An audience with Michel Roux
Pioneering chef Michel Roux talks toSusan Jung about kitchen prima donnasand the culinary invasion of Britain
Michel Roux, OBE (officer of the order of the British Empire), Chevalier de la Légion d'Honneur and MOF (meilleur ouvrier [master craftsman] de France in patisserie), seems like a kindly, old-fashioned gentleman. Dapper in his chef's whites, he is patient and articulate, with a courtly demeanour, bright blue eyes, grey-white hair, a deep voice and an endearing habit of peppering his heavily French-accented English with British phrases such as "bibs and bobs". He's entertained the super wealthy and many heads of state, including Queen Elizabeth (he cooked for her 70th and 80th birthdays). He knows how to use a computer but he still writes his cookbooks in longhand, using a pencil.
When the chef went to England 45 years ago, he had a revolution in mind: he wanted to pull it out of what he calls, "the dark ages".
Roux and his older brother, Albert, succeeded beyond their wildest dreams - the list of cooks who have trained at their Michelin-star restaurants reads like a who's who of top chefs: Marco Pierre White, Gordon Ramsay, Pierre Koffmann, Marcus Wareing and Marco Avitabile (who used to be chef at Grissini at the Grand Hyatt in Wan Chai, and whose gnocchi Roux describes as "ethereal").
The Roux brothers opened Le Gavroche in London in 1967, when English people thought of food as sustenance, not something to be eaten with pleasure. By 1982 Le Gavroche had gained three Michelin stars - the first restaurant in England to do so (although it now has two). In 1972, they opened The Waterside Inn in Bray, which received its third star in 1985 and has retained them ever since - the only restaurant in Britain to have kept the top rating for so long. In 1986, the brothers went their separate ways, with Michel taking The Waterside Inn, and Albert Le Gavroche.
Roux (who's often called Michel Roux Snr, to differentiate him from his brother's son, Michel Jnr) is in Hong Kong for The Waterside Inn promotion at Caprice, which runs until Saturday. We spoke last month, when he came to meet Caprice chef Vincent Thierry for the first time and to taste-test the dishes prepared by the restaurant's cooks from classic Waterside Inn recipes Roux had e-mailed. "This was one of the best tastings I've had; it was almost as if I was eating at [The Waterside Inn] - very close to it. It was a pleasure," Roux says.
It's safe to say that the cuisine in England - at least in parts of the country - wouldn't be nearly as respected today if it were not for Michel and Albert Roux.
When Roux first moved across the Channel, "People said, 'Why are you going to the UK, you will have to [anglicise] your cooking, the peas will be big, you will have to overcook your vegetables and [serve them] floating in water, boil the fish, give huge portions.' I said no, I don't go for that - I will go and cook and either it will be a quick success or a quick death. I wanted [a revolution] or I would not have gone."
Roux left behind a position as private chef for the Rothschild family. "I was the youngest chef ever for the family. I was working at Chateau Lafite Rothschild, I was cooking at their property in the south of France, I was going to St Tropez, to Chantilly, to Switzerland with them. I had a situation that was marvellous - why would I have gone to the UK? I went for two reasons - to get into a partnership with my brother, Albert, because we always had a dream of starting a business together. But mainly to get the British out of the dark ages. Forty to 45 years ago in the UK, you couldn't talk about food at any level of society - it was bad manners. And you didn't talk about sex. In 1970, three years after we started Le Gavroche, I was invited to a cocktail [party] by a client. I was talking to a couple of young ladies and one girl asked me what I did in life. And I said, 'I'm a chef.' That was the end of the conversation - gently but slowly and surely, they were gone. Nobody talked to me any more. It was as if I said I have HIV - it seriously, absolutely gave me a clear message that the country was crazy. I felt very bad at the time. And I said to myself, I hope to change the perception of those people."
Since then, the pendulum has swung the other way - to the point where, Roux says, it's gone too far. "Now, everyone is knowledgable - there's sex and food in every newspaper and magazine, and on TV. I go to a party and I'm at the top of the list - people love to see me. Now I have a problem of getting rid of those girls - they want to talk to me, they want to sit on my lap, they even touch me - they hold my hand for too long. I don't like it. It's gone from one extreme to the other. Calm down, please - let's be sensible about it. Food is interesting but it can't go on like this forever - there's going to be a crash, I hope so, anyway, because it's gone too far. But I'm pleased with the end result, which is that food [in England] is not [just] nourishment any more - it's a form of pleasure.
