HOW WE MET

MICHEL ROUX AND NICO LADENIS
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The Independent Culture
Michel Roux, 55, was apprenticed to a pastry chef in Paris at 14. In 1967, he came to England and with his brother Albert went on to open four restaurants, including the Waterside Inn, Bray, which has three Michelin stars. He lives in Bray and France with his wife, Robyn.

Nico Ladenis, 62, was born in East Africa of Greek parents. His three London restaurants include Chez Nico at 90 Park Lane, with three Michelin stars. His book, Nico, is published by Macmillan next week. He lives in London and France with his wife and business partner Dinah-Jane. They have two grown-up daughters

Michel Roux: I met Nico in the late Seventies at a publication party for a book called Posh Nosh by Michael Smith. I knew about him and his restaurant, Chez Nico in Dulwich. At the time, he had a reputation for upsetting some of his customers, especially those who dared to question what he had cooked. In those days, Nico wasn't the best kind of diplomat. He has French as well as Greek blood, which is good for cooking, but maybe not so great for the temper. He's mellowed since then.

Surprisingly, at that first meeting, I found Nico to be a very shy person, reserved and insecure. It took a long time for him to open up, but after a couple of drinks, we started a proper conversation. It was obvious that he loved what he was doing. Unusually, he was completely self-taught. Nico didn't follow anyone, but I recognised something which made me think that one day people would be following him.

What Nico was doing, in his way - even 22 years ago - was pretty good. But I felt he needed reassurance that his work was as good as it could be. I asked him if he had thought of going to work with one of the great chefs in a three-star Michelin restaurant, such as the Moulin in Mougins, near Cannes. Nico replied that he wouldn't dare ask such a thing. I told him that as I knew the head chef, Roger Verge, I would write to him. Suddenly, Nico's eyes were wide open and beaming. That week in France changed Nico's professional life. For him, Verge was God, so having the opportunity to get involved in one of the greatest kitchens in Europe was a turning point for him.

Few young chefs would want to work as hard as Nico and I have done. Certainly, in Britain, more and more of them want to take the easy way out and cook for a brasserie or bistro five days a week with weekends off.

Over the years we have occasionally eaten in each other's restaurants, but never with any fuss or special attention. Nico is rather a loner and, apart from his family and closest friends, he prefers not to have a lot of people around him.

Our relationship has become much closer since he bought a house in Provence. We see a lot more of each other there than we do in England. For a man who is Greek, Provence, with its beautiful sunlight and olive trees, is a perfect location. He's done a fantastic job on his house, which is very old. The alteration is perfectly in keeping with the original style and, of course, the kitchen is wonderful. Nico and Dinah live about 40 minutes' drive away, so we are, more or less, neighbours.

What the two of us enjoy most in France is walking our land and looking at the beautiful trees. We don't always talk shop because we prefer to talk about our families, our friends and the beautiful environment all around us. Of course, food is never far from our minds, but always, in Provence, it's quite simple food which tastes like it should taste. Nico is not a pretentious man. Like me, he hates gimmicks - especially salad dressings with lots of sun-dried tomatoes. He also drinks very little, but from time to time he enjoys some unusual champagne, or a bottle of Chateau Yquem. For us, it's more fun to meet at lunch time, because it can be a far more leisurely meal than dinner.

What the two of us are looking forward to is our retirement. Nowadays, that's our main topic of conversation. In a few years' time, when we move permanently to France, I think we will be very good company for each other. We will go to the market early in the morning, maybe pick some mushrooms and, afterwards, drink aperitifs, before cooking lunch. In winter, which is a lovely time of the year in the South of France, we will sit by our fires, the wood smoke going up the chimney, returning back to our individual sources. I don't know much of Nico's history and he knows very little of mine, so we still have a lot to learn about each other.

NICO LADENIS: It was around 1976 or 1977 when I met Michel for the first time at a party. Although I wasn't so sure of myself, I was aggressive and ambitious. Compared with Michel, who had so many awards, plus his restaurants, Le Gavroche and The Waterside Inn, I felt more or less an impostor. He was well established and known; I was a complete novice. But he showed such an open, warm attitude towards me.

I was surprised at how easy Michel was to talk to. He was genuinely interested in what I was doing. Michel started his apprenticeship when he was barely 14. He's been through the tough, regimented French training and won prestigious awards. I was 37 when I opened my first restaurant. One of the first things he said to me at that party was, "Do you want to go to France to work in a great kitchen?" I was completely taken aback. The late Seventies was becoming a glamorous time for chefs and one of the most famous was Roger Verge, whose restaurant was the famous Moulin in Mougins. Michel thought I should go there.

Still not quite believing his hugely generous attitude, I took Michel up on his offer. One week in Roger Verge's kitchen was all I needed. I was completely overwhelmed by what I saw, and it provided all the stimulation and motivation I could have wanted. Afterwards, I understood that even in that very brief first meeting, Michel had recognised how serious I was about cooking and running a restaurant. He, more than anyone, knew what confidence I would gain by simply watching and learning from one of the great chefs in his own kitchen.

Over the years, Michel and I have come to know each other better since we bought our homes in the South of France. It has become a tradition to meet every Cristmas. On the second day of the New Year, either we go to lunch with Michel and Robyn, or they come to us. This year it's my turn to cook.

Nowadays we talk a great deal about our houses, our gardens and food, which is still something which excites us both. We also discuss our careers and the state of today's restaurant explosion. There are so many smart Alecs - for example, the Conrans and Harvey Nichols - who are throwing money at the business, and we wonder where it will all end. We both feel deeply about the spirit of a great restaurant which belongs to a family or a single individual. We're not interested in steel palaces where some nincompoop likes to throw his weight around, and it can take three-quarters of an hour for anyone to take your order. As far as our own restaurants are concerned, Michel cares more about the supervision of the kitchen than I do. It's been easier for me to let go. These days I concentrate more on the way the restaurant is run, rather than constantly putting my nose directly into the kitchen. That's the difference between us: Michel is a born chef and he can't leave the kitchen. For him, that's where the excitement is.

If there was a challenge where Michel and I were asked to produce a family meal for pounds 10, our approach would be very similar. We would go for good, simple ingredients. I would choose an Italian pasta dish but, knowing Michel as I do, he would probably go for one of the cheaper cuts of meat that we are not so familiar with and cook it in a traditional French way.

Although we have a close friendship, I sometimes find it hard to reconcile the fact that one or two of Michel's friends are my sworn enemies. It's not something we ever bring out into the open. There are not many people who don't like Michel, so if I ever read an article about him which has been written in a disparaging way, it upsets me very much. To me, the man is beyond reproach. Because of what Michel Roux did for me, there have been times when I have arranged for one or two staff from my own restaurants to spend time in a great French kitchen. Michel and I both know that it's an experience which can quite literally change lives. There's no doubt that it changed mine. !

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