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Monday, March 10, 2014

The Savoir-Faire of Olivier Jean

Last late September I was informed that chef Xavier Boyer of L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon Taipei was being transferred to the London branch of the restaurant group. Upon hearing the news I couldn't help but let out a long sigh. Boyer was a wonderful and creative chef who seemed to really enjoy being in Taipei. I had many memorable meals with Boyer at the helm; he was always happy to see me and let me try some new dishes. While I know that a change of chef at L'Atelier is not unusual – Boyer is the third chef de cuisine in four years – nevertheless his short tenure in Taipei was a big surprise. I had expected Boyer to stay for at least two years, similar to his predecessor, Angelo Aglianò.

News of Boyer's move coincided with the release of the 2014 Michelin guide for London, in which L'Atelier London was demoted from two stars to one. While no one officially gave a reason for Boyer's departure from Taipei, it wasn't hard to decipher that he was tasked with gaining the Michelin star back. Boyer was the chef de cuisine in L'Atelier London before moving to the branches in New York and Taipei, therefore, it was logical for Robuchon to ask him to go back to right the ship. However, Robuchon is essentially signaling that London is more important than Taipei; frankly, I understand his position. London is one of the world's food capitals with the likes of Alain Ducasse, Gordon Ramsay, and Heston Blumenthal, all competing for well-heeled customers and media attention. Financially the London branch of L'Atelier probably does more covers and generates more revenue for the Robuchon group than Taipei. Therefore, if I am Robuchon I probably would have made the same decision. But, what about Taipei?

"Taipei is the luckiest, always with a new chef", Chef Yosuke Suga half-jokingly said to me in October when he and Robuchon made their annual visit to Taipei. The new chef de cuisine is Olivier Jean, who was previously a sous chef in L'Atelier Étoile with Suga in Paris. He is from Valence, a small town in the south of France, best known in the food world as the location of the 3-Michelin-star restaurant Maison Pic. He is certainly well trained and worked at Louis XV prior to joining the Robuchon group. Jean is very tall and young, only 27 years old. When I first learned about his age I was slightly taken aback. At 27 I was only two years out of graduate school. On second thought, chefs typically have a different timeframe. Many of them start their work in the restaurant when they are still in their teens. By their late 20's they already have ten years worth of experience. Robuchon received his first head chef job when he was 28. When Suga was tapped to run the first L'Atelier in Tokyo, he was also only in his late twenties. Hence, one shouldn't be too surprised that Jean is given the job to run the L'Atelier in Taipei.

There is definitely some truth to Suga's assertion that the changing of chefs at L'Atelier Taipei certainly makes the restaurant more interesting. Just before Jean arrived in Taipei I was asked by a staff at the Le Salon de Thé on the third floor of Bellavita, which of the three chefs (Suga, Aglianò, Boyer) I like the best. Caught off guard I actually paused for a bit before I was able to answer her. I never thought they were in competition. In my mind each chef brought his own sensibility to the restaurant. Suga had the tough task of setting up the restaurant and establishing and enforcing the Robuchon standard. While his cooking is definitely French, he has a Japanese sensibility of simplicity and precision. Being Italian, Aglianò brought an Italian and Mediterranean feel to the cooking, some of the dishes he served at L'Atelier can still be found at Aglianò's eponymous restaurant in Taipei. Also, as Aglianò got to know Taiwan better, he was able to introduce more local ingredients into the dishes. Similarly, Boyer has a fondness for local ingredients and was always excited to tell me about a new fish or shrimp he found at the market or a new farmer that's growing vegetables for him. In contrast, his cuisine was a bit more complex than Suga's and Aglianò's, and incorporated a geographically wide-ranging of flavors and textures.

So what kind of sensibility does chef Jean bring to L'Atelier? Based on some recent meals in the first few months of his tenure, I would suggest, in a very general manner, the restaurant is becoming more French. Since Jean is from the south of France, this is not a surprise; frankly I quite welcome this direction. While there are dishes on the menu that reflect influences from other countries, there is a return to exploring some of the recipes and flavor profiles of traditional French cuisine. At the same time, these familiar dishes are executed with contemporary techniques and made lighter. Furthermore, the dishes by Jean always seem to be plated beautifully and very art-like.

The return to France was evident in the first lunch my wife, Maria, and I had under Jean's direction in late last November. We tried some of the new dishes on the menu starting with a mackerel and potato. The fish was cooked perfectly with a crispy skin. The different temperatures of the fish and the potato provided a nice contrast. The plate was beautifully decorated with dollops of condiments in varying sizes.

For the main course I selected the chicken fricassée, which was just delicious.

