Michel Roux Jr. was only 7 years old when his father and uncle established Le Gavroche in Mayfair in 1967. As the first restaurant in the UK to be awarded one, two and then three Michelin stars, it was an inspiring place for Michel Jr. to spend his formative years. And yet, as he says to Sekford one morning in the iconic restaurant – the tables unmade, the dining room empty but for ununiformed waiters preparing for the evening’s service – he hadn’t always planned to follow Albert and Michel Sr. into the family business. It would only be after ten years at some of the most prestigious restaurants on both sides of the Channel that, filling in for the absent head chef, Roux would end up staying on at Le Gavroche.
A keen marathon runner, Roux does not look like he is approaching his 60s, but it has now been over a quarter of a century since Roux was handed ownership of the restaurant. In that time, he has continued the traditions established by his father, training the next generation of British chefs (both Marco Pierre White and Gordon Ramsay worked under Albert), and has successfully balanced modernising the menu with continuing to appeal to Le Gavroche’s loyal clientele. Here he talks to Sekford about how the menu at Le Gavroche has evolved over its 50-year history, the importance of using British produce and how running restaurant and a marathon goes hand in hand.
Michel Roux Jr.’s father, Albert Roux, opened Le Gavroche with his brother Michel Sr. in 1967. When Michel Sr. split from the business in 1986, Albert ran Le Gavroche by himself until handing over the reins to his son in 1991.
You obviously grew up surrounded by gastronomy but at what point did you realise you wanted to be a chef?
Oh, when I was very young. I couldn’t think of doing anything else, apart from being an athlete – I love my long distance running. At school I was one of the few kids who enjoyed cross country, but I had to pick one and cooking became the driving force for me. Still, to be a good chef you’ve got to be fit. People often say that I’m pretty slim for a chef but it’s a tough old life with long hours, and I burn off a lot of calories with that and the sport I do.
With people becoming ever more aware of what they eat, how has the menu at Le Gavroche evolved?
There’s definitely been a trend over the last 30 years or so of eating less, or at least being better informed about what you eat. I haven’t consciously changed the menu here in that regard but I think food has got lighter. In my father’s time you’d have a tasting menu of eight courses and the eighth course would be a chicken for two, and you’d be expected to eat it! So I think people are eating a little less, and are far more knowledgeable about what they are eating as well. That’s what is pushing the quality of the food in this country – the knowledge.
Le Gavroche is obviously a French restaurant but you have dual French-British nationality. Is there a British element to your food here?
I think so. For instance, the vast majority of the produce we use is British, and even more and more of our wines are English. The cooking style is French, obviously, and we are steeped in the classics, but produce is definitely British and we’re very proud of putting that to the fore.
What do you remember of your time first starting out as a chef?
I remember being very nervous because of the weight of expectations from my father and uncle. That’s why I trained abroad, which I think is very important. If you’re running a family business, your children should train elsewhere as they not only prove themselves but also come back stronger and with new ideas that can refresh the brand. The worst thing you can do in a restaurant is stagnate. You can never rest on your laurels.
Le Gavroche takes its name from the character of Gavroche, the urchin or street child from Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. He appears throughout the restaurant on the crockery, cutlery and salt cellars.
What role can Le Gavroche play in the gastronomic world today?
I think there will always be a place for restaurants like Le Gavroche – the white linen, the beautiful glassware and cutlery, comfy furnishings. It’s about finding the balance where the service, for example, is highly polished and very professional yet makes the customer feel at ease instantly, and is far less formal and stiff than when my father was here. There are of course places that are more casual, where the food is fantastic, but the noise bounces off the walls and the chairs are uncomfortable. There will always be that need for places like Le Gavroche.
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