To say that a legend was lost with the passing of Joël Robuchon is an understatement. With a remarkable career spanning nearly six decades, Robuchon, who was 73 at the time of his death, had established himself as one of the most celebrated chefs globally. His eponymous chain of French fine-dining restaurants, stretched across many cities worldwide, earned an impressive number of MICHELIN Stars in the process. Among his establishments were the acclaimed Joël Robuchon and its more relaxed counterpart, L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon.
A familiar face in Robuchon’s culinary empire is the friendly and spirited Julien Tongourian, who exudes the warmth and wisdom that can only be come from decades of experience. Tongourian is currently the executive chef of both three-MICHELIN-starred Robuchon au Dôme in Macau and L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in Hong Kong; therefore shuttling between the two cities often.
Throughout his life, Robuchon served as a mentor and paternal figure to numerous aspiring chefs, shaping the careers of culinary luminaries including renowned British chef Gordon Ramsay and French chef Eric Ripert, among many others. His career was long, starting with restaurant Jamin, which he founded in 1981, and culminating in the establishment of the L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon chain, for which he came out of retirement for at the age of 50. Throughout that time, he diligently trained and supervised countless individuals in the realm of French cuisine. Those he has mentored keenly express their personal mission to pass the baton and keep the Robuchon legacy alive.
Growing Up with Joël Robuchon
“I grew up with Mr. Robuchon,” Tongourian says with pride. “In fact, I’ve been working for him for 25 years now. I started very, very young with him.” Having commenced his culinary journey as a commis chef at Robuchon's esteemed Laurent restaurant in Paris back in 2000, Tongourian holds dear the fondest memory of his time with the maestro.
“I have a lot of good memories with Mr. Robuchon to share, but one of the best ones would have to be about my move to Hong Kong,” Tongourian says. “In 2008, I told Mr. Robuchon that I really wanted to work in a three-MICHELIN-starred restaurant. He introduced me to chef Yannick Alléno, who was then working at Restaurant Le Meurice Alain Ducasse, training to be a chef at a three-MICHELIN-starred restaurant. I wanted that for my career, too. At first, Mr. Robuchon proposed that I help open one of his restaurants in Bordeaux, but that would take some time. Then one day, he just told me to pack my bags and go with him to cook at a gala dinner in Macau.”
For the week-long trip, Tongourian says that he packed only five pieces of underwear and five pairs of socks. While they were still in Macau, Robuchon, unexpectedly asked whether Tongourian would be open to relocating to Hong Kong and Macau to run his restaurants.
“If Mr. Robuchon calls you, you go.”
Casual Dining Changed Forever
L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon in Hong Kong is the only L'Atelier that has been awarded three MICHELIN Stars. In Tongourian's view, the concept introduced by L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon sparked a global wave of casual dining establishments and fundamentally transformed the entire dining industry. He praises Robuchon as a visionary and trailblazer for democratising haute cuisine, inviting customers to explore the world of cooking like never before. Moreover, Robuchon's impact extended beyond the diners, as he also brought prestige to the profession of cooks.
“The highest yet most humbling praise I have ever received was when Mr. Robuchon told me that I was a chef worthy of a three-MICHELIN-starred restaurant,” says Tongourian. He recalls his food adventures with Robuchon in Macau fondly, always ordering the same thing — Chinese fried noodles with beef and vegetables. “Mr. Robuchon was really a simple man. Sure, his fine dining establishments make it hard to believe that. But whenever you would dine with him, he would choose the simplest things, such as roast chicken with his family on the weekends. What he was really after were the purest flavours.”
Over his two decades of experience with the group, Tongourian often sought Robuchon's guidance, and among the valuable lessons he learned, one stands out prominently — the importance of blending time-honoured culinary techniques with modern culinary creations. “At L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon, Mr. Robuchon really did change the codes of the kitchen,” he says. “There was an open kitchen where guests could watch us chefs prepare the food, and we could also talk to them. It was more relaxed for diners, but as chefs, we realised that we were getting more attention as the action was happening right in front of the guests. But this came with a heightened appreciation of the cooking experience as well.”
Tongourian deeply believes that the architect behind L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon's culinary concept has revolutionised the dining industry, to say the least. “It has definitely altered how casual restaurants run these days,” he says. “Mr. Robuchon elevated what it meant to be a cook.”
Life Lessons from Joël Robuchon
“Mr. Robuchon taught me a lot of lessons in life,” Tongourian continues. “The first is 'never give up', And this one is applicable in both the kitchen and in life. Also, there are no shortcuts when it comes to things that really matter — embrace the journey. Lastly, stop comparing yourself to others. Life is life; it is not a competition, and everyone is different."
The legacy of Robuchon's unwavering commitment to culinary perfection — maintaining consistent standards, using premium ingredients, and emphasising the significance of exceptional service — continues to inspire generations of aspiring chefs in the French cooking arena.
The Robuchon Way
When asked to explain the Robuchon way of cooking, Tongourian smiles and says three words: “Keep it simple.”
“While we respect how so many restaurants are evolving flavours using modern techniques, the Robuchon way is to keep flavours at their purest form,” he adds. "Let’s take a strawberry for example. You make a strawberry cake, but it must be that delicate and natural strawberry flavour that stands out. It sounds very simple, but these days, it is quite challenging since we have been exposed to many tastes of strawberries to the point that we may have forgotten what a real strawberry tastes like. This is our mission at Robuchon — to bring out the best and purest flavours of every ingredient. Simple is beautiful.”
Determined to keep the flame of his mentor's legacy alive, Tongourian aspires to pass on Robuchon's unparalleled expertise to as many aspiring chefs as possible, especially the younger generation. In so doing, he hopes to ensure that Robuchon's profound influence on the culinary world continues to flourish.
“When it comes to training the younger generation of chefs, I want them to keep their own identity while retaining this respect for purity,” shares Tongourian. “César [Augustyniak], our pastry chef at L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon, has so much freedom in his creations, but he always ensures that the purest and most singular flavours come through. He makes a chocolate dessert in his own personal style, but when we taste it, it is the most beautiful chocolate flavour we’ve ever had.”
When it comes to his own leadership style in the kitchen, Tongourian says that he loves growing up with his team. “I always welcome new staff — even fresh graduates — and I like teams that stay together for a long time,” he adds. Tongourian proudly shares that his key chefs have been by his side for around eight to 10 years now.
“A happy kitchen means happy food.”
“In the future, I see myself as less of a chef and more as a teacher,” he shares. “I want to pass on Mr. Robuchon’s culinary legacy, especially at L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon, where we make very good fine dining more casual. I hope I can make Joël Robuchon an iconic restaurant name in Asia, and I hope to influence the new generation of chefs to open more restaurants that bear the Robuchon philosophy.”