The pastry chef Kazuhisa Takahashi sent out a perfectly executed passion fruit soufflé that was just a sheer delight. The iPhone picture really doesn't capture the glory of this dessert. I could never get my soufflé to not collapse like the ones professionals make. The lunch was just a pleasure and provided some insights into chef Jean's thinking.

The reassertion of France, perhaps with a more rustic feel, was also played out at another lunch, where I started with the jamon and leeks. The plating is certainly pretty and the leeks were delicious. The dish was very good, but not as interesting as some of the other appetizers on the menu.

For the main course I went with the braised pork cheeks with lentils from Le Puy, a very satisfying dish.

Similar to last year, my wife and I celebrated our anniversary with a dinner at L'Atelier. Chef Jean offered to do something special, which was music to my ears. It is always best to just trust the chef and be open minded about food. Also, I am always happy to be surprised.  

We started with some beautiful asparagus served with an egg, cheese, black truffles, and jamon.

The second course was a delicious gnocchi with leeks and black truffle.

In contrast to the richness of the pasta, the next course was a fish simply fried and served with tomato, capers, arugula, and lemon juice. I feel this dish is actually quite indicative of Jean's or Robuchon's approach, which is to allow the ingredients to be the star. The dish was skillfully executed, simple yet full of flavors and aroma. 

The last savory course was a ballotine. The combination of poultry with foie gras is an idea that gets played around quite a bit in L'Atelier. In our previous anniversary dinner Boyer served us quail with foie gras wrapped in cabbage. With Jean the ballotine was chicken with foie gras wrapped with chicken skin. At first I thought it was cooked sous vide, but it actually was not. The ballotine was served with the famous mashed potato and the endive with herbs provided a little bitterness to contrast with the richness of the dish.

Since the restaurant knew it was our anniversary, chef Takahashi sent out a little strawberry tart with a sugar flower on the side – just a wonderful gift. We took the sugar flower home and kept it on our dining room cadenza inside a cake dome.

The dinner ended with two more desserts that were both delightful and beautiful. Furthermore, chocolates are now served with the mignardises and coffee at the end of the meal, which is a most welcomed addition.

My anniversary dinner was fantastic and memorable, but in a dinner a few weeks later Jean made a dish that truly won me over. In the early part of that dinner, Jean said he would make a dish à la minute and it would be a surprise. Sometime during the service, Jean slipped into the back kitchen to prepare the dish. As Jean presented the beautiful tourte for two at the counter, I couldn't help but muttered, "Ah, a pithivier!" Jean gently corrected me that the dish should be called a tourte chaude since it is not sweet. The tourte was sliced in half and plated at the pass. As if the tourte was not enough, Jean made a jus with black truffle for us to drizzle over the tourte. It was simply yummy or as the French would say, "miam, miam." The sommelier Benoît Monier walked by and said this is a very traditional dish in France and we both marveled at the dish for a moment. What Jean and Monier didn't know is I love pâte feuilletée and en croute dishes. As much as I like modernist cuisine and have fun messing around with my immersion circulator and iSi whip at home, I absolutely adore some of the traditional dishes of France. I half-jokingly said to Monier that perhaps one day, the restaurant should consider serving the poularde en vessie; after all, Robuchon used to serve the dish at Jamin. The dish is also in Daniel Boulud's new book, therefore, what's old may be new again.

While the dishes at L'Atelier involve high level of cooking techniques, there is a clarity to the food. You can easily identify the ingredients and the flavors have integrity. There is also an elegance to the presentation of the dishes coming out of Jean's kitchen. In the meantime Jean is eager to learn about the customer's preferences in Taipei as well as incorporating local products into the menu. As time goes on it will be interesting to see how Jean evolves. When Suga introduced Jean to me, he again half-jokingly said, "If there are any problems with Olivier, you let me know". Robuchon and Suga should be quite happy with Jean, we certainly are.

While Jean is the leader in the restaurant, he is quick to acknowledge his team in the kitchen. He also credits his sous chef Frédéric Julien (ex-Taillevent) for creating some of the dishes, including the langoustine carpaccio over lobster gelée that I had a dinner. The sommelier Monier remains peerless in Taiwan; a sentiment shared by my wife and my cousin. I always tell Monier that I don't know anything about wine and will happily drink whatever he chooses. He is always nice to allow me to try various wines by the glass and provide some guidance. Furthermore, only recently did I find out that besides his expertise with wines he is also very skilled at deboning fish at table/counter side. While there are some new faces in the the front of house team, the service led by Vincent Hsu and Grendy Yang is still as smooth as ever. The visit to the restaurant bookends with a warm welcome by the hostess Nana Kung and a send-off by Jean and Monier with even a few parting words in Mandarin. L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon takes the business of pleasure professionally and always manages to thrill.

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