Born in Pembury and raised in Shipbourne, Michel Roux Jr is now known for his Michelin-starred restaurant, Le Gavroche, and his work on popular TV shows like MasterChef and Food & Drink. The celebrated chef speaks about the cooks who inspire his work, a career in television, and continuing his family’s legacy
It’s no secret that French food is widely considered to be among the best in the world. Hyperbole aside, this exalted reputation is one that remains as strong today as it did 5O years ago, when Albert Roux and Michel Roux Sr blazed a trail for French gourmets in Britain, by opening their Michelin-starred Le Gavroche restaurant in London in 1967.
Certainly, the prestige of French cuisine on our shores ever since can be credited in no small part to the Roux family dynasty, whose acclaimed restaurant has been at the cutting edge of its industry for almost half a century.
The man in charge nowadays is Michel Roux Jr – son of Albert, nephew of Michel Sr – who took over the day-to-day running of Le Gavroche in 1991. Under his stewardship, it has been consistently placed in Restaurant magazine’s coveted annual list of the World’s 5O Best Restaurants, achieving momentous success and worldwide renown. Once home to the likes of a young Marco Pierre White and Gordon Ramsay, these were certainly big shoes to fill.
58-year-old Michel grew up at the Fairlawne Estate in Shipbourne, where his father worked as a private chef for the Cazalet family. His earliest memories were of the appetising smells of the Fairlawne kitchen, where he would play while his father and mother, Monique, prepared the meals. Naturally, a love of food was something that was ingrained from the start.
“I always wanted to be in the kitchen, and can never remember thinking anything different,” he says. “I remember collecting chestnuts on the Fairlawne Estate, and picking wild watercress, strawberries, berries and cherries with my grandmother – all of those kinds of things that seem to be in vogue at the moment. We’d gather the most weird and wonderful things, which the English people used to tut-tut at, like snails and crayfish. It was just a normal thing to do in those days, especially for French people. We call it ‘foraging’!”
Following in his father’s footsteps, Michel left school at 16 to embark on an apprenticeship at Maître Patissier, Hellegouarche, in Paris in 1976. From there, his training and understanding of food continued to be honed by the likes of Alain Chapel at his signature restaurant at Mionay near Lyon, where Michel worked as commis de cuisine, and which he cites as his biggest influence to date. Throughout a rich and varied career, he went on to work at the Mandarin Hotel in Hong Kong, Le Tante Claire in London, and Charcuterie Mothu in Paris, before coming aboard the family business in 1985.
Le Gavroche itself opened its doors in the capital’s Lower Sloane Street in 1967, named after a character in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. Its opening night was a star-studded affair, attended by the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Ava Gardner and Robert Redford, a testament to the buzz that it helped to create around French cooking at the time.
The restaurant was to serve food previously only available in France, opening the floodgates for a culinary revolution in the UK, and becoming the first restaurant to be awarded three Michelin stars in 1982. Indeed, its signature dish, the Soufflé Suissesse (cheese soufflé baked in double cream) has remained a staple on the menu, an indication of the fine balance that Michel and his team continue to strike between the old and the new.
“It’s a massive responsibility, and not as easy as people think,” he adds. “A lot of people think that you walk into a business that’s already made and that you’ve got it easy, but actually it’s probably tougher in many respects. I think that I’m continuing the legacy, but in order to do that, it has to evolve and be valid for its time, which is something that I feel I’ve achieved.”
Paying respect to the past while looking ahead to the future is something that’s made up the lifeblood of Le Gavroche and the Roux family for many years. To this day, Michel and his team look back to the classics for inspiration, adapting existing recipes from the likes of Auguste Escoffier, with a quintessentially Roux twist.
“A love of the classics is very much a Roux thing,” Michel explains. “Escoffier – among others – is one of the great classic chefs that we always look back on for reference, but more contemporary chefs that I’ve worked for, like Alain Chapel, have influenced me even more. That’s the secret to success, I think, isn’t it? It’s finding that recipe, using it as a base, and making it to your style, but it has to stay true to the essence of the recipe, and not completely change, because then it would be false.”
Le Gavroche may have lost one of its three Michelin stars in 1993, but Michel remains unfazed, and as focused as ever on what he considers to be the far more important goal of delivering great food and impeccable service to his customers.
“I have my style, and I do think that some chefs try too hard to cook for the Michelin guide and for journalists, forgetting that, actually, they should be cooking for their customers,” he reveals. “That’s where they go wrong.”
Michel has certainly stayed true to his roots. In addition to Le Gavroche, which moved to its current location of Upper Brook Street in Mayfair in 1981, he also opened Roux at Parliament Square in May 2O1O, followed by Roux at the Landau in November of the same year.
His responsibilities to his family’s business don’t stop there, as he also remains heavily involved with the Roux Scholarship, a groundbreaking cooking competition for up-and-coming chefs in the UK, as well as Cactus Kitchens, the UK’s premier cookery school, located in central London; all while finding the time to run an impressive 2O marathons in aid of VICTA (Visually Impaired Children Taking Action), a charity that he’s personally and professionally passionate about, having suffered with eyesight problems throughout his life.
Alongside his duties at Le Gavroche, Michel’s also built up an illustrious television career, most notably presenting and judging programmes like MasterChef, Food & Drink and The Great British Food Revival.
“It’s a great opportunity to encourage people to actually get cooking, and get interested in different produce,” he considers. “It’s quite inspirational, especially programmes like Food & Drink and MasterChef, which are beautifully made and hit the right tone, the right level, enticing people to have a go at cooking themselves, and arousing curiosity in the right way. It pushes up the standards and can only be a good thing.”
By honouring the memory of what’s come before, while never losing sight of what lies ahead, Michel continues to take his restaurant in new and exciting directions, and keeps an open mind to the potential and promise of a new generation of talented chefs to come.
“At the end of the day, I really just look at the end product, and whether someone’s good enough,” he concludes. “It doesn’t matter your gender, your age, your colour or your creed. If you’re good enough, then that’s it; you’ve got the job.”