What's Cooking

30th January 2015

With Michel Roux now all but vanished from our tv screens, Al Gordon catches up with the charismatic French-English chef and finds out what's cooking…

“The beauty of our industry is that every day is different. So my ambition is still to make sure that every plate of food is as good as it possibly can be and to make sure every diner is as happy as they can be.” Even after over 30 years in the business, Michel Roux Jr – part of an inimitable culinary dynasty – is still passionate about his profession. Son of Albert, nephew of Michel Snr and cousin to Alain, chef owner of The Waterside Inn, Bray, since 1993, Michel himself has been the steward of La Gavroche, the world-renowned, two Michelin star restaurant first opened by Albert and Michel Snr in the late 1960s.

Television viewers will know Michel from his extensive work with the BBC, including his role as a (firm but fair) expert judge on Masterchef: The Professionals, which lasted for six years until his departure from the Corporation in 2014. The chef is nonplussed about his slightly acrimonious move away from TV. “I’ve got a few projects I’m working on for 2015, but nothing signed off just yet. But for me, television has never been the be all and end all. It’s not my job. It has always just been a bi-product of what I normally do…” he shrugs amiably.

Instead, Michel is focusing his attentions on La Gavroche, which remains one of the world’s premier gastronomic destinations. His fellow Masterchef judge, Monica Galetti (she of the famous stern glare, terrifying contestants every season) is actually Sous Chef at La Gavroche, which puts Michel in the minority of restaurant owners with a female team in the kitchen. “Both my head chef and two sous chefs are female, and we’ve got another four women in our team, so maybe I am not the norm! I’ve never, ever been discriminatory in that way. If you’re good enough, it doesn’t matter if you’re male, female, black or white. If you’re good enough, you deserve your position,” he says as we chat about the scarcity of women in the profession, and how to encourage more to join.

Michel’s own daughter Emily is, in fact, already training to follow in her father’s footsteps. “She’s always wanted to be a chef; she’s never thought of being anything else. That’s the way it is, I suppose. It’s in the genes!” he laughs.

While he assures us that there has “never been any competition, not even a bad word” between himself and his cousin Alain as they run the Roux family restaurants, he does concede that his career always has, and always will be, a mission to live up to his father and uncle’s achievements. “They were a big influence when I was growing up and they still are, absolutely,” he says, with that trademark smile and without a trace of bitterness. “However, I think I have made my own reputation now. But they will always be there and they will always have their legacy.”

The legacy he speaks of is virtually unparalleled in the food world, with the Roux collective dominating fine dining over the past several decades. As connoisseurs of classical French cuisine, the family have nonetheless been able to keep up with ever-changing food trends by maintaining the highest possible quality in the experiences offered by their restaurants.

“Dining habits have changed quite a bit,” Michel is quick to acknowledge. “They’ve changed in terms of ‘sharing plates’ – tapas are in – but there will always also be a place for the formal restaurant. We all have birthdays and anniversaries and we all want to have that luxurious pampered feeling when we eat out, so they will always exist.”

Michel’s track record (he has worked in the world’s finest restaurants, as well as cooked for two French presidents) is more than respectable, and I’m keen to pick his brains for some dining expertise. “The key to a good restaurant is actually more than just good food. The key to a good restaurant is the whole experience. So the front of house, the service and the buzz. The buzz is very important. It creates that good atmosphere that you want when you first walk in,” he says, making me think back to my best memories of eating out with friends, family and loved ones. He’s right. And I can only agree with him when he adds “You can’t buy buzz, it’s not an ingredient. You only get the buzz from happy people dining in your restaurant.”

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