Can food be transformative? In this first-of-its-kind integral review of Michelin 3-star restaurant Joel Robuchon, I explore why the world’s best dining has always been at the center of my aesthetic Integral Life Practice, and what integrative metatheory brings to a night at one of the world’s best restaurants.
I’m an unabashed foodie, and ever since I was 15 have sought out dining at the best restaurants I could find (and afford). I can recall buying a very nice edition of the Tao Te Ching and looking at it over lunch at one of San Francisco’s finest restaurants, both of which I paid for with my meager teenage earnings, and for much the same reason: there is an almost-transcendent beauty in both. I have always believed that haute cuisine has the ability to expand consciousness, and in this Art That Transforms piece I take you deep into Joel Robuchon, one of the world’s finest, and indeed most complex, dining experiences to share a brief glimpse of this passion with you. Allow me to admit upfront that this is a new type of review, mixing elements of classic food criticism with integrative metatheory, and as such it is both experimental and exploratory.
With over 30 Michelin stars to his name, Joel Robuchon is one of the top-ranked chefs in the world, hailed as the “chef of the century” by the esteemed and conservative restaurant guide Gault Millau. His namesake restaurant at MGM Grand in Las Vegas is a Michelin 3-star award winner (only 109 restaurants around the world have earned this designation in 2016). Though this wasn’t my first time at Robuchon, a quiet, plush solitude descended on my wife Tiffany and me as we walked through the thick heavy doors from the otherwise-bustling floor of the MGM Grand. Immediately I was struck by this polarity, crossing the threshold from a crass modernity and into a most-exceptional quietude; the shift was instant and compelling, as if to say: “welcome to a serene Art Deco elegance that for the next four hours will host your culinary flow state. This is a modern church for worshipping the special intimacy you can enjoy by breaking bread with another person.”
Whenever you place yourself in the hands of a true master of their craft–perhaps any craft, but certainly culinary–you have the opportunity to live for a brief moment right within the heart of transformative art.
Few things in this world require the coordination and complexity across, time, space and skillsets than does a world-class meal. When you’re attuned to it, and when the right ambience beckons forth your full presence, the impact across all four dimensions of experience can be profound…
It doesn’t matter what the actual content of the art is; not for this. Great art grabs you, against your will, and then suspends your will. You are ushered into a quiet clearing, free of desire, free of grasping, free of ego, free of the self contraction. And through that opening or clearing in your own awareness may come flashing higher truths, subtler revelations, profound connections… Great art suspends the reverted eye, the lamented past, the anticipated future: we enter with it into the timeless present; we are with God today, perfect in our manner and mode, open to the riches and the glories of a realm that time forgot, but that great art reminds us of: not by its content, but by what it does in us: suspends the desire to be elsewhere.Ken Wilber, The Eye of Spirit
I notice the still serenity of knowing I’m in the right place, at the right time, with the right person.
My excitement about what’s to come blends with an awesome gratitude for the lifetime of skills I know make this possible: the master chef with decades of experience; the master sommelier who can blind-identify any bottle of wine by region and varietal; the pâtissier who has freshly-baked over 50 different baked goods for the day’s service; the lowliest kitchen scullion who is already among the best young chefs in the world; the service captain who has spent a lifetime refining her principles of service. Hundreds of years of cumulative experience and intense, lifetime dedication to craft mastery of every kind, all available, unbelievably, to me and others who appreciate this art form.
My attention is alert but relaxed, and I’m allowing my senses to deepen, to acclimate to a new level of sensitivity in order to perceive at a higher order of complexity. I know it will be needed.
(Later, as the meal progresses, I find I was right: the complexity of the flavors is not just in their contrasts but also their subtlety, and I have to slow down to attune to nuances I might otherwise miss.)
In the Chef’s Hands
When possible we always choose the menu dégustation, or chef’s menu, in this case a 18-course, four-service affair. This choice is mostly a philosophical one with its roots in romanticism: I want the expressionist art of the chef to come through in the meal, and to do so I choose his menu. I want to encounter his purest intention for his art, which entails not only the execution of each dish, but also the selection and ordering of the entire menu. Indeed, the menu is a whole that cannot be separated merely into its parts, extending even to the wine pairing that the sommelier has chosen for each course (which, in the interest of space, I’ll leave out of this review).
