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People 2 minutes 18 March 2019

My Signature Dish: Joël Robuchon’s Purée De Pomme

The late chef’s legacy explained through his iconic mashed potatoes.

Joel Robuchon my signature dish

Signature dishes encapsulate the passions and cooking style of their creators, the culinary equivalent of artists finding their own style. In this series, we tell the stories of sublime signature dishes that define the world’s top chefs and their career.

When is a mashed potato not just a mashed potato? When it’s Joel Robuchon’s mashed potato, of course. There are few dishes as closely associated with a chef as these pureed potatoes are with the late French luminary.

“I owe everything to these mashed potatoes,” he once famously said during a demonstration of how to make the luscious, creamy dish. “Maybe it’s a little bit of nostalgia, like Proust’s madeleines. Everyone has in his memory the mashed potatoes of his mother, the mashed potatoes of his grandmother.”

Even as the world mourned his death last August, his legacy lives on in his namesake restaurants, brilliant protégés and, of course, his legendary potato dish. Buttery, silky and luscious, Robuchon’s signature mash is served at L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon locations around the globe and continues to mesmerise generations of chefs and home cooks alike.

Robuchon revolutionised French haute cuisine. (Pic: Evan Sung)
Robuchon revolutionised French haute cuisine. (Pic: Evan Sung)

Going Back To Simplicity

Born in 1945, Robuchon came from humble working-class roots and kick-started his career as a pastry chef apprentice in the Relais of Poitiers Hotel at the age of 15. By the time he was 29, the talented chef was helming the kitchen of the Concorde Lafayette Hotel and widely celebrated as a shining star on the 1970s Parisian fine-dining scene, characterised by exorbitant prices, starched linen and tiny morsels of carefully sculpted food.

And then came the Robuchon Revolution. In December 1981, Robuchon opened his first restaurant, Jamin, on rue de Longchamp in Paris near the Eiffel Tower, eschewing the stuffy constraints of French haute cuisine and choosing instead to bring the focus back to quality produce, prepared simply. Jamin was recognised with its first Michelin star in the following year and went on to receive two stars the year after and its third star in 1984.

At a time where it was unheard of for fine-dining restaurants to serve lowly potatoes, Robuchon created his signature purée de pomme out of just four simple ingredients: potatoes, butter, milk and salt. It was representative of his cuisine which preached the use of only three or four ingredients in most dishes.

“I never try to marry more than three flavours in one dish. I like walking into a kitchen and knowing that the dishes are identifiable and the ingredients within them are easy to detect. My role as a chef is respecting the produce,” he said in a 2014 interview with Business Insider.

Robuchon was instrumental in leading French cuisine away from the excesses of traditional fine dining, harking back to a more authentic form, described by Patricia Wells as cuisine actuelle in her 1991 book Simply French, which presented the principles and cuisine of the lauded chef.

Robuchon’s mashed potatoes summed up cuisine actuelle in a crock pot: it was the art of making each ingredient taste of itself.

Robuchon's signature mash is served alongside mains at his L'Ateliers worldwide (Pic: L'Atelier De Joel Robuchon)
Robuchon's signature mash is served alongside mains at his L'Ateliers worldwide (Pic: L'Atelier De Joel Robuchon)
What’s In A Dish

The recipe from The Complete Robuchon cookbook sounds straightforward, calling for only four ingredients and just 50 minutes to prepare and cook. Robuchon himself favoured a French variety of potato called La Ratte, a small firm potato with a smooth, buttery texture and a particular chestnut-like flavour. Whole milk, salt to taste and copious amounts of butter transform the humble potatoes into a silky puree.

The challenge, therefore, lies in the technique.

First, the potatoes are boiled whole, peeled, and pressed — still warm — through a food mill on the finest setting. The resulting potato fluff is then dried out over a low flame to eliminate excess moisture so that the resulting mash is neither gluey nor loose.

Then butter is added. Lots and lots of it. Well-chilled butter cut into cubes is incorporated into the potatoes bit by bit, all the while stirring vigorously by hand. Very hot milk is then poured in a thin stream and whipped briskly into the mixture till the texture is smooth and meltingly soft.
A young Robuchon demonstrates his most famous dish.
A French Revolution

In 2003, Robuchon opened his first l’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in Tokyo, shaking the industry with his revolutionary concept of casual fine-dining French restaurants where diners sit around the counter in close contact with chefs who prepared their food. In many ways, Robuchon brought down the walls between the diner and the chef and democratised haute cuisine.

It was only fitting that his iconic mashed potatoes be on the menu at his L’Ateliers worldwide — diners in Hong Kong, Bangkok, Taipei, Shanghai, New York, Montreal, London and Las Vegas can now have a taste of his most famous dish, served in a dollop next to the main course on the plate, with a small crock or copper pot filled with more of the mashed potatoes on the side.

Banner image courtesy of MGM Resorts International

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