A Marriage of Minds
What does one of the most celebrated chefs in the world have to do with the world of haute horlogerie? Sooni Shroff-gander meets Blancpain’s Alain Delamuraz and chef Joël Robuchon to discover the connection
When Joël Robuchon walks into the private dining room of his l’atelier de Joël Robuchon in Central, he calls out a cheery “Bonjour tout le monde!” One of the world’s greatest chefs (his restaurants held an astonishing total of 28 Michelin stars at one time), he’s dressed in Mao-style chef ’s blacks and exudes affability and charm. He’s expressive and expansive, responding to questions with sincerity and easy geniality. Hard to believe, then, that he was once known for his famous temper and that he threw a plate at Gordon Ramsay.
Robuchon is in Hong Kong for a collaboration with the luxury Swiss watchmaker Blancpain. Over breakfast with Alain Delamuraz, Blancpain’s vice president and head of marketing, it’s obvious the two share a rapport that goes beyond a business relationship—it’s a genuine melding of minds of a pair of maestros from two very different fields. When asked about the unusual association between their worlds, Robuchon answers with the same passion and conviction that he puts into his culinary creations. “Luxury, in any form, is this: to take something simple and, out of that, to create something exceptional.”
The connection with Blancpain dates back almost 30 years, to when Frédy Girardet, Paul Bocuse and Robuchon—among the most famous names in the world of French cuisine—were named Cuisiniers du Siècle (Chefs of the Century) by the French restaurant guide Gault et Millau. Blancpain paid tribute by awarding each of them a special hand-engraved watch. “I was young and this was the best watch of my life—and the most expensive,” says Robuchon with a broad smile.
So started the celebration of an unexpected marriage in a pairing that’s perhaps not as surprising as it initially seems. Robuchon explains: “The world’s greatest watchmakers and the world’s greatest cuisiniers both work with their hands. They work with passion, with enthusiasm and with commitment to creating amazing works made with creativity, but also with great attention to detail.”
Visiting the Swiss village of Le Brassus to learn about Blancpain’s manufacturing, Robuchon found gastronomic parallels that strengthened their bond. “I saw the precision with which they work and the consideration for their art; I understood the pride that we both take in our creations,” he says. “I also saw the love for work well done. They are in another world when they work. And the same is true in the kitchen.”
Delamuraz concurs. “Joël has the profile and DNA in his work that matches perfectly with what we have in ours. We have a common ground. Often the final customer does not see who made the timepiece on his wrist; the same is true in a restaurant, as the diner never gets to see the work that went into his dish. That changed when Joël became one of the first to show the work done behind the scenes, to give credit to his chefs de cuisine. We too have opened our ateliers and manufacture for visits—to give credit to the ouvriers, the craftsmen. To see the enormous work that is needed to fabricate something that appears so simple, whether that’s a gastronomic dish or a watch.”
In many senses, the creation of a sensational timepiece or a culinary masterwork is dependent on accuracy and precision. “We rely on two constants in a kitchen: meticulousness of timing and accuracy of temperature,” says Robuchon. “Just a two- or three-second difference could ruin a dish. For example, to release the fragrance of a truffle, it must be heated for just three to four seconds to open up its aroma; any more and the perfume will evaporate before we get the dish to the client. Not to mention that often, several plates must be synchronised to be served at the same time. Timing is everything.” As a result, all of Robuchon’s ateliers are equipped with large Blancpain clocks, complete with the vital seconds hand.
Time and talent are shared tenets, but Blancpain and Robuchon communicate the same philosophy as well: a quest for indisputable quality, resulting in the timeless and extraordinary pleasures of life—whether the savouring of a perfect mouthful or the wearing of a magnificently understated complication. Both work best in an environment that’s infused with dedication and devotion. “A watch is art that stays,” declares Robuchon. “But for us, what we create is more ephemeral. We all seek perfection and innovation—but that must be grounded in tradition.”
Delamuraz agrees. “Watchmakers are inventors and this, in itself, is the tradition of watchmaking,” he explains. “But while we respect our heritage and past, we cannot rely on it. We have to keep reinventing ourselves. This is how a brand evolves. Naturally, this takes know-how—savoir faire.”
Robuchon professes that the two masters of their art have never been interviewed together before, that this is a first. “I’m happy to hear what Alain says about his work, because he uses the same language that I would use to describe what I do,” says Robuchon. But our partnership has nothing to do with money. It’s not a financial arrangement, but an association based on excellence and commitment to quality. I do get a watch—but not every year!”
The two men are inextricably linked now and Robuchon shares an anecdote that perfectly illustrates this seamless union. “I was waiting in the lounge to board a plane from Tokyo to Paris when a man arrived with his bodyguards. He kept staring at me but didn’t say anything. Then, on the plane, the flight attendant addressed me by name, and suddenly the Japanese gentleman leapt out of his seat and said, ‘Robuchon? Blancpain, Blancpain, Blancpain!’” This anecdote encapsulates the precision, perfection, craftsmanship and expertise that characterise, unite and bond the worlds of intricate gastronomy and haute horlogerie.