Le Caviar Imperial
Osetra caviar-topped king crab in a crustacean gelée dotted with cauliflower puree
After being seated, enjoying an amuse-bouche of pepper mayonnaise atop fried quinoa, and making selections from 18 different in-house bread choices, our pour commencer arrives: an osetra caviar-topped king crab in a crustacean gelée dotted with cauliflower puree. The dish is visually striking, almost intimidating. The flavors are rich and intense, but without the overbearing shellfish notes that sometimes come through in gelee. The caviar is mild and provides a brininess to offset the timid flavors of the crab beneath. We’re off to a fun start.
Suit jackets are required to eat at Robuchon. A simple thing, really, designed to ensure that everyone in the room is resonating at the same pitch (that is, the social holon’s members, composed of all the diners and restaurant staff for that evening, are giving and receiving–literally, exchanging–symbols to enhance the shared value-system for the evening; too much to unpack here, but these values include respect, elegance, pleasure, excellence, love, virtue…in a word, which we’ll return to, eudaimonia).
This is a dinner to eat slowly and with attention to detail. Not only will 18 courses blow you out if you eat too fast, it’s easy to miss the depth of each dish if you do so: it’s not unlikely that one of these dishes takes 12 or more hours to fully prepare. Each dish is, in a very real sense, an artwork holon: layers of nested materials, preparation and consciousness finding expression finally in a single, final, revelatory act of looking, smelling, tasting and… gone.
Cannelloni of avocado and Scottish salmon with delicate cream
Duo of beetroot and apple, young shoots of herbs served with green mustard sorbet
Le Homard du Maine
Maine lobster in thin sliced daikon with black truffle coulis
Scottish salmon. Maine lobster. Fresh shaved black truffles. Privileged ingredients indeed. Yet in a testament that fine cooking need not be elite, the beetroot brunoise takes the plate here. With the smooth acidic tanginess of the green mustard sorbet complementing the earthy sweetness of the beetroots, the colors, textures and flavors are all offsetting polarities here in a higher integration that simply delights the palate.
The dining room of Robuchon is gorgeous and, though I’m not a fan of Art Deco generally, very well done: elegant, modern, comfortable and intimate.
Chopin plays overhead, a reminder that even in 2017 a 200-year old romantic can still hold us in his sway.
We are seated with Tiffany facing the room, as is customary: this simple physical configuration (lower-right quadrant) keeps the attention of the masculine (in my case) focused entirely on her, letting her know she’s the most beautiful thing in the room to me, while also allowing the radiance of the feminine to infuse the entire room.
On the table sit fresh cut roses, tucked into a short, minimalist vase, alongside a green frond I don’t recognize (not that I would, my botany knowledge is limited). But I wonder, and then suspect, that the choice of greenery is not accidental, and that the restaurant’s florist is also in on the night’s curation. Depth all around.
As I sit and consider the lower-right/social systems quadrant during our meal, it combines with my knowledge of restaurants and food to yield a profound appreciation for the miracle that every plate represents: it’s not an exaggeration to say that I’m on the receiving end of what is arguably the most complex art performance in the universe. From sous chef to master sommelier, a restaurant like Robuchon has artisans with the same lifetime of knowledge and grueling practice as does a prima ballerina. Across the 5 or more stations in the kitchen (sauté, roast, fish, vegetable, pantry, pastry etc.), it has the same requirement for exquisite team coordination as a philharmonic orchestra. It has similar supply chain complexities to an Intel microchip (which is the most complex artifact humans create, and while the Intel chip might have more raw complexity, arguably it doesn’t have the time-bound sensitivity that a restaurant supply chain does). Every ingredient tells its own global story of people, conditions, culture and history: the precious black truffles sourced in the middle of the night by specially-trained dogs in the damp hills of northern Italy; the artisanal flour whose protein content is just right to create a luxurious, well-risen bread with big air pockets; the langostine brought in from the icy waters off Norway by fishermen whose family has been on the water for generations… all of this and more has to be found, grown, sourced, transported and landed before the restaurant can even start its choreography of preparation. It’s just a miracle to consider, and we’re stunningly privileged to be able to participate in it.
