L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon
I tend to start things with a bang.
My first real foray into theater was in 2004 with a play called Mrs. Farnsworth by A.R. Gurney (Love Letters, The Cocktail Hour) starring Sigourney Weaver and John Lithgow. I had gone to one of the bi-annual open calls at the Flea Theater in TriBeCa and auditioned for their resident theatre company, The Bats. Jim Simpson, the theater’s Artistic Director asked me to do a monologue, and then another. He’d shaken my hand and I had walked out of the darkened theatre into the blazing midday September sun, feeling I had done a good job. And like most auditions, especially ones before you have an agent or manager sending you out, that had been it. Generally you don’t hear a thing, unless of course you get the part. I didn’t hear a thing, but I understood this already, though I had only been going on auditions for about a year. Time passed. Time passes.
When I got the message—or rather messages, I was on the tiny Caribbean island of Mustique in the West Indies with my aunt and uncle. The messages grew in urgency: “Hi Tarajia. This is Carol Ostrow calling from the Flea Theater. This is my third message. We have cast you in a production, but we start rehearsals on Wednesday and cannot seem to reach you. Please call us back as soon as you can.” When I got Carol on the phone, she explained that Mr. Simpson had cast me in a new production, a rare one that featured several actors who were not in fact Bats: Sigourney Weaver, John Lithgow and (the fabulous) Danny Burstein. I explained, somewhat sheepishly, that I was on holiday. It is rather unusual for struggling, starting-out actors to be on holiday in Mustique, intimate playground to David Bowie, Mick Jagger and Princess Margaret. At any rate, I swore I would be at first rehearsal on Wednesday, and I was. As a result of this production I became a “must join” to Actor’s Equity, I was paid to learn from Jim, to study Sigourney’s every move, to absorb the humor and flow of Pete Gurney’s writing, to laugh with Danny and befriend John. It was a dream job and an auspicious beginning.
Recently I had my first real job as a food writer, and by real, I mean that I got paid for it. Like my first real theatrical acting job, it meant working with extraordinary talent.
I was on my way to my waitressing job at the brutal hour of 6 a.m., when I got an email from my dear friend Rebecca in London: “Would I be interested in interviewing Joël Robuchon for NOWNESS?” Would I be interested in interviewing the man with more Michelin stars than any other chef in the world?! Would I be interested in picking his brain and (hopefully) picking off his menu?! Um, er, ah…YES. There were, however, several caveats: the interview was scheduled for the following day and I was about to embark on an eight hour waitressing shift in which it would be impossible for me do any research or even communicate at all with the office that had given me my (somewhat vague) assignment. Robuchon does not speak English, so I would have to communicate with him in my un-practiced, haggard French. Oh, and I had never done this before.
Of course, I was nervous, but I rationalized that what I lacked in professional experience, I more than made up for in my love of food, my ability to improvise and instinctual hard work. Needless to say, it all came together: my article Joël Robuchon: Secret Ingredients went live on May 23rd, 2011. The day after the interview posted, I took Sebastian to dinner at L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon for Bat’s belated birthday dinner à deux.
I insisted we dress for dinner and wore a vintage 1960s cream lace dress with a Peter Pan collar, gold round-toed heels and my hair in my signature up-do hive. Sebastian wearily changed from jeans into black cords which somewhat matched the Hedi Slimane blazer to which he had long since lost the matching pants. Neither of us had eaten since breakfast in anticipation of what was to come.
We were greeted by Estelle, manager of New York’s L’Atelier, and shown to our seats, the two most central at the U-shaped bar, with a direct view to the open kitchen where the geniuses employed by Robuchon create the edible artworks that we would soon be swallowing. We were offered apéritifs from an exquisite magnum of Bruno Paillard Rosé Première Cuvée that we could not refuse. Soon we had our first delicacies in front of us: glass globes frosted with gold, which contained organic salmon tartar infused gently with wasabi and topped with a dollop of caviar. Sebastian, who as a rule despises salmon, adored the velvety tartar and its clean subtle intricacies on his tongue. Accompanying this was a shot glass that brought new meaning to the words “amuse-bouche”: a foie gras mousse topped with a thin layer of port reduction and crowned by parmesan foam. Needless to say, our taste buds stood in rapt attention.
Next Sebastian received a langoustine carpaccio adorned again with fresh wasabi and caviar. Oh my. Though some people balk at the idea of raw shrimp or lobster, as long as the venue and preparation are up to snuff (which obviously they were in this case), I cannot imagine why. The thinly sliced langoustine has an extraordinary texture characteristic to raw crustaceans: smooth but with a miniscule chalkiness when chewed that was unexpectedly enjoyable. What sets Monsieur Robuchon’s langoustine carpaccio a mile apart from all others I have tasted is that his was delicately seasoned with tiny flecks of crushed violet and pink peppercorns, flirting with each other and with our tongues. Of course the caviar’s silken ebony beads didn’t hurt either. While Sebastian moaned with ecstasy over that dish, I, somewhat reluctantly, destroyed the sculpture that had been placed before me: black caviar eclipsed a perfectly poached quail egg within a tangled star of pastry hovering above a shallow sea of cauliflower soup, with brunoise-sized raw salmon cubes symmetrically floating and a ring of parsley pistou dots encircling this solar system. As I broke apart the galaxy and spooned it into my mouth, I marveled at Robuchon’s characteristic trick: each ingredient epitomized itself! The liquid was an ode to cauliflower, embellished by the velvety smoothness of the salmon’s protein and the herbal dew drops of the parsley, but not even the caviar overpowered the cauliflower; it only helped it to sing.
After much cajoling I convinced Sebastian to try my scallop (his other great aversion along with salmon), which even he had to admit was heavenly, having been poached gently in its shell and served simply with delicate chive oil atop.
Finalement, something I’d actually ordered was placed in front of me: a dainty piece of caramelized black cod infused with yuzu (a welcome change from the miso black cod that is served ubiquitously in New York) and a cube of daikon radish. Crystallized violets gave texture and color to the dish. Sebastian noshed on asparagus that had been laced through macaroni noodles gratinéed and glorified with smoked veal bacon. Next up was our soup course. Our lovely waiter had accommodated my desire to try the pea soup, though it was only on the prix fixe menu, and in yet another show of generosity by Robuchon and his executive chef Xavier Boyer, an egg shaped ceramic bowl was placed in front of Sebastian as the pea soup was poured in front of me. Mine was good—better than good, but nothing compared to what awaited Sebastian: a clear chicken broth with a raft of tangled millimeter thin chiffonade of shiso, mint and basil—an aromatic combination which I plan to incorporate into my repertoire at home. But it was what was below the surface that startled. As Sebastian’s mouth closed over his first spoonful and the delicate ravioli that had rested on the bottom of the bowl exploded in his mouth, liquid foie gras danced under his tongue and between his teeth, jolting him with pleasure. This was our favorite dish of the evening, remarkable for its purity of flavor, astounding aromas and textures, and combination of French haute cuisine and Asian grace and simplicity that is quintessential Robuchon. This pure, clean, broth with hand-made ravioli and carefully cut leaves overshadowed my main course of delicious milk-fed veal with fava beans and morels which disappointingly tasted more strongly of the alcohol they had been cooked in than they their own subtle earthiness.
It was an exquisite evening. I am so thankful that I got to experience Chef Robuchon’s expertise first hand. Though I had already finished my piece on Robuchon, it wasn’t until I tasted his dishes that I really understood the wise words of his mantra: “let the ingredient be the star.”
L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon
The Four Seasons Hotel
57 East 57th Street
New York, NY 10022
+1 (212) 829-3844