In this extract from his best-selling book A Life In The Kitchen, master chef Michel Roux Jr imparts how taking on his family’s famous Le Gavroche restaurant was a great honour, but not without its hardships. Revealing the pressure his father’s status put on his own career, master chef Michel Roux Jr tells the history of Le Gavroche restaurant and explains what the world-class eatery means to him today
It was quite something to take over Le Gavroche restaurant. It’s not just any restaurant and it wasn’t just any chef’s job. It still amazes me, even now, that so many people think of the Roux name as being synonymous with cooking greatness and a certain standard; how so many people are in awe of my father, my uncle and the Roux name. It’s hard for me because Albert is, after all, my father and Michel is my uncle. And sometimes people even recognise me in the street. It’s a bit embarrassing really because in many ways I’m not a famous person, and although my father enjoys being famous, being in the limelight and all the associated trappings, he never set out in life thinking he would achieve that much.
It’s difficult for me to pinpoint a time when I realised how others regarded him. I suppose it would have coincided with the three Michelin stars. Moving to Mayfair brought a certain kudos and recognition that the Roux brothers were now in the West End. And when I was working in France, fellow chefs would say: “He’s the son of the famous Roux brothers”. That meant more to me, because it was recognition from my peers abroad.
There was a huge amount of respect for the Roux name all over France. It’s seen as a gold standard in the industry and my father and uncle are seen as pioneers of truly great French food. They’re father and uncle to me, and their styles are quite different. If you were to compare them, my father is more into the heavy work – baking, kneading and making rich stews. My uncle is an extremely gifted artist with a very delicate touch. It shows in his work. A lot of his food is very refined, infinitely detailed and very precise. I enjoy his food and the way he cooks, but my father has a heartier approach. He’s the sort of person who would be braising the whole joint of meat. Michel would be doing something with portions of it. So the two together were a natural recipe for success. I’d like to think I’m a fusion of them both, because I do like precision. But perhaps I lean a bit towards my father’s homely, flavoursome, straightforward approach to food.
Certainly it was a help in the beginning for my father to make those phone calls and pull a few strings. I wouldn’t have got into the Elysée Palace without him. But when I was an apprentice and just starting out, even when I was at La Tante Claire, people would point out that I’d had it so easy and they’d almost wait for me to fail. It wasn’t bullying as such, but it came quite close. If they could stab me in the back they would.
Taking over Le Gavroche in the early 1990s was hard – probably the toughest time in my life. As well as finding my feet and getting everything going, we almost immediately ran into a recession. Many people think restaurants like Le Gavroche are immune, but this is just not true, especially in a recession like the one in the late 80s and early 90s, which lasted for a long time. We had to lay off staff and the rest of us had to work twice as hard. And mentally, it was tough. But when I look back, I would have done all the same things.
Sometimes I’ve thought that I should have changed everything when I took over, completely changed it. But finally I had too much respect for Le Gavroche. It had such a name and such a following. It was a massive weight on my shoulders to keep it going. And if I’d changed it completely, I would have been vilified. But I still got it in the neck for keeping it going.
I feel very strongly about Le Gavroche and what it has been and what it must continue to be – very individual, different to any other restaurant in town, and offering the finest French classical food with great wine, great service and a comfortable atmosphere. It has to be timeless as well. Going minimal wouldn’t work for us.
I learned to take criticism, but it isn’t easy for a son to have the same career as his father. For a start, you argue more. I’ve clashed with my father over the years because I’ve wanted to bring in new things, new ideas to the business. But I have a good relationship with him too, and I had a wonderful childhood in the country. When we came to live in London, it was a terrible wrench not to see so much of my father and I used to fight with my sister a lot. My father was very helpful in giving me advice on my career, and so was my uncle. Michel was the one who recommended I do the apprenticeship at Hellegouarche because he knew the circle of master pâtissiers in France.
When I came back from France and began working in the family business, it was father and son again, but we were also in a funny way working at arm’s length because it was business. Now, it’s much warmer and closer. My father’s qualities are endless, but I’d say his most outstanding characteristics are his drive and his passion. He’s a self-taught businessman and he has a fantastic business acumen that he’s developed from reading books and mixing with business people. He’s also very clever. You can see that when he plays poker – he can memorise everyone’s cards. And I haven’t even started on his cooking ability.
I think he probably admires my patience. In many ways, I do think it’s harder to take over from your father than to open your own restaurant. There are different pressures and obstacles. Perhaps by taking over here, I did not have so many financial pressures, but there were huge psychological and social challenges, great barriers to push through. Even now, I still get people saying I’ve had it easy. But that doesn’t worry me anymore. I never asked for anything from my father – and he never gave me anything unless he thought I deserved it. My uncle was the same with his son, Alain. Alain had to work for eight years as a sous-chef in his father’s kitchen under a head chef. He was number two for years before he got the job and he worked his balls off to get that. It was the same for me, and yet most people just don’t understand that. I haven’t clashed with my uncle because I’ve had nothing to do with The Waterside Inn at Bray (where Michel has been since the business split in 1987). In many ways, it was good financial housekeeping to split the business. There were so many outlets, so many different aspects of the company that it was decided my father would have Le Gavroche and my uncle The Waterside Inn. There have been some rumours and stories that my father and uncle don’t get on very well and haven’t spoken to each other for years. That’s very far from the truth. They adore each other, but there is a very strong sibling rivalry, which is absolutely normal. It’s the usual love- hate relationship you get in families. They’re very different people. They’re brothers, not twins, but they do share the same passion for great food and wine. That brings them together as they strive for perfection.
