Creativity. Innovation. Tradition. These are the three values that represent Joël Robuchon’s Michelin-star restaurants. It’s as if these values were meant for Mr. Robuchon’s youngest executive chefs themselves – Christophe de Lellis, Jimmy Lisnard, and Wilfried Bergerhausen. One uniting value pulls them all together, collaboration.
While the name may allude some, especially if not familiar with the culinary industry, Joël Robuchon has been coined the Chef of the Century. With over 23 Michelin star restaurants throughout the world, Mr. Robuchon still holds the record for the most stars held by a chef. Along the way, he has trained some of the globe’s best chefs, including none other than Gordon Ramsey. But today, three new stars are firing up the Las Vegas strip with their own unique styles.
Amazingly, these millennial French chefs all began their careers on the line together at the famed three-Michelin star title restaurant, Joël Robuchon, located in the MGM Grand. Arguably the best restaurant in all of Las Vegas, the youngest of the chefs, Christophe (29), was recently chosen to lead this prestigious kitchen.
Next door at L’Atelier, Jimmy (30) was selected to masterfully tackle the executive chef role at Robuchon’s more casual one-Michelin star gourmet restaurant. And down the strip at the Bellagio’s French fine dining establishment is Wilfried (30) who heads Le Cirque.
But to understand the intrinsic nature of a chef’s life, we first have to understand where it all began. MiLLENNiAL caught up with the three astounding chefs at Joël Robuchon’s title restaurant in Las Vegas where we took a deeper dive into what it takes to be an executive chef in today’s culinary world.
A Way to the Heart is Through the Stomach
Growing up in France, Christophe, Jimmy and Wilfried found a unique positioning connecting with food. While the three would meet years later, their childhoods were uniquely parallel. They can each thank the matriarchs in their family for showing them the ways of the kitchen.
Chef Jimmy Lisnard
The son of France’s first female culinary teacher, Jimmy recalls his earliest memory of wanting to be a chef. “The very first time I spent an entire day in the kitchen I was 9 years old, and [my mother] taught me how to make a quiche.” Even though he was young, he says he could see the difference between life in and life out of the kitchen. “My mom was the sweetest person in the world out of the kitchen, and in the kitchen, she was another woman,” he laughs, “I loved it. I knew that was exactly what I wanted to do.”
By 14, Jimmy was in culinary school, studying under his mother for what he claims would be the “toughest two years” of his life. Soon after, he met Wilfried while both were obtaining their bachelor’s degrees at Lycée Paul Augier in Nice, France.
Chef Wilfried Bergerhausen
Like Jimmy, Wilfried started young as well. But unlike his fellow chef, Wilfried’s family pushed him away from cooking and wanted him to pursue computer engineering. “My family didn’t want me to be in the kitchen because they all knew hospitality. My dad was in the business for almost 45 years,” he tells us.
Luckily for him, his grandparents were not about to let cooking leave their family legacy. Instead they taught young Wilfried everything there was to know about the fundamentals of food. From growing vegetables in his grandmother’s garden to butchering the meat his grandfather would hunt in the morning, Wilfried quickly realized his passion for food.
“Everything is always food related [in the South of France]. In the morning you are already thinking what you are going to make for lunch and then you finish lunch and you are already thinking about what you are going to make for dinner,” he explains. In his mind, the table was what united his family.
By the time he was 11, Wilfried was working at a famous restaurant in his hometown. “They told me I was too young, but I did it anyway… the spirit and organization of the kitchen really fascinated me.” He later went on to train professionally at Lycée Paul Augier, where he met Jimmy.
While the two were attending school, they were also working in well-established restaurants. “It was two weeks at school and two weeks in the business, allowing us earn a diploma but also grow as professionals,” Wilfried says.
Chef Christophe de Lellis
Christophe, on the other hand, didn’t begin training professionally until he was 18, a rarity for chefs in France. Rather, he was on track to study accounting and marketing, but decided to drop out on his first day of class. “Deep inside, I knew cooking was my passion,” he tells us. The kitchen was nothing new for Christophe.
Born in Paris to an Italian mother, Christophe spent every Sunday making pasta with his grandmother. “When all my cousins were playing soccer, I was making lasagna or cannelloni, or my grandmother was teaching me how to butcher a rabbit or a pheasant.” This desire to cook was fueled by the smiles his food would bring around the table. “Everyone was happy. It was a great. And I told myself I want to do this for the rest of my life.”
Little did he know that less than ten years into his career, he would be leading one of the most prestigious and highly rated restaurants in the world.
Bringing the Joël Robuchon Experience to Every Guest
If one word could be used to describe the Joël Robuchon experience it would be perfection. As Jimmy explains, “When you come to a Joël Robuchon restaurant, you expect the best of the best. You expect the best bread, the best cheese, the best first course, second course, up to the 19th course. You expect every bite to be memorable.” He goes on to explain that even the wine and the way the server comes to you are meant to enhance the experience.
Wilfried adds, “There aren’t many restaurants in the world that are run the way it is here. You can see it in the dining room, the kitchen, the china, every single piece is unique.” The interiors of Joël Robuchon and L’Atlier are a preparatory hint that the food and service are going to be exceptional.
Inside the Restaurants
At Robuchon, guests are met with a traditional French dining room, reminiscent of a luxurious 1930s Art Deco townhouse. Purple velvet laces the booths’ upholstery as onyx tables create space between the crème dining chairs. A dazzling chandelier hangs in the center of the room, and a grand fireplace adorns the back wall. An intimate garden terrace complete with lush landscaping and marble floors lingers just outside of the main dining room, inviting guests to spend the evening in a faux al-fresco setting.
