How I met Joel Robuchon while eating a galette in Tokyo

Joel Robuchon is one of the most famous chefs in the world and he has fine dining restaurants, casual restaurants and cafes that bear the Joel Robuchon brand. Sometime back, I had the unexpected pleasure of meeting Joel Robuchon in Tokyo, in the most unexpected way.


On one of my many visits to Tokyo, where I have a home, I spent one afternoon with friends sitting outdoors at the Joel Robuchon cafe in Marunouchi. I’ve always liked the Marunouchi area of Tokyo because it merges Japanese high-technology and design with a Western aesthetics and sensibility more found in Europe than in Asia.

Tokyo is pretty much a jumble of mindless construction these days as Tokyo prepares for Olympics 2020, but in Marunouchi where the Japanese government has had the time, money and a second chance to re-do things, they’ve done things right by making beautiful buildings, keeping parts of old ones, creating pretty pocket gardens and filling the neighborhood with wonderful outdoor cafes and good restaurants that are not outrageously expensive. 
Nothing is cheap in Tokyo, of course, but for some reason, Marunouchi has fewer of those $500 a plate restaurants compared to other ritzy areas. So it’s a really nice walking area in Tokyo for real people with upscale tastes rather than endless budgets.


I’d already had lunch by the time I met up with friends at the Joel Robuchon cafe in Marunouchi. But when I got there, the chefs were making what looked like the most delectable galettes right in front of customers and filling these with ham and gruyere cheese. So I ordered one of these with a glass of champagne and then had a kounig amman pastry on the side. 

I love kouinig amman and I have it wherever I see it. But I get a really good one so rarely as it’s not a very easy pastry to make well. But the best kouinig amman I’ve ever had was at the breakfast buffet of the Park Hyatt Place Vendome in Paris and then I never had a one that was good enough for me again until Chef Cyril Soenen made one for a Commanderie de Bordeaux dinner at the home of one of the members many years ago. 

How ironic that I fell in love with kouinig amman in Paris, ate it all over France (with no great satisfaction), as well as all over the world in a fruitless search, and only to find the next best kuoinig amman to pass my test in Manila.

The version at Joel Robuchon that day was okay, but it wasn’t fantastic. And he’d filled it with stewed apples, which is a non-traditionalist approach; but perhaps he thought of it as a twist of a homage to the Bretagne heritage of the kouinig amman

“I love kouinig amman and I have it wherever I see it
But I get a really good one so rarely as 
it’s not a very easy pastry to make well. 
But the best kouinig amman I’ve ever had 
was at the breakfast buffet of the 
Park Hyatt Place Vendome in Paris. 


But the galette with ham and gruyere cheese was done to perfection and I loved it. This, and the entire atmosphere in that part of Marunouchi that day made me feel like I’d gone to Paris for the weekend, especially as this tiny and ever so casual outpost of Joel Robuchon as it reminds me of his Atelier de Joel Robuchon on the Left Bank in Paris

When Atelier de Joel Robuchon on the Left Bank in Paris, next to the Hotel Montalembert, favourite hotel of interior designers in Paris, first opened, it was immediately very popular and always fully booked. But luckily, I was staying for two weeks at the Hotel Montalembert then, and we were always just advised to go down early and check with the staff of the Atelier de Joel Robuchon and try our luck. And we were always lucky. 

At the very start, Atelier de Joel Robuchon was still a neighborhood joint in every sense, in spite of the hype; and many chic Parisian families took their kids for weekend brunches or dinners and locals showed up in jeans and t-shirts


For a very long time, I used to go to Paris at least thrice a year and I always went to Atelier de Joel Ronuchon at least once with someone in Paris. And then it became a ritual for me to have my last meal in Paris here on every trip as well. I would check out of my hotel and get a car to drive me and my luggages to Atelier de Joel Robuchon, and then the car would wait while I had my last proper French meal. After lunch, it was straight to Charles de Gaulle Airport to make it in time for my JAL flight back to Tokyo from Paris.
Sometimes, friends would join me on these last meals. But even when my friends were busy, I’d dine alone as Atelier de Joel Robuchon is not a problem at all for people dining alone. It’s all bar stools in front of a counter facing an open kitchen, and I’d have either the daily special or my all-time favorite spaghetti pomodoro.

Yes, I know. It’s a top French restaurant and I’m in Paris — so why am I having spaghetti pomodoro? But I just love Joel Robuchon’s pasta with a glass of wine so this was always my last meal before flying back to Asia.

So there was, thinking about all this while sitting outside Boutique de Joel Robuchon in Marunouchi with my galette and my kouinig amman, and saying out loud how this was just ike going to Paris without the 16-hour flight and the jet lag. 

Then, who should I see sitting next to me at the Boutique de Joel Robuchon in Marunouchi and having a Perrier with lime and a galette? The great man himself. Yes, it was Joel Robuchon himself — the chef with a cumulative total of over 26 Michelin stars, when I last counted — having a late lunch (or perhaps it was a snack?) at his own Marunouchi outlet! 


Of course I struck up a conversation and told him just how much I love L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon in Paris. He was very pleased to learn that I’d been to most of his restaurants all over the world but ironically my favorites were his first non-traditional outlet (L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon in Paris is his first casual restaurant in the world) and perhaps what is his most casual outlet so far, the Boutique de Joel Robuchon in Marunouchi, which serves simple fare and tea in paper cups. So, indeed, it was just like visiting Paris for the weekend — if not better, with Joel Robuchon sitting next to me at his own cafe.