I had never been to any of the Joël Robuchon restaurants, anywhere in the world, before recently trying the new Le Grill de Joël Robuchon (with a bunch of kids on a post-theater trip) and, a few months later, the new L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon (with my parents to celebrate my father’s birthday) in New York Ctiy.
I loved both the more casual setting with the simpler menu (still elegant), and the more upscale environment: the food, the service (warm and hospitable without being overly familiar), and the stunningly beautiful location downtown. It was expensive, to be sure, but there was no tipping; just as Danny Meyer has famously done in his NYC restaurants, the bill at this location is inclusive of the service.
My recommendation at L’Atetlier is the 4-Course Menu. Do not panic: what looks at first like a very alarming price of $195, is actually more like what we’re used to seeing for $165. Once you do the math and realize that you’re not tacking on an extra twenty percent, it’s about on par with other fine New York City restaurants like Del Posto and Daniel, and considerably less than some others, like Per Se, Masa, and Eleven Madison Park. The food is uniformly excellent, thanks to Executive Chef Christophe Bellanca and his team, as well as the Head Baker, Tetsuya Yamaguchi–do not miss the house bread basket, especially the “escargot” (olive oil swirl croissant). Dessert: well, if you are going to go for broke, and you haven’t filled up on the bread and the four courses you were already served, go ahead and order Le Pappilon Chocolat Azalea for the table. This second desert will set you back $28, but it is so exquisite that you will be astonished by its beauty and delicacy. Kudos to Executive Pastry Chef Salvatore Martone.
I was curious to learn more about the restaurant, so I got in touch with Alex Gaudelet, the founder and CEO of INVEST HOSPITALITY, the organization which is the licensee for L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in the USA, Central, and South America. Despite being very busy working on the spring menu, he was kind enough to take the time to speak with me on the phone and answer my questions. Here’s what he had to say:
Name: Alex Gaudelet (above)
Date: March 13, 2018
Hometown: suburbs of Paris
Current city: Greenwich, Connecticut
Occupation: Founder and CEO of INVEST HOSPITALITY
Are the Joël Robuchon restaurants in Paris, Hong Kong, Monaco, and other cities around the world all the same? Since I have now been to the one in New York, have I effectively had the experience?
L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon is a luxury restaurant brand; the one in New York is one of twelve in the world, and is subject to a licensing (not franchising) agreement with Joël Robuchon. Each is different in design; we didn’t follow a standard design when we opened. Each has its own different implementation. Here in New York, we took advantage of the space we had. The bricks are representative of New York City; we adapted a restaurant to New York City, it’s not a copy and paste job. There’s a real personality to the place here.
This location is also the only location that combines L’Atelier with Le Grill; they are both under one roof downtown, and that’s unlike any other of our restaurants at other locations.
Also, each restaurant around the world does have its own executive chef, who designs dishes based on regional specialties. The menus are not identical. Their cooking is based on their ingredients, and they present their dishes to Joël Robuchon.
Even when dishes on the menus are the same, we source locally. Duck in New York is not the same as duck in Paris, or duck in Hong Kong. The location does make a difference to the food. We have some great butter—we get it from Vermont, not France.
LE CRABE DES NEIGES – King crab, avocado cannelloni and citrus
Your restaurants are expensive. I can’t afford to eat this way every day, or even very often. What do you say to the customer on a budget?
Although our restaurants are expensive, the customer gets a high value for their money. Our business principles include offering a high quality experience.
I can’t argue with that. The food and the service were both excellent, very welcoming. I remember reading something by Ruth Reichl, I think in Garlic and Sapphires, one of her memoirs, about how she did not like it when high-end restaurants looked down on customers who were not very sophisticated diners, and treated them with rudeness and condescension, and how she liked places that treated everyone with respect, including people who were unfamiliar with the food, or who weren’t used to fine dining, just people out for a special occasion who weren’t cosmopolitan world travelers.
I think we are doing a good job with that. The staff strikes a good balance between friendliness and formality. They are good at taking care of all customers.
That may be one of the reasons Ruth Reichl wrote so positively about your restaurant recently; that level of service. She was also enamored of your Le Pappilon Chocolat Azalea.
On another topic, what is the reason for the no tipping policy? Is it to ensure that all employees get paid a living wage?
Yes, our dishwashers and line cooks make enough money: $30,00 to $50,000 per year, which is good, compared with most places in our industry. We make sure people have the opportunity for overtime hours, not just the most senior people, but everyone. We provide competitive benefits and health care for our staff.
In a restaurant with tips, the 20% paid for service only goes to the waitstaff, not to the cooks. This way, globally, we can pay everyone better and pay for their benefits.
We want people who are professionals, who want to be part of our industry, who want to be trained by our chefs–with less turnover and more stability. Many restaurants in New York are staffed by people—and it’s not their primary interest. They want to do something else, perform on stage, make music. And when they get a gig, they’re gone. We don’t want struggling artists, actors, musicians, people hustling, we are looking for a different kind of candidate for jobs.
For waiters here, their income is affected. They don’t make as much money as they would make in a place with tips. (They do get paid time off, though.) But over time, we keep these people.
As L’Atelier opened, our turnover was very low, compared to other openings. Especially the voluntary turnover (as opposed to people leaving due to performance or disciplinary issues)–people don’t just decide to leave here. I think we are doing some things right. Have you heard of The Good Jobs Strategy?
