to so many of the chefs we had met. He started as a pastry chef when he was fifteen, went on to cook in celebrated kitchens under award-winning chefs, to open his own restaurants, and to win Michelin stars. Gordon Ramsey and Eric Ripert, among many other chefs, learned the ropes in his kitchen. Robuchon was named "The Chef of the Century" in 1989 by French food publisher Gault Millau. He held more Michelin stars at his numerous restaurants than anyone else ever has.
L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon is located deep underground, beneath the Publicis Drugstore on Champs-Élysées, and fitting its subterranean location, the decor is dark – basically black and red. There are no tables, but stools placed along an extended U-shaped counter, with the open kitchen inside the U, so diners are able to watch their orders being prepared.
Beyond the unusual design, at L'Atelier we discovered that there was, indeed, an undeniable difference from the one-star restaurants we had visited that summer. The flavours were sharper, brighter, more harmonious.
A lobster soup — dumplings in a bouillon spiced with fresh ginger, rice vinegar and lemongrass — was a magic potion of Asian flavours blended with French ingredients.
Three raviolis filled with tender tête de veau (calve's head meat) were laid on a bed of girolles with a dollop of rich, dark sauce. There were simply no "misses" on any of the plates.
The simplicity of presentation on the plate was striking compared to many of the one-stars. There were no dots, fences, balls, flowers, or other ornamentation. The flavours were clean, balanced, and straightforward.
A dish called simply Le Caille – quail – was caramelized, stuffed with foie gras and served with Robuchon's famous potatoes — pomme purée — made with equal amounts of potatoes and butter. In fact, because of the open-kitchen concept, we were able to observe the under-chef whose single job was whipping up potatoes by hand with an enormous whisk.
Michelin chef William Ledeuil of Ze Kitchen Galerie in Paris had told us with conviction that a simple room with no tablecloths would never get a second star. Yet L'Atelier was that type of stripped-down dining. The service was so-so — waiters clumsily reaching over the counter like bartenders to present food to diners. The washrooms had paper towels instead of the luxury details found elsewhere. Here, it seems, as Michelin insists, it was all about what's on the plate.
The California Twins
While we were sipping glasses of a 2012 Montmains Chablis Premier Cru – it was the second bottle, the first had been corked and sent back by us, causing a tizzy among the serving staff who clearly had not been trained in what to do in this eventuality – while we were enjoying our wine, two Asian women had taken the empty seats next to us along the bar. They were speaking English. One of them had ordered a starter of foie gras with cherries while the other opted for the tasting menu meant for one.
"How are you enjoying the meal?" one of the women asked, and we struck up a conversation.
We shared the usual traveler banter. They were from California. They were twin sisters. One worked in Orange County in administration while the other worked in the service industry in Telluride, Colorado. They hadn't planned on dining at L'Atelier. "It was happenstance." Angie, the food lover, had bookmarked the restaurant and knew a bit about Joël Robuchon. And so, here they were.
Their parents, from Taiwan, moved the family to the US when the girls were five years old. They quickly adapted themselves to the new culture and became model immigrants. The sisters had three older brothers – one dentist, one doctor, and one accountant. The twins were the rebels in the family, with no husbands, no children. They were bright, curious, and articulate. Just the night before, Angie had been researching Michelin restaurants for their next splurge in Paris.
We assumed the sisters were enjoying a Paris getaway when Annie revealed, "The reason we're here is because I have terminal cancer."
"Our dad died of the same cancer last year, now our mother has it and now me. I guess you can say it runs in the family," Annie gave an ironic chuckle. "They estimated I had twenty months to live, and that was a year ago. While we were here, my doctor called to tell me that I have over one hundred tumours in me. There's no treatment, no hope."
The irony was that Annie had been squirrelling away money since she started working. "My goal was to retire at age 40," she choked back the tears. The twins would have turned 40 the next year.
"But I'm happy knowing that my sister will inherit my wealth and won't ever have to worry about money," Annie looked tenderly at her twin.
Paris is that sort of city. It's the city you turn to when you've only got a handful of months left on this Earth. It's the city you turn to when each day is precious.
"We try not to think about it, we just want to enjoy Paris and to be together."
In between this dark and mysterious encounter we continued with our stellar meal, our first two-star experience of the trip. We enjoyed our courses and the company of our new friends, but there was now a darkness about. A darkness deeper than the black tones of the restaurant decoration. A darkness deeper than the subterranean location.
à la prochaine,
– Diane & Mark
photographs copyright Mark Craft