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Joël Robuchon's Montreal Restaurant May Have Received $11 Million In Government Funds

Quebec’s finance minister offered few details about how that money was spent

The main players at Robuchon’s Atelier in Montreal
L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon Montréal

It’s been known for a while that the Montreal edition of multi-millionnaire French chef Joël Robuchon’s Atelier restaurants was likely a pricey affair. Back when it opened in December, price tags like $80,000 for cutlery and plates were floating around.

While this would be a non-issue if Robuchon had splashed that sort of cash around from his own savings account, the problem for some critics was primarily that his restaurant was funded by the Quebec government’s gambling and lottery agency, Loto-Québec, who operate all casinos in the province, alongside the services inside of them, restaurants included. Loto-Québec is generally a self-sustaining agency, funding its own operations with money earned from gambling — but that money is ultimately public.

Now, courtesy of some bickering and debate at Quebec’s National Assembly on Thursday, there is a confirmed price tag for the 56-seat L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon. It’s a long-awaited number, which Loto-Québec had previously refused to divulge: a whopping $11 million. At the debate in Quebec City, Finance Minister Carlos Leitão’s justification for this boiled down to the idea that a Robuchon-named restaurant in Montreal is a good investment, suggesting it would be a huge draw to presumably moneyed tourists from all over (although there are Atelier restaurants in numerous other locations around the world, including a soon-to-open New York location, just six hours’ drive away). That hit a nerve amongst some prominent Quebec chefs, due to the suggestion that they are not accomplished enough to merit such a “tourist drawcard” label.

The debate (entirely in French) was kicked off by the opposition critic for agriculture, fisheries, and food, André Villeneuve, from the left-ish Parti Québécois. Villeneuve’s initial complaint was that there was no sort of open tender for a Quebec-based chef to propose a restaurant in the casino and to receive public funding to set it up— Villeneuve named Joe Beef’s David McMillan and Laurie Raphaël’s Daniel Vézina as possible candidates. Minister Leitão argued that a big-name chef like Robuchon was a big asset to the casino, saying that his name would draw crowds (or “jouers,” “players,” in Leitão’s words) to the casino.

Villeneuve ran with those comments, saying that Leitão was implying that Quebec-based chefs aren’t talented or attractive enough to draw the masses. Invoking Toqué’s Normand Laprise and Au Pied de Cochon’s Martin Picard (who Leitão mistakenly named as “Ricard”), Leitão responded, arguing that groups like the Parti Québécois are too interested in keeping Quebec’s icons to themselves; criticizing Villeneuve’s arguments as being insular and not worldly enough.

The issue was then left to stew on the internet for a few hours, where Montreal Gazette critic Lesley Chesterman (a big critic of the restaurant) weighed in, alongside McMillan.

Back in Quebec City, debate sparked up again mid-afternoon with Villeneuve reading out a Chesterman tweet, saying that Leitão was effectively insulting chefs like McMillan.

Leitão delved into bureaucrat-speak to explain, saying that Loto-Québec had, in recent years, tried to focus on offering a diverse range of attractions at its casinos, saying that Robuchon represents “diversity and openness”, pointing out that L’Atelier has locals working there, meaning it’s not closed off to Quebecers.

He also highlights that other big tourist drawcards, like Quebec City’s huge summer music festival, would fail if they only prioritized local celebrities (never mind the fact that that festival is not branded according to its headline acts — it’s not Le Festival de Sting de Québec in the same way the restaurant is L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon).

After Villeneuve demanded details of Robuchon’s contract, and an answer to questions about why nobody except Robuchon was even offered the chance to propose a government-funded casino restaurant, Leitão confirmed that L’Atelier cost the government and Loto-Québec $11 million to get up and running — a large sum of money authorized by a government that previously had an extremely strong commitment to generally tightening budgetary belts, and cutting services within the province. The minister offered few details about how that money was spent, suggesting that it was primarily used for renovations (previous figures suggest the kitchen makeover alone was $1.5 million), however, at least some was also committed to advertising the restaurant.

The announcement of the figure could be a game-changer here: while Robuchon’s restaurant has (so far) received praise for its food, arguments about its value stagnated due to the fact that Loto-Québec was so tight-lipped about the budget. Now it’s out — and Quebec culinary figures on the internet seem pretty angry.

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