"There are over 100 good, young British chefs in the UK - I'm talking about chefs who are the level of one-, two- and three-star Michelin. Albert and I have been running the Roux Scholarship [a competition for chefs] for 29 years. We've done a lot for the UK - it's one of the main reasons we were given the OBE."
Roux was never the foul-mouthed, bad-boy chef of the stereotype perpetuated by reality cooking programme stars, including his former apprentice, Gordon Ramsay. "I was one of the first chefs on TV but I never used bad words, I never bullied anyone, I never put down anyone. I'm not here for that - I like to entertain people by what I'm doing." Of prima donna chefs who believe that there's only one way of doing things - their way, Roux says, "Those people are stupid. They should never be called chefs. You have to be ignorant and bigoted and stupid to react like that. It really annoys me. It's like painting and singing - you must not be rigid. Rigidity in dancing is impossible; in cooking it's the same. One of the first things I said to Vincent [Thierry] when I sent the recipes was to check if the availability [of products] is good. If not, I will find other recipes, or substitute ingredients that are available here. There are always ways of doing things without unbalancing the dish.
"In life, there's give and take - but you only give to people who [understand] what the gift is about. That's why I'm here - I believe Caprice is on equal footing with The Waterside Inn. [This promotion] is a happy marriage. Of course, it's all my cooking but what I'm going to see here, cooking with this Chinese team, will give me some new ideas as well. When I give, I take. I hope to see a few of their tricks and bibs and bobs, because there are different ways of cooking something. I came to work with the team, to show them what I love and what I'm doing."
Roux has retired from the day-to-day labours of being a chef - he's left the kitchen in the capable hands of his son, Alain, and is now the global ambassador of The Waterside Inn (and when he calls to thank me after the interview, he reveals that he'll be back in Asia often, because he's opening a restaurant, La Maison 1888, in Vietnam, at the InterContinental Danang Sun Peninsula Resort). Roux admits that it was difficult for his son when he was handed the restaurant's top toque in 2002. "It's extremely hard and it's not fair - he has a reputation he has to live up to. It's like a lot of things - it happens or it doesn't happen; it gels or it doesn't gel. When he joined [The Waterside Inn] he was chef de partie, then he was third sous chef, second sous chef, first sous chef. It took him 10 years to get all that. He became equal to me in the kitchen; we worked alongside each other for 14 years. I didn't look at him as my son - you must never look at your son as a son - not in the kitchen. I was working with him as one member of the brigade. It's not been easy for Alain - he's now almost blossoming, he needs another year or two. But this year, Michelin came out and he again kept the third star. And Waterside is number one for Zagat [restaurant guide] - it's the only restaurant with 29 points for food, out of 30. That's [due to] Alain because I haven't been in that kitchen for eight years.
"What makes a great chef is the palate - if he doesn't have the palate, he can dream about food, but he will never hit the jackpot. There are chefs who are very good and who think they're stars but they're not. They miss the boat because they don't have the palate - that, you can't develop, well you can, a little, but not enough. You're born with it. For success, as in anything in life, 40 per cent is inborn, in your genes. And the rest is development, wanting to do it every day, day after day."
Roux now lives for much of the year in Switzerland. "I spend four months in Switzerland, two to three months in the South of France - I have a beautiful property with a vineyard near St Tropez. I have a flat in New York and [the rest of the time] I travel around the world. In Switzerland, I write my books, do a bit of skiing with my grandchildren and children, and golf - but very little, because it takes too much time from my cooking - my priority is still cooking. I love the fresh air, I love walking. When I walk I get a lot of inspiration - I need that, I need to be myself sometimes."
At 71, Roux remains active - the week before the interview he had travelled to the Galapagos.
"You never know what tomorrow might bring. If you wake up and are not excited any more, then something is wrong so you'd better pack [it in] and go work in your garden, or play golf or whatever.
"In cooking, especially now - it's too [focused] on celebrities. I'm not interested in that. Before anything, I am a chef. I'm not a footballer - here to score one goal. I've been here for the past 50 years as a cook and a chef, and I'm planning to go for a lot longer than that. I'm enjoying it. I'm a very lucky guy. When work is a pleasure it's not called work."