SCMP Wednesday, April 11, 2001

Creme de la creme


The man named ''Chef of the Century'' sits calmly in the Hotel Lisboa's restaurant lounge, seemingly oblivious to the fact that, in just a few hours, his dishes will be tasted by a group of dignitaries eager to see if the man lives up to his reputation.
The party includes Macau Chief Executive Edmund Ho Hau-wah, Secretary for Social Affairs and Culture Dr Chui Sai-on and Hong Kong's French consul-general Jerome Pasquier - not to mention Lisboa owner Stanley Ho's daughters Daisy and Maisy Ho - but chef Joel Robuchon remains as cool as ice.
That Robuchon is so calm so close to dinner time is probably because since his start as kitchen apprentice at the tender age of 15 - 41 years ago - the accolades have been piled high around him like prized profiteroles, the creamiest of which must be the ''Chef of the Century'' badge from the Gault-Millau restaurant guide.
So Robuchon is no stranger to the judgment of others at the highest levels: his presentation at the Lisboa hardly requires a break in his stride as he presides over the official launch of his new restaurant at the hotel, Robuchon a Galera. He is the culinary adviser, in which capacity he will come to Macau at least four times each year to introduce new dishes and ensure that his standards are kept.
It's odd to learn that a chef known for his gastronomic masterpieces originally wanted a far more ascetic career. Robuchon was 15 and at seminary intent on becoming a priest when his parents' divorce and the subsequent lack of money to continue his studies forced him into the working world. He chose cooking because it was a pastime he enjoyed.
It turned out to be a wise decision, and in 1984, when Robuchon was 38, his first restaurant, Jamin, in Paris, was given three-stars by the Michelin guide. He subsequently became the youngest chef ever to win the rare three-star rating three years in a row. In 1990, Gault-Millau restaurant guide, a food-lovers' bible as respected as the Michelin guide, bestowed that title.
In 1994, his second establishment, Joel Robuchon, was named the best restaurant in the world by the International Herald Tribune. Guests had to book three months in advance in order to be assured of a seat in the restaurant. In 1996, he sold Joel Robuchon to another three-star chef, Alain Ducasse.
Through Alan Ho, executive director of Florinda Hotels International (which runs, among others, the Hotel Lisboa), who is acting as a translator, Robuchon explains why he retired from the day-to-day grind of a working chef. ''I have known a lot of great French chefs who died when they reached their 50s. Being a chef is very stressful. I would start at seven in the morning, and sometimes I'd finish at 2am. And when a restaurant is very much written up, there's a lot of stress and a lot of pressure from people who come to see why I am so successful and they try to see if they can find some faults to pick.
''I told myself that when I reached 50, I would stop and not do anything anymore. Which I have failed to do. It took me until I was 51 to sell the restaurant, but after that, I had a lot of propositions. I'm actually working today just as much as I used to, but with less of the pressure and stress.''
His jobs include being a culinary adviser (Robuchon a Galera is his second venture outside France; his first was Chateau Taillevent-Robuchon in Tokyo), co-hosting a cooking programme on French television, and writing articles and cookbooks.
I ask the question everybody has been wondering since news of the opening of Robuchon a Galera leaked out - why did he choose Macau to start a restaurant?
He explains that a mutual friend, Jean Francois Griffet, general manager for Servair (which has the monopoly for catering to airlines at the Macau airport) introduced him to Alan Ho, Stanley Ho's nephew.
''Mr Robuchon came to Macau to take a look at the hotel and the restaurant [when it was known as A Galera, serving continental cuisine] in September last year,'' Alan Ho explains. ''He went back to Paris to give it some thought, and contacted me about two weeks after he went back and said, 'Fine, I think we can do something together'. We first made contact in June and he came out in September.''
I'm astonished that getting such a famous chef to open a restaurant is so easy, but remind myself that this is a Ho I'm talking to.
Robuchon continues: ''It all happened very quickly because I had to make a choice between this project and another one I've been working on for about a year or a year-and-a-half. I made a decision fairly quickly so I could tell the other side that I wasn't going to proceed.
''You can see that I hardly speak Chinese or English, so the fact that Mr Ho speaks French and has a good understanding of French cooking and wine and is absolutely dedicated to having a great restaurant makes it much easier to work with. Also, Chinese cooking has always greatly interested me, and an association with a hotel or an enterprise on this side of the world gives me a chance to know it better.''
And what was the project he rejected in favour of Macau? ''It was in New York with Cindy Crawford. The idea was to create a private gourmet dining club, in addition to a more popular restaurant. So as a joke I like to say I picked Mr Ho over Cindy Crawford.''
Robuchon had never been to Macau before his visit in September. ''I didn't even know where it was. I only knew of Macau through its reputation.''
And what would that reputation be? ''There are two places in the world that are well known for gaming. One is Las Vegas and the other is Macau. That's what I knew Macau for.''
Robuchon and Ho both want the world to also know of Macau through Robuchon a Galera. ''It may sound ambitious, but I want this to be the best restaurant in this part of Asia,'' says Robuchon. Ho echoes: ''I think what is important is that we produce things that are of absolutely great quality.''
To achieve this, Robuchon has selected Francky Semblat, who has worked for him for about seven years, to be in charge of the kitchen in his absence. ''Francky understands my cooking,'' Robuchon says. ''He knows what I've done and created, and he'll make sure that the food he puts out stays within my standards and philosophy.''
Diners can expect to pay about $250 for the cheapest fish course. Meat dishes start at about $350. Robuchon's philosophy is respect for the ingredients' original flavours. ''Sometimes the simple things can be the most difficult to make.
''What contributed probably more than anything else to developing the reputation of my restaurant was a very simple dish: mashed potatoes. It's very difficult to judge how good you are with a complicated, sophisticated dish. But if there's something you eat every day and you find one that happens to be better than what you've been having all along, this is how you can tell when someone is doing a better job.''
He explains the technique behind these famous potatoes. ''There are no secrets in cooking, just a lot of attention to detail and a lot of work.
''You have to choose the best potatoes, the best butter, the best milk. You have to choose potatoes of the same size because if you have big and small ones you're going to have some that are overcooked and some that are undercooked.
''Then you have to cook them in salted water, not too slowly and not too quickly and with the skins on so you don't lose too much flavour. When you mash them you should use an old-fashioned hand masher because the new machines give it a gluey consistency because they're too powerful and fast.
''After that, you add some milk and butter until the consistency is perfect. Basically, it's all a matter of attention to detail - each one adds up and in the end it makes all the difference.'' Unfortunately, the mashed potatoes are not on the menu this evening. But the guests who come to see if Robuchon's reputation is based on more than hype are not disappointed.
Robuchon, who excels at juxtaposing luxurious ingredients with the ordinary, presents a sumptuous six-course dinner. The dishes include caviar in fine jelly with cauliflower cream that is beyond sublime, sea urchin cooked in its shell with fennel reduction, which marries the sensuous sea urchin roe with a silky fennel cream, and steamed foie gras with truffles and vegetables, which pairs the two luxury ingredients with savoy cabbage, turnip and carrots. Cindy Crawford's loss is Macau's gain.