We were all meant to be feeling the recession by now. And public sector workers, the nation's youth and high-street retailers certainly are. But the restaurant trade, usually the most sensitive bellwether of hard times, is proving remarkably resilient.
In fact, it wouldn't be too far-fetched to say it is booming – especially at the high end and in London. There were a record 140 openings in the capital last year, against 72 closures – figures that beat most of the boom years of the Noughties.
And I'm off to meet the family that has done more than any other to create this vibrant, seemingly recession-proof dining scene. Here in one BBC dressing room, in a rare gathering to promote a new TV series about their legacy, are the Roux brothers, Michel and Albert, founders of Le Gavroche in London and Waterside Inn in Berkshire, and their offspring: Albert's son is Michel Jnr, MasterChef: The Professionals presenter and current chef-patron of Le Gavroche, and Michel's son, Alain, the inheritor of Waterside Inn.
Between them they have mentored an amazing number of the superstar chefs of the past 20 years, from Gordon Ramsay and Marco Pierre White to Marcus Wareing, Pierre Koffman and Bryn Williams. Meanwhile, the annual Roux Scholarship – in which young chefs are given free placements in three-Michelin-star restaurants – numbers Sat Bains and Andrew Fairlie among its past winners. Of all the chefs who have passed through their kitchens, I wondered, who was the most talented?
Michel nominates Pierre Koffman. Albert, squat and dark unlike his lither and fairer younger brother (Michel could be cast as a German general in an old-fashioned war film), and leaning forward on a stick like an old-timer sitting outside a French café, answers: "Marco Pierre White and Gordon Ramsay".
Aged 76, Albert has already made two escape attempts before my arrival, and will make several afterwards. "My driver is outside ... the engine is running," he says at one point, to which his son, Michel Jnr, chides him, "Then he's wasting money and he's not doing anything for pollution in this country." This exchange prompts me to ask about the family dynamics. "You just saw it," Michel and Michel Jnr answer in unison.
"What we did for 20 years was good," says Michel looking at his brother. "But now I don't want his crap any more, you know. But I still love him and we can get on in many subjects. I love him fishing, for example. The funny thing is he's got the bloody patience for fishing. Are you ready to take me fishing?" "No," replies Albert. "I want to go."
Albert reckons that supermarket ready meals, not the Roux brothers, drove the British food revolution. "Because what did we touch ourselves? We touched the aristocracy. Now we get taxi drivers, bus drivers, nurses ..."
Nurses? "I'll tell you one thing about Le Gavroche," interjects Michel Jnr, "we do have our fair share of very wealthy customers but they are no more important than the customers that are saving up for the special occasion." But aren't they mostly catering for the new international super-rich? "Yes and no," says Albert. "But we still 'ave – thank God, Old England ... those people who 'ave the table manners. The new rich – some of their manners leave a lot to be desired."
And Albert knows Old England intimately. He worked for Nancy Astor at Cliveden when he first came to Britain in 1953, and then for Peter Cazalet, the Queen Mother's horse trainer, and Cazalet's second wife, Zara, who brought her society chums to the opening night of Le Gavroche in 1967. "The fur coats were all over the place ... we ran out of food and booze," recalls Michel. "The next morning it was the front page of every newspaper." Not that cooking classical French cuisine was easy in Swinging London, says Michel. "Apart from cabbage, fucking potatoes or whatever, we had to import everything to the UK."
The Waterside Inn, in Berkshire, followed in 1972, going on to win three Michelin stars, which it has held for an unbroken 25 years – a record outside France. The brothers split the business along family lines in 1990, Michel Jnr taking up the reins at Le Gavroche in 1993, Alain – the one Roux we haven't heard from yet – inheriting Waterside Inn. Alain is the quiet one. I ask him whether he is peeved that the likes of Gordon Ramsay and Marco Pierre White hog the limelight with their TV shows.
"Gordon Ramsay is more abroad than in the UK now ... Marco Pierre White chose to cook more gastro-pub style of food. So you have your path – mine is staying and focusing on one restaurant." This inspires a lively debate about TV chefs. "The television has unfortunately spoiled a lot of good chefs," says Albert. "And they came too early to it," adds Michel. "Look at Michel [Michel Jnr] – he was nearly 50 when he started on MasterChef."
The brothers, of course, had their own very successful BBC 2 cookery show in the 1980s, At Home with the Roux Brothers, and if you want to sample first-hand their feisty banter, look it up on YouTube. I'm provided with another example when Michel starts talking about his decision in 2008 to live in Switzerland. "Let's call a spade a spade," Albert interjects. "You made a statement that you left this country because it wasn't safe any more ... you did, you did, I've got the cutting."
"I didn't say 'this country'," replies Michel. "I said that when a city like London has got 30 young people killed every year on the streets I better live somewhere else."
"For me, it's very different", says Albert. "I've actually applied for British citizenship. I have no wish whatsoever to retire in France – God forbid – I'm a royalist and I like everything in this country. The mess that there is in France, and it's going to get further messy if they elect the socialists. Having a restaurant in France? No way."
"I will not go to any country that is in the EEC," declares Michel. "I am serious. The UK is in the EEC but slightly different. I thank God we had Margaret Thatcher."
Do the young cousins, Alain and Michel Jnr, feel British or French? "It's down to the schooling," says Michel Jnr, who went to a local school in Kent, unlike Alain who moved to France when he was 10, and has a pronounced French accent. Michel Jnr's daughter Emily, having been schooled at the Lycée in London, is, according to her papa, more French than English. She's also continuing the family trade, working at Alain Ducasse's restaurant in Monaco.
"My son is only 14 months old," Alain pipes up. "He's already got his chef's jacket." So the Roux dynasty lives on. But what about the British culinary revolution? Is it just a flash in the pan? "On the contrary," says Albert. "It will get more serious because you can see it in the restaurants ... you see quite a lot of children brought by the family. You never used to see that 20 or 30 years ago."
And if you want to know what divides the generations, it's coriander. "I can't abide the stuff," says Albert, once again phoning his driver and looking wistfully at the door.
'The Roux Legacy', Good Food Channel, 8pm nightly until Thursday
Curriculum vitae: Pastry and presidents - the rise and rise of the Roux family
1935 Albert born in Charolles, Saône-et-Loire, France, the eldest son of a charcutier. On leaving school at 14 he considers training for the priesthood but rejects it to train as a chef.
1942 Michel born in Charolles. On leaving school he trains as a pastry chef.
1960 Michel Jnr born in Pembury, Kent.
1967 The brothers open Le Gavroche, Britain's first three-Michelin-starred restaurant.
1968 Alain born in London. His first job is as a pastry chef in Paris.
1972 Albert and Michel open the Waterside Inn at Bray in Berkshire.
1982-83 Michel Jnr does his military service in the Elysée Palace, working for Presidents Giscard d'Estaing and François Mitterrand.
1991 Michel Jnr becomes head chef at Le Gavroche.
1992 Michel Jnr rejoins his father at the Waterside Inn.
2001 Alain is made joint chef/patron of the Waterside Inn.
2002 Albert and Michel are made honorary OBEs.
2004 Michel is awarded the Légion d'Honneur.
2005 So is Albert.
2008 Michel Jnr joins MasterChef: the Professionals.Reuse content