L’Oeuf de Poule
Semi-soft boiled egg on a spinach puree with comté cheese sauce
La Cuisse de Grenouille
Frog leg kadaif fritter with red miso and Espelette pepper
There’s just something about putting your fork into a soft-poached egg and having the yummy yolk ooze out, like a hidden treat waiting to be discovered. Top it off with the sharp saltiness of the comté cheese and the mild bite of the spinach puree, and this was a neat dish (and almost a textural diametrical opposite of the crunchy fritter that enwrapped the frog leg).
Holons (e.g., people) have a dominant monad: that is, when the holon moves around, the entire holon moves with it; it is a unit. Groups of people, on the other hand, are social holons. Social holons are composed of members (which are themselves holons), and in place of a dominant monad they have a dominant mode of discourse. While holons reside within themselves, social holons resonate among its members. The dominant mode of discourse at Robuchon–which includes shared values of excellence, intimacy, pleasure, food, and creativity–is reinforced, as mentioned above, by shared behaviors (no one shouts during dinner, or does Tequila shots off the table) and visible standards (men wear evening jackets, no shorts are allowed etc.).
The evening’s participants form an ad hoc but very real tribe, and this is a tribe that would seem to take delight (or at least highly value) special culinary experiences: while this is hard to know with certainty, in this case the high price of dinner acts as a signal to, and from, the tribe about how highly its members value it. In other words, price is not just a crude economic signal of supply and demand, it also represents an intersubjective values-signal. In general, people who don’t appreciate culinary arts probably won’t want to be in this tribe.
I also notice that Robuchon, unlike many of the more avant garde postmodern restaurants that have come along the past decade, makes no special appeal to cleverness. This is classic French culinary art, created and delivered through a leading edge modern interpretation. The great Marie-Antoine Carême would understand the soul of this meal far more so than perhaps he would a meal at Noma or Alinea.
In one other important way the Robuchon experience stood apart as thoroughly modern: there was no fetish around food provenance, which for so many restaurants today signals a postmodern romanticism that attempts to foreground appeals to sustainability through a quasi-elitism of “brand name” ingredients in every dish (e.g., Niman Ranch beef, etc.). The craft movements of millennials–from beer to bread to handbags to beards–has always felt anti-modern to me, as if trying to outrun its alienating industrialism. Robuchon avoids this, and in doing so Tiffany and I both noticed that there was no cloying claim on our meal to be an act of social justice. Robuchon doesn’t force “societal mind” on its guests, and we both felt it enhanced the intimacy, presence and simple pleasure of the meal in a subtle way. If nothing else, Instagram would have felt like a despoiling.
Truffled langoustine ravioli in a foie gras sauce with simmered green cabbage
Deep fried and pureed artichoke served with turmeric chickpea cappuccino
La Truffe Noire
Crispy truffle tart with onion confit and smoked bacon, foie gras foam
These three together form an interesting combination. Not only do I see European-Indian contrasts (langoustine and truffles vs. turmeric and chickpeas) I also see deep earthy notes (truffles, bacon and foie gras) contrasting with seafood and vegetarian offerings. The turmeric cappuccino provides the first spicy note of the evening, and matches well with the relative heaviness of the fried artichoke.
The truffle tart was the first major miss of the evening for me. While the styling of the dish was incredible, with its replicating, circular discs upon discs of black truffle layering into a single meta-disc, the dish just didn’t show up in the mouth. The flavors were too muted, the onion confit asserting too much of the flavor profile, the bacon, truffle and tart fading into irrelevance. Tiffany tells me hers doesn’t need salt; I wonder if my biochemistry might be off (something that is always worth remembering).
Pan seared scallops with chive foam and black truffle coulis
La Crevette Rose
Rose shrimp in bonito tuna and kombu seaweed broth with ginger
John Dory fish fillet with tempura of shiso leaf on delicate squid ink risotto
The service has progressed into a full seafood complement, which means we’re nearing the final entrée plating. I liked elements of each dish here: the way the chive foam provided a necessary edge to the scallops; the tuna and kombu broth, which provided a rich seafood backbone to the shrimp (which are otherwise mild); the way the Japanese mint (shiso) gave the John Dory and squid ink risotto an herbaceous freshness. In each case the flavors are subtle and complex.
