Michel Roux Jr
Celebrity chefs spend more time on television than they do in their restaurant.
The Roux dynasty is entirely responsible for revolutionising the eating habits of the British public. Godfathers of British haute cuisine, the Roux Brothers kickstarted the fine dining revolution and established Le Gavroche as a training academy that churned out a second wave of superstar chefs. Gordon Ramsay, Marco Pierre White and Marcus Wareing to name a few, have cut their teeth in the restaurant’s kitchens. Having appeared in the Sixties when most people’s idea of eating out was a pickled egg and a pasty at the local pub, we have a lot to thank the Roux’s for.
In the thick of the lunch service preparations, we sat down with Le Gavroche chef-patron, Michel Roux Jr. to speak about the celebrity chef, fast food and the future of fine dining. Sipping his morning coffee out of his Manchester United mug, Michel is a man who sits quite comfortably at the helm of the Roux legacy. Between each flash of the camera, he somehow manages to command the room, keeping up a playful repartee with the identical twins Silvia and Ursula who help to manage the restaurant, and casting a discerning eye over the table settings. As the ballet of the restaurant’s morning preparation unfolds, the ambience starts to take shape and the charismatic chef gears up for another day.
TBE: In your time you’ve appeared on television screens around the world and become a household name, what are your thoughts on the celebrity chef?
Michel Roux Jr: I don’t consider myself a celebrity chef and I don’t particularly like that title or moniker. Celebrity chefs are chefs who spend more time on television than they do in the restaurant and, most don’t have a restaurant. I’m very careful to pick and choose the television that I do because I don’t want to fall into the trap of being that celebrity chef. First and foremost I am a chef and restaurateur and, this is where I feel the most at ease and the happiest.
I enjoy the television work that I’ve done, especially things like Masterchef or Tried and Tested because although it’s entertainment there’s a serious angle to it too. I’ve enjoyed some of the other jobs I’ve done too, like working with disabled children and trying to get them into work in the kitchens (Kitchen Impossible) but, the television work is really a by-product of who I am and what I do day-to-day as a chef.
Michel Roux Jr.
At Le Gavroche, because we’ve been here for 50 years…we don’t get awards for being the new kid on the block.
TBE: How do you think contemporary media has changed the landscape of being a chef in the traditional sense?
M: I think media now and particularly social media is very important for most businesses now, not just in the cheffing world. If you look food photography or the “food porn” on Instagram, it is a very important part of a business. It’s about getting the message of your style, food and concepts out of there.
TBE: It must be hard to stay relevant in such a competitive industry…
M – Absolutely, that’s why we need to evolve and keep banging the drum saying “we’re still here, we’re still relevant.” At Le Gavroche, because we’ve been here for 50 years, we don’t get reviewed anymore. We get lifetime achievement awards or great classic awards, but, critics like Jay Rayner won’t come and review here because we’ve been around forever. He wants to review the new restaurants, he wants to be the first one to review something that’s new. So yeah, we get recognition, but we don’t get awards for being the new kid on the block.
Michel Roux Jr.
You’ll get customers that say, ‘I ate at the Fat Duck and it was this and it was that’. Well, the Fat Duck is the Fat Duck, Le Gavroche is Le Gavroche!
TBE: Do you ever feel threatened by the competition?
M: Sometimes I get customers saying, “oh, well, I didn’t particularly like the style of your food.’ Well, you know what? That’s what makes the world so wonderful, every place is different and you’ll get customers that say, ‘I ate at the Fat Duck and it was this and it was that’. Well, the Fat Duck is the Fat Duck, Le Gavroche is Le Gavroche! I’m sure there are customers that go to the Fat Duck and say, ‘we were at Le Gavroche’. But that’s the way it should be, every restaurant should have its own aura, its own identity.
Michel Roux Jr.
I hate it when I have to ask, ‘what the heck am I eating?’
TBE: In your opinion, what makes a good meal?
M: Good food simply cooked and food you can recognise on the plate. I hate it when I have to ask, ‘what the heck am I eating?’. You’ll order the scallops and you only get a single slice. I like all types of cuisine, as long as it’s good. That’s the most important thing to me.
TBE: This phenomenon of ‘single slice scallops’ and overly aesthetic plates is a fairly recent trend, you wouldn’t see it in restaurants in the sixties, before the fine dining revolution…
M: Back in the 60’s and 70’s, food wasn’t great in Britain. If you were to walk down a supermarket aisle you’d be astonished at the poor ingredients that were there, and just the lack of ingredients. You wouldn’t be able to find olive oil. That’s just basic now, isn’t it? Even with butter, there was only a couple of kinds. Now look at the dairy produce, you look at an aisle now with dairy and it just goes on forever.
TBE: Your father must have played a hand in opening your eyes to the wealth of ingredients that existed outside of the British supermarkets?
M: I was very fortunate as a young child, we were surrounded by great ingredients. It wasn’t lavish food, it wasn’t expensive by any stretch of the imagination, but it was handmade and homemade. At my school, a lot of kids took packed lunches and whilst most of them had sandwiches with marmite, a packet of crisps and a Mars bar, mine would have stinky camembert, some garlic sausages, and fresh fruit.
Michel Roux Jr.
October ‘88 or ‘89. That was my last McDonald’s.
TBE: So I’m guessing ready meals are out of the question in the Roux family?
M: For me, my idea of fast food is an egg or an omelette. That’s fast, it’s nutritious and delicious.
TBE: When was the last time you actually had fast food?
M: McDonald’s. I can pin that down to the month and year – it was October ‘88 or ‘89. That was my last McDonald’s. It wasn’t because it was bad, I just don’t like it. It was one in Watford. I was driving back from the North, it was about 1 am in the morning and I was just starving. I had to eat something and it was the only thing open. I’m not anti-McDonald’s, I’m not anti-burgers or fast food, I just don’t like it!
TBE: Is there anything else you enjoy as much as cooking and food?
M: I really, really do enjoy long distance running.
TBE: And finally, do you think that fine dining is a dying art?
M: People say that the era of fine dining with the white linen and all of that is finished. I don’t believe it, I think there will always be a place for that kind of luxury. We all have moments where we want that particular kind of luxury, to feel cosseted and made to feel special. I’m all for democratising, I’m all for casual dining, and the scene in Britain is amazing. There are some really quality restaurants at reasonable prices, which is fantastic. But, there will always be places like Le Gavroche.
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Michel Roux Jr was born in 1960 in Pembury, Kent, where his father worked as a private chef. Deciding to follow in his father’s footsteps, he left school at 16 for the first of several challenging apprenticeships. Following further training under Nouvelle Cusine pioneer Alain Chapel, Roux Jr became Sous Chef at the world famous, family-owned Le Gavroche where he worked under his father and uncle. He later went on to work with renowned chef Pierre Koffman at La Tant Claire in Chelsea and later at the Mandarin Hotel, Hong Kong. Following his father’s retirement in 1993, Roux Jr took over La Gavroche where he continues to work today alongside his role as a judge and presenter on the BBC’s prime-time show Masterchef: The Professionals.
Photography by Jasper Clarke