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They Came, They Cooked, They Conquered


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Inside the restaurant Joel Robuchon at The Mansion, guests dine beneath a crystal chandelier on confit of lamb and noix de Saint-Jacques. It's what you'd expect at a Paris establishment run by the Michelin-starred chef Robuchon. But step outside and you're on the Las Vegas Strip, not in the City of Light. Robuchon opened The Mansion, and a more-casual eatery, L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon, in the MGM Grand Hotel & Casino (MGM) complex last September. And he's not stopping there. By summer he expects to open three more restaurants, in New York, London, and Hong Kong. "We've received many other proposals, but we can't develop them all," the 60-year-old chef says.

Robuchon is one of a handful of French chefs who are building world empires, stretching from the American West to the Far East. These masters are marketing themselves as global brands, betting that sterling reputations will draw customers into restaurants, even if the chefs themselves are rarely on the premises. Alain Ducasse, the most prolific of the group, now runs 21 restaurants and five hotels on three continents.

Why are these chefs venturing so far afield? One reason is the emergence of new culinary hot spots, where well-heeled customers are willing to pay $200 and up per person for a fine meal. Las Vegas is one. The gambling oasis is now home to several world-class French restaurants, featuring such big names as Robuchon, Ducasse, and Jean-Georges Vongerichten, with Guy Savoy joining them soon. It's an ideal spot, really: There are plenty of high rollers. And, says Gamal Aziz, president of MGM Grand Hotel & Casino: "Because of the short time people spend here, they want to be sure they have a memorable evening."

THE NAME'S THE THING

Asians, already avid consumers of French luxury goods such as Louis Vuitton bags and Chanel perfumes, are now developing a taste for French cuisine. At least five restaurants run by top French chefs have opened in Tokyo in the past three years. Still others are opening up in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Bangkok, and Singapore. "Robuchon's name is the reason I'm here," says Kiyomi Yamane, 36, over lunch at L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon in Tokyo's Roppongi Hills shopping complex. "I knew Robuchon wasn't going to be back there in the kitchen. That's the nature of the business."

Another reason for the global push: Haute cuisine has fallen on hard times in France. Corporate belt-tightening has put a big dent in expense-account dining at Paris restaurants and increased their reliance on foreign tourists. Overhead is high because of the large staffs required to prepare and serve complicated meals. "In France, a gastronomique restaurant is hard to make profitable," says Robuchon in an interview at his spartan Paris office.

That's why many chefs are opening less formal dining venues. Robuchon closed his Michelin-starred Paris restaurant in 1996 and in 2003 opened L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon, a Paris establishment where guests can watch the kitchen staff work while seated at a counter, sushi-bar style. The formula works outside of France as well. Robuchon has opened two other Atelier restaurants and is set to add two more this year. A typical Atelier meal costs $75 to $95, including wine, less than half the average tab at his swankier restaurants. Even so, Robuchon says the Ateliers are far more profitable. Of Ducasse's 21 restaurants worldwide, only three serve up traditional high-end cuisine. His others are less formal, such as Spoon, which now operates in six cities from London to Hong Kong and offers fixed-price dinners for just over $100.

No doubt these chefs can whip up a delectable amuse-bouche, but can they manage a global business for the long haul? Operating a top-notch restaurant requires flawless coordination and attention to detail. Many chefs stumble when they try to open more than one. Remember Rocco DiSpirito, the 2003 celebrity New York chef featured on the reality TV show The Restaurant? He's no longer in business. "It can only work if the chef gives away responsibility in the kitchen," says David Rosengarten, a New York-based writer who edits a monthly newsletter on food, wine, and travel. "Other things become more important: selection of ingredients, selection of personnel, teaching. Alain Ducasse has done it, but not everybody has this set of skills." Ducasse also has some help: His business partner Laurent Plantier has an MBA from Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Management.

Among the required competencies is military-like planning. More than a year before each restaurant opens, Robuchon's advance teams scope out suppliers of everything from strawberries to milk-fed veal. To ensure consistency in the kitchens, he employs veteran chefs, most of whom have worked with him in Paris.

Like most of his fellow empire-builders, Robuchon either co-owns his restaurants with local partners or operates them under contracts with hotels or other owners. The contracts often specify the star chef must cook a certain number of days in the restaurant.

All of the up-front sweat can make the difference between a pick or a pan from some influential critic. "We know there is a risk, especially when you are going to America, where the press can be very honest," says Robuchon. Lucky for him, The Mansion has gotten rave write-ups from The New York Times and Los Angeles Times. Ducasse, on the other hand, endured a barrage of criticism for the stratospheric prices at his restaurant in Manhattan's Essex House Hotel after it opened in 2000. It is now considered one of the city's premier dining spots and was one of four to receive three stars in the newly published Michelin Red Guide to New York City.

Such success stories encourage others to jump on the bandwagon. Guy Savoy, a Michelin-starred chef who runs five Paris eateries, is set to open his first overseas restaurant in May, at Caesars Palace Hotel in Las Vegas. Savoy admits he was skeptical when the hotel first approached him in 2003. But he changed his mind after visiting Las Vegas and seeing the plethora of French restaurants and boutiques. "French prestige will be all around us," he says.

Could global expansion, far from diminishing haute cuisine, actually improve it? Robuchon says his travels have inspired him. He admits he was initially horrified to see Chinese chefs rinsing shrimp under water until the flavor washed away. But he noticed that the rinsing changed the texture, and that led him to try new techniques. "There is an exchange of ideas that isn't possible when you are working only in the kitchen," he says. Sounds like this latest French export is more than just a flash in the pan.

By Carol Matlack, with Ian Rowley and Kenji Hall in Tokyo


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