Le Plat Traditional
Venison filet and foie gras “Rossini” style, vintage port reduction
Tournedos Rossini is a classic French dish of pan seared foie gras over filet mignon with a truffle port demi-glace. Robuchon substituted venison for beef and paired it with his renown mashed potatoes and mashed celery root. I have to admit I’m not a fan of foie gras, which is a shame because it’s a staple of French cooking and was the backbone of this dish, which relied on the fat to offset the very lean venison (which is leaner than beef). But it was still delicious, and the rare venison (cooked sous vide, perhaps?) paired beautifully with the vegetal brightness of the celery root and the rich, yummy acidity of the demi-glace.
Culinary Flow State
Not everyone is an epicure, and I know that a four-hour culinary adventure is not everyone’s way to move into a flow state (or even their idea of a good time). For me, however, food, and the consciousness that it can both hold, and bring forth, has always been one of the ways I commune with life. If I’m being honest, it does take on a bit of a spiritual cast.
What’s been amazing during the course of my marriage is how central these kinds of meals have become: they are simultaneously hobby, practice and context in which a special, intersubjective deepening occurs as the complexity and dimensions of the experience get unpacked between my wife and me (and our friends). We’re experiencing every dish together. We’re allowing the great parts, and the total misses, to inform our mutual understanding of what we’re experiencing, together. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the state experience is both a private and shared flow state, one composed of intimacy, and creativity, and the mutual interplay of our heightened senses.
That we both leave in a state of satiety, relaxation, and afterglow is probably no surprise.
Coconut mousse with lemon cream and pineapple lime compote
Popcorn chantilly and soft salted caramel
Le Fruit de la Passion
Mango and passion fruit sorbet with crunchy meringue
Round one of dessert service hit me where I love it: marshmallow. I called this plating “Cloud Atlas” because of the feeling of being in an icy-fresh cloud bank: delivered to the table with dry ice vapor drifting up from underneath the meringue clouds, each bite of the airy whipped awesomeness quickly melting in the mouth while blending with the delights in the center.
Le Papillon Chocolat Azelia
Smooth hazelnut milk chocolate crémeux with coffee chantilly and praliné ice cream
Round two of dessert service was just outrageously creative and fun: a terrarium of mystical delights like something out of Middle Earth’s Lothlórien, featuring a sugar butterfly perched atop a dark chocolate twig abed a forest floor of green chocolate crumbles and chocolate mousse undersoil. Completed with a praliné ice cream-filled crémeux.
Food as Integral Life Practice
There’s no doubt that dining at Joel Robuchon is a luxury good. But everyone chooses which luxuries they’ll save for and invest in–some people love books, others boats; some people splurge on concerts, others on shoes–but the nature of true luxury goods is they do what all great art does: inspire us to live a full, meaningful life, and to turn around and help others do the same.
Incredible dining experiences, shared with people you love, can be a key part of your aesthetic Integral Life Practice. At their best they are state transforming. They are also, over time, genuinely transformative: they provide a glimpse into an incredible art form that shows us what’s possible in this world; what hard work, mastery, love and creativity can bring forth.
They invite us to grow up in our aesthetic sensibility, to heighten our awareness of detail, of contrast, of texture and color, of taste and sensation. Our minds and senses become more complex, more conscious in all four quadrants, in the experiencing. They challenge our preconceptions about foods and flavors we think we don’t like, until we’re surprised to find that we do. They invite us into deeper presence–to wake up–so that the rich complexity of the meal, environment and people we’re with can come forward and infuse our own consciousness.
Only after my experience at Robuchon, when I sat down to write this review, did I find Joel Robuchon’s own words about the 18-course menu we enjoyed. I was gratified, and frankly a bit surprised, that his comments echo my own thoughts about his meal: It is “one of the greatest menus I have ever created. There are many details involved in preparing each service along with an extremely high skill level required to execute this experience.”
A master of his craft, composing his master work, and we, lovers of the art form, challenged to bring as much consciousness to the experience as there is complexity and consciousness in its creation. And when we do, we’re bestowed the blessings of all great art: deep presence and a state of loving appreciation for all the magic and mystery life has to offer. That is not just a special meal. For me, that is art that transforms.
About Robb Smith
Robb Smith is a leading social entrepreneur in human development. He is co-founder and CEO of Integral Life.