At L’Atelier, the open kitchen environment acts as the main star. Situated like a sushi bar, guests sit on the outside observing the staff as they work. The ebony motif, offset by crimson accents, allows the space to focus on the colorful array of fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs that line the stainless-steel racks. “Hospitality is not just an open restaurant where you make food. There is form. There is a strive for perfection,” Wilfried insists.
From Start to Finish
Jimmy emphasizes that cooking to them is not a job. It’s a passion they have to amaze every guest. And from an outsider’s perspective, it would appear these chefs are more like artists carefully preparing for a show, than cooks who are whipping up food in the back. Jimmy adds, “Mr. Robuchon always said, “When the guest steps in, they need to be on a cloud. Like you are in paradise.’”
For Christophe, who now helms the Chef of the Century’s title restaurant, the legacy of maintaining this level can be daunting. As he tells us, “I have the tools to succeed. But I also have to ask this question everyday: What can I do better? You cannot stop on one dish and say ok this is perfect, lets move on…you have to chase – even if you can’t touch it – the perfection everyday.”
With pressure on, Christophe finds comfort in knowing he has Mr. Robuchon’s full confidence. “It has given me a lot of strength. The fact that I have his trust is a major key for me,” he says with conviction.
The Magic of Each Dish
All of the dishes that come out of Christophe, Jimmy and Wilfried’s kitchens are delicate pieces of edible art. But while each dish looks like a complex combination of flavors, the chefs ensure us the ingredients are much simpler than one would image. Instead, it’s the fine details that make each plate unique.
“It’s simplicity treated with sophistication. That’s all Robuchon,” Christophe says. He reflects on something Mr. Robuchon once said to him, “He told me, it’s easy to make it complicated, but it’s complicated to make it simple.” Christophe points out that the goal is to make the product the highlight of the dish. “We focus on this 80 percent of the time. Everything is treated with simplicity.” The other 20 percent is about technique and plating.
Innovating an item may seem impossible on a Robuchon menu, but as Christophe and Jimmy confirm, they are constantly looking for ways to add a new touch. “80-90 percent of the recipes are Mr. Robuchon’s ideas. But we are working to try and bring a touch of modernity to them,” Christophe clarifies. Wilfried, however, has complete control over his menu and yearns to perpetually evolve his techniques.
The Science of Food
For example, both Christophe and Wilfried attended a class that focused on cryoconcentration. Wilfried explains, “Cryoconcentration seems like it’s a science class but its really just about bringing the best flavor out of the product’s full potential.”
Christophe chimes in, “If you look at the chefs in the world, no one creates flavor anymore. Everything is made already.” He suggests it’s really hard to find a brand new combination of flavors. Thus, his input is now in the way he presents a dish. For this reason, technique plays a big role.
Working with a chef scientist is key for Christophe, Jimmy, and Wilfried to take their culinary skills to new heights. Some dishes require the product be cooked at a low temperature for an extended period of time. Think quail egg cooked at 75 degrees Fahrenheit for 10 hours. This kind of precision is beyond the knowledge of a traditional chef. Wilfried admits, “By ourselves we won’t be able to answer all those precise temperatures. We have to surround ourselves with people who know science.”
While Joël Robuchon, L’Atelier and Le Cirque are all traditionally French restaurants, multi-cultural influences make their way onto their menus. At Robuchon, for example, Christophe tells us they serve Spanish shrimp with a Japanese Dashi broth using a French technique.
With a city like Las Vegas that attracts every type of nationality, it can often be tricky to accommodate the wide variety of flavor preferences. But Wilfried refers to this “blend of cultures” as a real blessing for them as chefs. Christophe adds, “The diversity [in Vegas] is so big that sometimes it can be challenging. But that’s what makes magic too.”
Jimmy interjects, “Just because you think something is good doesn’t mean that it is actually good. Sometimes you have to take your pride and put it in your pocket.” He refers to a time when his server returned a dish and suggested that it didn’t quite work for the guest. It’s this type of humility and flexibility that has enabled these chefs to rise to the top.
The Start of a New Chapter
As the new faces of Vegas cuisine, these millennial men have worked hard to perfect their craft while maintaining their drive. Fortunate to be where they are, they each know they haven’t reached the end, but are just starting a new chapter of their career.
When asked what was next for them – each responded with humble answers that could only be attributed to their discipline. Wilfried jumps in, “A few years ago, when we were all on the line, we talked about one day becoming Executive Chefs. Well, now we’re here and we have to set up different goals for ourselves.” Understanding that at this point, their paths will be not be the same, he continues, “[our goals] have to be a lot more flexible because of all the opportunity that we have right here.”
Jimmy takes a more stoic approach, and tells us, “If you only focus on one thing and you don’t get it, you’ll be disappointed. You have to be open to everything.”
And Christophe adds honestly, “When I started this career, I had two goals in mind: to travel and to have my own restaurant some day. But I don’t close any doors. I just try to be my best everyday and see how far I go.”
It comes as no surprise why Christophe, Jimmy and Wilfried were chosen to represent Joël Robuchon, L’Atelier and Le Cirque. With a meticulous attention to detail and a passion for making food a special experience, these young chefs are on their way to greatness. In whatever form that takes, one thing is for certain…perfection will be at the center of everything they touch.