French Chef Shares His Culinary Smarts By RUSS PARSONS, TIMES STAFF WRITER After lunch one day, Joel Robuchon joined a group of newspaper editors for a drink. One would think a chef so brilliant would know better. The result was a series of columns in the weekly Journal du Dimanche, which have now been collected as "La Cuisine de Joel Robuchon" (CassellPaperbacks, $24.95). Though the book may be somewhat difficult to find, it is worth the search (look online or at Cook's Library on West 3rd Street near the Beverly Center). Robuchon, of course, is one of the most highly praised chefs in French culinary history. His Paris restaurant, Robuchon, was a longtime Michelin three-star winner and was acknowledged to be one of the best in the world. He closed it in 1996 (Alain Ducasse took over the site for one of his three-star restaurants) and is now loosely engaged in writing, television and consulting. There are recurring rumors that he is working on reopening in Paris, but nothing has yet emerged. In 1991, Robuchon teamed with Patricia Wells to write "Simply French" (Hearst Books, $30), still one of the best chef books for home cooks. The two also teamed for "L'Atelier of Joel Robuchon" (John Wiley, $50), which followed the evolution of some of Robuchon's seminal ideas through the works of other chefs who had shared his kitchen. It was intellectually interesting, though not nearly so user-friendly. In "La Cuisine," Robuchon proceeds through the year at a stately pace, tackling one ingredient a week. Some are seasonal, others not. Some are costly and rare, others are in every supermarket. Topics range from bacon and potatoes to wild mushrooms and lobster. On a few occasions, a dish is highlighted, rather than a foodstuff--pot au feu or tarts. What joins all these pieces together is simply that the chef deemed them interesting enough for a column (or in a few cases, one can't help suspecting, that he had a really good recipe). But what really makes the book is not the topics covered or even the recipes themselves, but rather Robuchon's piercing culinary intelligence. "La Cuisine" is at its best when the chef is talking about the nuts and bolts of how cooking works--the distilled insights of decades of experience. With foie gras, for example, Robuchon distinguishes between duck and goose liver: "For cold liver terrine, I favor goose liver, on account of its greater subtlety of flavor. Duck liver, which is more bitter and has a coarser fragrance is more difficult to work with but is superior to goose liver should you decide to serve it warm." Or his advice on salting French fries: "I always mix coarse and fine salt, for a seasoning that crackles a little between the teeth." At times, he can be downright shocking (well, in a cuisine-y kind of way): "Some chefs spice lamb with garlic, but I am not in favor of this practice; I prefer to season it with chopped parsley....Take care never to pierce the meat, either when it is raw or in the course of cooking." So much for the classic leg stuffed with garlic slivers! The dishes are, on the whole, very home-cook-friendly. No five sub-recipe recipes here. The techniques are straightforward, without being condescending, and there are enough surprises that you never feel like you're getting the same old thing. Robuchon roasts lamb loin in a salt crust, and whisks olive oil into a reduced fish stock to make a silky emulsion. Given all of that, it may seem nitpicking to point out that the book could have been better edited. Part of the problem is the recipes, which are only roughly translated. More basic is the structure of the column, which follows a very stale, very French, format, so you've got to read through a lot of dross to get to the gold. First comes an anodyne introductory paragraph: "Since the dawn of humanity, pork has constituted an abundant source of nourishment for mankind." Then follows a series of unrelated--in most cases well hashed-over--bits of kitchen history (e.g., the word "salary" is rooted in salt). For the most part, this kind of stuff went out of fashion in this country with Waverly Root. On the other hand, given what follows, that's a small enough price to pay.