With Le Gavroche approaching its 50th birthday, Michelin star chef Michel Roux Jr – there for 25 of those years – talks to The Resident about the secrets to its success
Words: Alexander Larman
There aren’t many chefs who can say that they’ve been at the same restaurant for 25 years, and even fewer who can look forward to celebrating its 50th anniversary next year. All credit, then, to the indefatigable Michel Roux Jr, who has combined keeping the legendary Le Gavroche as one of London’s finest restaurants (with two Michelin stars to prove it).
He also has a hectic extra-curricular stream of activities that has included everything from judging Masterchef and running marathons – 20 so far – to writing acclaimed cookery books and promoting other ventures.
We meet in a small private dining room at Le Gavroche, where Roux Jr has just finished having his picture taken. Unlike some chefs, whose culinary skill is not matched with articulacy, Roux Jr is a seasoned interviewee who answers questions with the professionalism and interest of someone who has been working at the peak of his chosen career for decades, succeeding in both England and France.
When asked why his restaurant – the great grande dame of fine dining – has remained popular while countless other ones have put their metaphorical chairs on the tables, Roux Jr answers: ‘The average lifespan of a restaurant in London is five years, and longevity comes from consistency. We have to deliver a product that people like, but also one that evolves naturally, and not just for the sake of it; we offer a classic experience, which is a great deal more than just food on a plate.’
He laughs cheerily, with the air of a man who has come out on the right side of the argument. ‘In the 1960s, when we opened, London was a barren wasteland when it came to restaurants; ingredients were difficult to source, there weren’t many people who had much money to go out for dinner, and there was a reticence when it came to eating French cuisine,’ he states.
By the time that I took over Le Gavroche, it was regarded as a “toff’s dining room”, and I wanted to change that – to lighten up service, drop the tie rule, make the food a bit more contemporary
‘Growing up as a child in a French family in Kent, it was an odd time, especially as we always ate traditional cuisine at home. By the time that I took over Le Gavroche, it was regarded as a “toff’s dining room”, and I wanted to change that – to lighten up service, drop the tie rule, make the food a bit more contemporary.’ He pauses, and grins. ‘But the cheese soufflé is always going to be on the menu. People might like a bit of change, but they’ll never be impressed if that’s absent.’
Now, of course, it’s very different; as Roux Jr puts it ‘London is considered a food destination’, and occasionally there are even rumours that it outstrips Paris. All the same, coming from a family of chefs, he’s very much aware that he has preserved the traditional business, and it’s one continued by his daughter Emily, who, perhaps unsurprisingly, has also trained as a chef.
‘The Anglo-French tradition that I’m in – French cooking, but in England – has meant a lot of changes over the years; the principles are still upheld, but it’s because we operate at a high level that we have a wide variety of young chefs coming through our doors, keen to learn, just as front of house has always been at the highest level.’
Some of these young chefs have included Marco Pierre White, Gordon Ramsay and, under Roux Jr himself, Bryn Williams and Marcus Wareing. Roux Jr speaks fondly of ‘my protégés’, but also praises his peers and mentors – not least the original patrons of Le Gavroche, his father Albert and uncle Michel, and one of London’s greatest restaurateurs, the legendary Pierre Koffmann.
Michel Roux Jr’s desert island meal would be lobster ‘with really rich, creamy béarnaise sauce, and really good chips’
He’s worked 12 days straight when we meet ‘but I’ve got a day off at the weekend to watch the rugby’ and one gets the impression that he’d be disappointed if he wasn’t busy every moment of every day. He’s even philosophical about his high-profile departure from Masterchef, which took place because of competing commercial interests, but does let slip that ‘I never find time to watch it – I never even watched it when I was on it, because I’m always at the restaurant!’
And, finally, what would his desert island meal be? Roux Jr doesn’t choose his famous cheese soufflé, tempting though it would be. Instead, after ruminating for a moment, he plumps for lobster, ‘with really rich, creamy béarnaise sauce, and really good chips, with a sensational wine or champagne to go with it’. One imagines that it would be quite a pleasure to eat a dish like that prepared by Roux Jr’s capable hands; almost, you might say, worth being on a desert island for.
43 Upper Brook Street W1K 7QR; 020 7408 0881; le-gavroche.co.uk