“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 mesmerize generations of chefs and home cooks alike.
Going Back to Simplicity
Born in Poiteiers, France, 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 Hôtel Concorde La Fayette in Paris and widely celebrated as a shining star on the 1970s Parisian fine-dining scene, characterized 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 near the Eiffel Tower, eschewing the stuffy constraints of French haute cuisine and choosing instead to bring the focus back to simply prepared quality produce. Jamin was recognized 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 when it was unheard of for fine-dining restaurants to serve lowly potatoes, Robuchon created his signature pomme purées 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 flavors 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 one dish: it was the art of making each ingredient taste of itself.
The recipe from The Complete Robuchon cookbook sounds straightforward, calling for only four ingredients and just 50 minutes to prepare and cook. Robuchon himself favored a French variety of potato called La Ratte, a small firm potato with a smooth, buttery texture and a particular chestnut-like flavor. 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 cubes of butter are 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 until the texture is smooth and meltingly soft.
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 the chefs who prepared their food. In many ways, Robuchon brought down the walls between the diner and the chef and democratized 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, Montréal, 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.
Hero image courtesy of MGM Resorts International.