Michel Roux interview: Michelin star chef talks photographing food and the future of restaurants

After opening his first restaurant in Chelsea at just 26, he continued to work in the industry for another five decades. Following the great chef’s death, here is his 2017 conversation with IndyEats editor Emma Henderson

Thursday 12 March 2020 14:51
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The brothers were famed for being the first restaurant in the UK to earn three Michelin stars
The brothers were famed for being the first restaurant in the UK to earn three Michelin stars

The French chef and restaurateur Michel Roux senior has died, aged 78, at his family at home in Berkshire.

The news was announced by the family in a statement by his son and two daughters, who said: “It is with deep sadness that the Roux family announces the passing of our beloved grandfather, father, brother and uncle, Michel Roux OBE.

Born in France in 1941, Michel and his brother, Albert, moved to the UK and opened the restaurant Le Gavroche in London’s Chelsea in 1967, which became the first three-Michelin-starred restaurant in Britain.

Together they started a wave of classical French cooking which quickly gained popularity in London and around the UK. Their restaurant changed how people ate out, which was usually at hotels at the time, and paved the way for London’s food scene. It also attracted royals and celebrities and soon became the place to be seen.

In 1984, the brothers went on to set up the Roux Scholarship, a cooking competition to help chefs in the UK, where the winner gets a three-month placement working with top chefs. It’s now run by their sons, Alain Roux and Michel Roux Jr.

Michel Roux senior went on to carve out a life-long career in food, from writing books to teaching and as a TV presenter.

Here, we look back at our interview with the chef first published to coincide with the release of his book Cheese in 2017.

What do you think of your nickname, the godfather of modern restaurant cuisine?

“Godfather” is pushing it, but I think “God” maybe taking it too far! But seriously, I recently had to put right a chef who thought I had written a book about Jesus whereas in fact, my new book is called Cheese! Of course, the nickname is flattering and I think comes from the many hundreds of chefs that we have trained over the years at Le Gavroche and The Waterside Inn.

After you modernised British restaurant dining, how do you think restaurants will change in the future?

When we came to the UK, food was not a conversation we could engage in. We came here in the hope of switching on the light, and now we are being blinded! Now people can see they are desperate to see the whole world! It is fascinating and inspiring, there are so many start-ups, just in London you can sample cuisine from every corner of the globe, who knows where change will take us next.

Michel Roux (left) and brother Albert celebrating 25 years of La Gavroche

Do you think more restaurants might ban people taking pictures of their food?

It is a matter for each restaurant to decide. For me, it is whether you want customers or surgeons dining in your restaurants. Today, people don’t just want to eat dishes, they want to dissect them and carry out post mortems on everything. But this can bring stress into the dining room and present a risk to the privacy of people while they eat.

Why did you and your brother decide to move to the UK?

In terms of food and dining out, the UK was in the dark ages. We came to point the way forward knowing that we would face either a quick death or quick success. Luckily, it was the right time. Now, in restaurant terms, we have landed on the Moon and Mars, all in 45 years.

What did you think of British food when you first came here?

Although the food scene in general was almost non-existent, we both fell in love with the tradition of Afternoon Tea and still adore Britain’s array of cakes and pastries, such as treacle tart and scones with jam and cream and so many more.

Albert and son Michel Roux Junior

Who taught you both to cook?

Our father and grandfather were both charcutiers in France so we were destined to cook, it is in our genes. But I credit my mother, Germaine, who was an inventive, instinctive cook. She raised us during the War so learnt to nourish and inspire us with her simple, but delicious cooking based on sparse, humble ingredients.

What was it like to open a restaurant in Sloane Square at just 26?

It was quite frightening when people like Princess Margaret first visited. She almost sent me flying as she walked straight past me at reception and went straight on to her table, leaving me flapping whether she had a reservation. The same happened with the Rolling Stones. With their long hair and lack of a tie, I almost sent them packing! I didn’t know who these people were, at the time. So, there were challenges to start with as we adjusted to life in Chelsea.

Were you pleased your son and nephew carried on the business you and Albert created in the UK?

We are blessed, in particular, because my son, Alain and Albert’s son, Michel Jr chose to work with us of their own accord. It’s a dream come true.

What do you owe your three Michelin stars to?

In our restaurants, there is a constant evolution rather than any revolutions. Further, I would credit it to constant attention to detail, consistency, creativeness and having an outstanding team around us.

Do you think Michelin stars are still are worthy recognition in the industry? Or do you think other forms of reviewing may overtake the ranking system?

Michelin has built its reputation over more than a hundred years so for the time being, it is the most revered and respected guide. Bloggers come and go but as far as the profession and gastronomy is concerned, Michelin has few adversaries.

What do you hope is next for the Waterside Inn and La Gavroche?

I just hope we continue to build on our success and hopefully maintain our position amongst the best restaurants in the face of ever stronger competition.

The Waterside restaurant has three Michelin stars and recently banned people taking photos of their food

Do you have plans to retire from cooking in the near future?

Mais je ne comprends pas! The word “retire” is not in my vocabulary. I can no further stop cooking just as I could no further stop breathing!

Who does the cooking at Christmas in your family?

My wife, Robyn and I share the cooking between us. We also involve our guests so everyone chips in. I am very obliging at Christmas!

Is everything for Christmas dinner made from scratch, or are there items you shop buy?

We always buy in the best smoked salmon, caviar and oysters. I make a foie gras terrine to have sometimes. We start with our table laden with these delights then progress to canard à l’orange or roast goose with apple sauce. These are some of our favourites to have at Christmas.

What’s your favourite food Christmas tradition?

Certainly not turkey! It is Hen Pheasant à la Normande roasted and served with a creamy apple sauce flavoured with Calvados. This is my classic Christmas dinner.

Albert Roux at La Gavrouche in 1989 (Rex)

What does your Christmas cheeseboard look like?

I must refer you to my new book Cheese. My cheeseboard will always boast anywhere between 20 and 30 cheeses and a third of them are always British.

Is there one utensil or kitchen gadget you couldn’t live without?

A paring knife. Much like a scratch golfer who can hit par up to the 18th hole with a favourite 7 or 9 iron, I can prepare anything in the kitchen with a paring knife, be it meat, fish or vegetable.

Do you watch cooking programmes like GBBO, Master Chef or Saturday Kitchen – if so what do you think of them?

If I have the inclination and the time, I enjoy Saturday Kitchen, although it is no longer presented by my friend, James Martin. I particularly enjoyed James’s recent TV series, French Adventure. I still love Keith Floyd’s shows and it’s great that Saturday Kitchen is bringing these to a new generation. I have always enjoyed watching Rick Stein, his passion never fails to come across, he’s a gifted chef and presenter.

What’s your go to meal to cook for friends and family?

Always roast chicken, a good free range bird, served with bread sauce and seasonal vegetables, you can’t beat it.

Who do you look to for inspiration, here and in France?

In the UK, I look no further than my Roux scholars. There are 34 of them now and many are one and two star Michelin chefs in their own right. As for France, I spend limited time there now so cannot offer a fair opinion anymore.

What advice would you give aspiring chefs?

To learn to walk, walk and walk again before trying to run. This maxim is a good way of pointing out to aspiring chefs that they face a long journey. And long it may be, but it is certainly beautiful!

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