Going for Broke

Going for Broke

DOUBLE SHOT: L'Atelier (far top) is a casual operation. JoÎl Robuchon at the Mansion (center and bottom) offers the grand French dining experience.

Honored as France's "Chef of the Century" and someone for whom earning and holding three Michelin stars is old hat, JoÎl Robuchon has come out of retirement to open a pair of restaurants inside the 5,034-room MGM Grand Hotel/Casino complex in Las Vegas. L'Atelier de JoÎl Robuchon is a relatively casual concept, while JoÎl Robuchon at the Mansion is full-on French fine dining at its most expensive and spectacular. RH correspondent Libby Platus interviewed Robuchon and MGM Grand president Gamal Aziz about the thinking behind these two new ventures.

RH: What made you decide to come out of retirement?
JoÎl Robuchon: I closed my Parisian restaurant, Jamin, 10 years ago. I had earned three Michelin stars and the restaurant was very much in the public eye. I was afraid to take chances. I felt stuck. It became a handicap to be such a figure in the culinary world. Now, I do not feel that pressure. I can do things I want to do.

RH: Why did you choose Las Vegas for your first U.S. restaurant?
Robuchon: I had many proposals to make a big, moneymaker restaurant. When I opened Concord Lafayette in Paris, I served up to 5,000 a day. I learned my limits. One day Gamal Aziz, president of MGM Grand, called. He has a reputation for opening Bellagio's exceptional restaurants. So I met him. The main thing Mr. Aziz talked about was quality. Mr. Aziz is a man of seduction, and a very, very strong personality. We made an agreement.

RH: Mr. Aziz, why did you want Mr. Robuchon at MGM Grand?
Gamal Aziz: Throughout my career, I had heard about great chefs, but above all stood JoÎl Robuchon. So when I met with Mr. Robuchon, it was a dream accomplished. From the business side, it was important for the MGM Grand to have a competitive advantage in Las Vegas. We felt that having Mr. Robuchon at the MGM Grand would set us apart from the rest of Las Vegas; in fact, it would take Las Vegas to a whole new level.

RH: You will be traveling to L'Atelier in Tokyo and Paris and opening locations in New York and London. How will that affect daily operations?
Robuchon: I am not by myself. Chefs who have worked with me 15-20 years approached me. They wanted to open a restaurant and needed financing. They asked for my cooperation. So the restaurant is a partnership with several chefs. Most of them have earned their own Michelin stars. The pastry chef is the finest in France. We will rotate.

RH: Will the cuisine be noticeably different when you are not in Las Vegas?
Robuchon: In a restaurant, the most difficult thing is consistency. It determines a reputation. My recipes are clearly established.

If I have done a recipe, all chefs in charge have done it. You will not be able to notice if I cooked it or somebody else.

RH: Artisan suppliers are not located near Las Vegas, so how did you find them?
Robuchon: I had been warned not to expect the finest ingredients. Mr. Aziz organized a gathering of suppliers in the large facility under the MGM. On that day, I tasted the best strawberries I have ever had, from California. I found great beef. American beef is much better than French. The veal is extraordinary. There were excellent capons. I sent a staff member here for six months to research products. I visited Alice Waters. Thomas Keller offered to send one of his chefs to help with learning about products. Jean-Georges Vongerichten was extremely helpful. They were definitely there for me. I doubt this would happen in France.

RH: Who hires and manages people for these two restaurants?
Robuchon: MGM. I was surprised by the professionalism here. I have a specific culture in my restaurants. In a few days the staff adapted quite easily. I feel a passion in the staff. A young lady came to work and I sent her home because she was sick. She wanted to stay. We said, "no, no, no, you have to go home, you have to be in good shape to work here." In France, an employee would have said, "thank you, goodbye!" Everyone told me I would never find the right staff. Actually, I found better staff here.

Gamal Aziz: The MGM Grand has just received an award as the best place to work in the state of Nevada.

RH: In Paris, the staff usually has four weeks' vacation. Will they have the same amount here?
Robuchon: No! No! In France it is the law.

RH: How have your travels affected your work?
Robuchon: Traveling inspired me to start working to "change the topography of cuisine." In western countries, importance is attached to flavor and taste. In China, it's texture: soft versus hard or crunch. China changed my philosophy. Now I use texture where I didn't.

RH: You are not an advocate of fusion cuisine.
Robuchon: I like to identify what I am eating and rarely mix more than three flavors together. You have to respect each product.

RH: Precision and perfection are trademarks of your work. The dish La Tomate has about 50 tiny dots of coulis verjutè around the edge of the plate. Rumor says it takes 20 minutes to do one plate. How long does it really take? Do you have one person just making dots on plates?
Robuchon: One of the new staff here, an American young lady, is precise and fast. It takes only a few minutes.

RH: Do you expect to adjust in any way to the American palate?
Robuchon: There are things I can't offer, like rabbit, out of respect for culture and taste. I won't change a recipe to make it more American. Also, customers want the same cuisine they have experienced in my other restaurants. If there is a request and we have the ingredients, we can prepare it. But if I am asked to put caramel on top of a steak, I will not do it.