Michel Roux Jr: a family affair27 September 2012
As a representative of perhaps the most influential dynasty in the history of UK fine dining, Michel Roux Jr has built on a legacy that stretches back almost half a century. He speaks to Phin Foster about new restaurants, nurturing talent and staying true to the classics.
In 2005, then French president Jacques Chirac, in a private conversation with fellow world leaders, was overheard ridiculing British gastronomy. "One cannot trust people whose cuisine is so bad," he was quoted as saying. "After Finland, it is the country with the worst food."
It was not widely reported how the Finns reacted to this slight, but the Brits were incensed. Not only did it promote a stereotype that has long fed a sense of culinary inferiority amid its continental neighbours, but many also believed the opinion to be seriously antiquated. The UK was at the centre of a 'foodie revolution', and newspaper columnists, cultural critics and chefs all seized on Chirac's comments as the ramblings of an old man representative of an Old Europe. If anything, they argued, it was the French who should be crossing the Channel in search of a good meal: Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck topped that year's World's 50 Best Restaurants list, one of three English establishments in the top ten, while France could only muster one representative, a fact many interpreted as demonstrating the growing irrelevance of gastronomy's ancien régime.
The Roux generation
As is usually the case with such scenes of national fervour, the truth lay somewhere in the middle. Yes, the restaurant scene in 21st-century Britain is incomparable to that of previous generations. Equally undeniable, however, is that such drastic improvement would have been impossible without the guiding hand of the French.
One family can take more credit than most. Albert Roux first arrived in England in 1953 to work in the kitchens of Viscountess Astor, going on to take a series of jobs in aristocratic households and even the British Embassy in Paris. His younger brother, Michel, joined him in London and in 1967 they opened Le Gavroche on Mayfair's Lower Sloane Street. Five years later, they launched their second restaurant, the Waterside Inn in Bray. In 1982, Le Gavroche became the first restaurant in the UK to win three Michelin stars, only for the Waterside Inn to receive the same accolade three years later.
The Roux brothers introduced fine dining to the UK and developed a generation of chefs that would lead the second wave. Among the most high profile, Marco Pierre White and Gordon Ramsay served stints at Le Gavroche, and both went on to open three-star restaurants, spawning yet more chefs who have garnered even more stars. The Roux Scholarship, founded in 1984, had produced talents such as Andrew Fairlie and Sat Bains.
Le Gavroche: synonymous with French fine dining
These two Frenchman, serving unmistakably French food, started the UK on the path to taking pride in its own culinary scene. At Le Gavroche, responsibility for protecting and building on this legacy lies with Albert's son Michel Roux Jr; Michel Sr's son Alain now heads up the kitchen at Bray in what remains very much a family affair.
Since assuming leadership in 1991, Michel Jr has grown into one of the most respected chefs in Europe. The restaurant has remained synonymous with French fine dining, but he has also moved with the times, fusing classic techniques with new cooking methods and a lightness of touch - the famed cheese soufflé packs just half the calories it did in his father's heyday.
"You have to evolve otherwise you don't survive," he says during a break from preparing for the Wednesday lunch service. "Of course, I've stayed true to the restaurant's roots, but there's no option but to keep up with the times. We are certainly not trend or fashion-led, but, rather counterintuitively, that has seen us become quite trendy and fashionable."
Roux at the Landau
Le Gavroche is no longer Roux's sole restaurant responsibility: 2010 saw the opening of Roux at Parliament Square and, most intriguingly, Roux at the Landau, a David Collins-designed restaurant, housed within London landmark The Langham, for which Michel Jr and his father joined forces for the first time in 19 years. With Le Gavroche alumnus Chris King installed as chef de cuisine, the food is a slight departure from what has become the Roux signature style, while retaining recognisable old school elements.
"My father and I were very keen on reinstating a trolley service and offering a good-value lunch menu," Roux explains. "But there's certainly a less heavy, more Mediterranean feel to the menu. It is no exaggeration that we receive weekly offers to open restaurants elsewhere in the world. But The Langham is such a beautiful hotel, one of the treasures of London, with a great management team already in place; we just knew it was too good an opportunity on which to pass."
Roux the mentor
Having been his own boss for 20 years, it would have been understandable if collaborating with Albert had ignited some familial tensions. Roux refutes the suggestion entirely.
"My father's mellowed a little over the years, thankfully," he says. "In one way or another, I've worked with him since I was born and it's no different now; we have a great relationship both in and outside of work."
But there is one lesson Roux learnt from his time succeeding Albert as chef-proprietor at the Gavroche that he is applying in the way he oversees his two protégés running his kitchens at the Landau and Parliament Square.
"Those first few years that I was in sole control, my father was understandably reluctant to let it go entirely," he explains. "What I learnt is that it's important to be in control, but also to stand at an arm's length. A head chef needs a degree of freedom - you don't clip the wings of an artist. Obviously, they have a remit and the food needs to be recognisably 'Roux', but it's important that they express themselves. My role is to nurture and guide, rather than dominate."
Mentoring is clearly something that comes naturally. There has been no let-up in the talent emerging from the kitchen at Le Gavroche during his tenure, and a stage under Roux's tutelage is still regarded as an invaluable rite of passage for those looking to develop a fluency in the classical techniques. He is also closely involved in the Roux Scholarship, a competition that sees the winner gain a three-month stage, all expenses paid, at any three-Michelin-starred restaurant worldwide.
"It makes me extremely proud and happy to play my part in developing and highlighting talent," Roux says. "We are looking for more than good chefs; these guys need to have the ability to grow into mentors themselves."
More than food
Roux has returned from a Japanese trip with the Roux scholars the previous day and, despite complaining of jet lag, is already back in his beloved kitchen. Despite having three restaurants to run and a growing media profile - Roux has been doing an increasing amount of television in recent years and will front a reboot of BBC's prime-time Food and Drink format starting next year - he has not lost sight of where his core talents lie.
"I now pack more into my daily routine and have become very good at juggling time," he says. "But you'll still find me in the kitchen most days. Not as much as 20 years ago, perhaps; I'm starting to get a bit long in the tooth and, while I can still get by on six hours' sleep a night, I certainly feel it by the time Friday comes around."
The fact that Monica Galetti, senior sous chef at Le Gavroche, is a published cookery writer and something of a celebrity in her own right, indicates that the requisite talent is on hand to cover in Roux's absence; however, in his eyes, a chef-proprietor's strengths must reach beyond the kitchen.
A businessman as well as a chef
"It's something that has destroyed a lot of otherwise great chefs - they don't see their role as running a business," he explains. "Cooking and producing great food does not guarantee survival; look at the number of two and three-star kitchens that are subsidised by big hotels and under no obligation to turn a profit. Being a stand-alone restaurant that is both profitable and holds two stars is an increasingly rare achievement. I'm a business owner as well as a chef; that's something I embrace."
That disposition must have served him in good stead as Roux's restaurant interests trebled in a remarkably short space of time. He may insist that this is not the first stage in the formation of an empire, but one gets the impression that he's not quite finished yet.
"Not in London for the time being," Roux says, with a hint of mischief. "But elsewhere... you never know. I can't say where, but pack a passport."
Following Roux family services to British cuisine, the Finns must be praying for Helsinki.