The book by Zeynep Ton?
Yes, the book, and there’s also an institute that trains employers. The book discusses the hallmarks of a successful business, and we do offer fair wages, time off, good working conditions. We don’t maximize profit above all other things. We buy into her theory.
It does make intuitive sense. Taking care of your employees should lead to taking care of your customers.
We believe that our customers and our business benefit from our business principles and we create high quality work and good jobs.
There’s been a conversation lately about sexism and restaurant culture. I read a piece by Tom Collichio recently which seemed very thoughtful and sincere…it made me want to go to his restaurants in NYC. (I have not yet done so, but it is on my to do list.) Do you think that there’s a relationship between tipping and abuse of power?
Yes, I do. When there is tipping, the captain always has a choice of people: who is going to get the bad tables and then the bad tips? Whether it’s intentional or not, when there are tipped servers, someone will feel that they have been given the bad section, no VIPs. It’s subjective, but if you ask a waiter if they think they’ve had a fair share, they will often say no, they had an off night, and it was due to the manager’s decisions. It’s worse if the manager is friends with, or has a personal relationship with one of the servers, or once had a personal relationship with one of the servers. Even if it’s not intentional, the power of the manager to make decisions is an opportunity for abuse of power, or the perception of abuse of power.
I used to work at a restaurant in Vegas, with $18 million in annual sales, and there were 27 waiters working for tips. I think if I’d asked them each if they were getting a fair share of money, tables, and so on, they all would have said no.
Having diversity is critical. In the house team, for fine dining restaurants, you usually have more male waiters, fewer women. We are about 60% female currently; maybe the fact that the tips are included make more women want to work here. There’s a democratic aspect to a no tips policy. You still have to manage expectations, of course.
Sure, although no tipping solves some of your management problems, it can’t solve everything, right? You still have to manage people.
You do have to manage people. But yes, it does level the playing field. Of course, people can complain about productivity, and how they are doing more and deserve more money! But I think overall we have less complaining.
We hired a young woman as an assistant maître d‘. She didn’t have as much job experience as a man we hired; there wasn’t much difference, but she didn’t have as much of background as he did. We paid them the same, to make a point. We want to be way aboveboard, and we can’t be seen as favoring someone based on gender.
Is there a book you recommend to our readers, about the restaurant industry, or otherwise?
Yes, a book by Ken Blanchard (the author of the One-Minute Manager): Raving Fans. It is about creating fans out of your brand. The Ritz-Carlton philosophy is about setting up processes to please customers. It is an easy read, if you have a few hours, but it is an important book about customer service. It is all about creating repeat customers and guests who will give you the best word of mouth.
Do you have a favorite restaurant that’s not one in the Joel Robochon family?
My favorite restaurant in New York is Le Coucou, a Stephen Starr French restaurant. I like it. The food is very good, and the design—it’s a nice room, and it brought back to New York City this idealistic French restaurant, romantic, with good service, non-pretentious. It’s actually not like a restaurant in France—it has similar food, but a typical restaurant in France would be a small café, crowded, the waiter not so nice. (Unless you go to a Michelin star restaurant—the Joël Robuchon restaurants and ones like it are beautiful in France!) Italian and French restaurants in the US aren’t really like restaurants in Italy and France. I was talking with someone at the James Beard Foundation about this recently. In Italy there is good food, but crappy tables, poor lighting, soccer playing on TV. The American idea of these restaurants is different, not a true representation, they’re not as beautiful over there. It’s something of a fantasy, this idea of a French restaurant.
I think that says something about our culture here, but not I’m not sure exactly what! Is there a good movie about the restaurant business?
There’s a movie called Waiting, which is a parody of the restaurant business; it’s all the worst things, sexual harassment and abusing people, it’s so grotesque! You have to laugh, the waiters are all partying, and there’s an angry chef.
Maybe I don’t want to see that one! I’d prefer to think about your restaurants being a model of civility and a perfect place for a special occasion meal.
A better movie for you to watch might be Chef. The chef leaves a restaurant and gets a food truck. It’s really good. The acting is well done. It’s a nice movie. You appreciate the fight between the restaurateur (Dustin Hoffman) and the chef, and the review process, and what gets said on Twitter.
A good show that someone in my business can relate to is Downton Abbey—if you work in a high end restaurant or hotel, it’s the epitome of perfection, the art of dining, going so far as dressing correctly for dinner. You wouldn’t even dare to show up without looking just so. And then the servants, the old head of the house polishing the silverware. There are similarities between what the servants are doing and what the aristocracy is doing, similarities in how they think. It’s very educational, seeing the perspective of the staff working underground in the kitchen as a big team. It shows what the details are to give five star service, as it was back in the day.
Quality products are expensive with fashion, with travel, with art, and of course with food. My anniversary is coming up in June, though…I think it may be time to go back and see what’s on the four-course menu then! Thank you for your time!
Laura LaVelle is an attorney and writer who lives in Connecticut, in a not quite 100-year-old house, along with her husband, two daughters, and a cockatiel.
Laura can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Restaurant Images Courtesy of INVEST HOSPITALITY; Portrait Courtesy of Alex Gaudelet
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