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

Hong Kong Tatler - - Food -

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.

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