I didn’t appreciate what a massive thing I’d taken on until I did so. I didn’t realise what Le Gavroche signified and how people saw my father and uncle. I suppose I didn’t realise just how famous they were and how much people looked up to them. Most of the top names have been here to learn, not only the chefs like Rowley Leigh, Gordon Ramsay and Marcus Wareing, but also front-of-house staff, trained by us and Silvano Giraldin, who was with Le Gavroche for nearly 40 years until he retired in 2008.
Those first few years were tough mentally. My father found it difficult to let go and not look at the menus. The clients were sometimes difficult, and again, people were waiting for me to fail. Some regular customers were almost disparaging, telling me that my father would do it this way, or my father’s recipe was better, or I’d changed the cheese in the soufflé. In fact, nothing changed at first. Everything was still cooked in exactly the same way to the same recipes. Taking over was a huge responsibility because of the Le Gavroche name and because of its history. Le Gavroche doesn’t go in and out of fashion and many of our clients have been coming here for years.
So at first I changed absolutely nothing, not for the first couple of years anyway. That’s why the comments about things not being the same rankled so much. Bloody idiots. They thought they were gourmets and they couldn’t even taste the cheese properly. And in fact, my father was rarely in the kitchen by the end of his time in charge, so the comments and comparisons rankled even more. These were not the best years of Le Gavroche for me, this period of transition. I needed to stay still, to consolidate my position and so I didn’t put my own ideas forward. But after a while, I began to feel more at ease with things, more at ease with myself, so I started generally lightening the whole thing – the menus and just the general atmosphere.
For example, in the early days of Le Gavroche, junior staff members were not allowed to talk to the customers, but things have become more relaxed and nowadays it would appear rude not to talk to people. Gradually I started introducing more of my own style. The food was still French, still classical in the way I’d been brought up, but it evolved to my way of doing things and it’s no longer stagnating.
I’ve made subtle changes at Le Gavroche, but it’s still familiar. That’s where many chefs go wrong, trying to reinvent the wheel. We’ve got third-generation customers now, grandfathers who bring in their grandsons to taste the soufflé suissesse, which is great. Of course, there are not so many eggs in the soufflé now as there used to be and not quite so much cream, because people just don’t eat like that any more. But the taste and texture of the dish are just the same as always.
There are certain dishes, such as the braised beef and seasonal game, that people know and come back for. We have a couple who fly here every year from Germany just to eat the grouse, which is always done the same way – roasted on the bone with lovely bacon on top and all the traditional accompaniments of bread sauce and roasting juices. They have been coming for 20 years. Tradition is one of the things that have made this restaurant what it is and it’s important to maintain.
We are always very seasonal in the restaurant. Seasons inspire. Every chef should be inspired by the changing of the seasons – you should be longing for the first of the produce from the new season. When the first asparagus comes, for example, I get very excited and want it to be something special.
Winter can be really long, boring and lacking in inspiration, and by the end, when there is hardly any game, you want to move away from the braised dishes and the slow-cooked recipes. And you think, ‘Come on spring. Let’s get going and see sunshine and some asparagus and baby vegetables.’ You just want to get in there and cook some different things. The first box of asparagus is fantastic. We get ours from Norfolk and Kent and it’s served as a starter or with fish as a main course. Then the next week we might serve it as a salad with some smoked bacon. It’s that change of weather and change of seasons that inspires us.
Many chefs find they cook better in some seasons than others. My preferred time is probably the end of summer and beginning of autumn, when we’re just coming into the game season but there are still peaches around and other fruits such as figs. Whatever the season, I do think the balance of a dish is vital. What makes a balanced dish? There is so much talk about this. To me, a balanced dish is one that hits all the right buttons. It has got the taste, the flavours and the textures, which means you get to the last mouthful and you think – gosh, I could have another mouthful. It leaves you wanting a bit more.
There are so many aspects to making a good plate of food – for example, the balance of acidity to sweetness, what the Italians call the agrodolce. It’s very hard to define exactly, but let’s take a traditional English dish of stew with dumplings. A total imbalance would be two pieces of meat and five dumplings, with loads of sauce. Or not enough sauce on the plate. You need enough sauce to moisten the meat and sufficient dumplings to mop up the sauce without dominating the dish.
Very often now, chefs will just use some dots or smears of sauce on the plate and it’s not enough. If you’re serving a terrine, for example, with some chutney or sauce on the side, the chef should imagine himself sitting down and taking one piece of the terrine and then a bit of the sauce. If he or she gets halfway through the terrine and there’s no more sauce, then it isn’t balanced. It seems incredibly obvious, but too often chefs don’t see it that way. They see what is on the plate as more about how it looks, rather than ingredients that people want to eat.
But you can’t have steadfast rules to everything because chefs are always pushing the boundaries these days. However, to be innovative just for the sake of it is not good cooking, but just a gimmick. There are some weird and crazy ingredients in the world and to try and marry some of them with, say, fish, is not good cooking the way I see it. Fish is such a delicate food, with such subtle flavour. I can’t understand anyone wanting to mask that delicate taste. You should be looking to enhance it, not overpower it. For example, fruit and fish are difficult to pair together. It’s a troublesome marriage, and very hard to get it right. Shellfish are easier, as they can work well with citrus fruits.
Similarly there should always be contrasting textures in food because textures play an important part in the dining experience. There should always be a creamy, a crunchy, and a soft part to every meal. Why do we like pork crackling? Because it’s got a lovely crunch to it and it’s all part of the sensation of eating. You can get textures into a dish in many different ways. Pork crackling is one way with a pork dish, and there are biscuits or tuiles – there are a hundred and one ways to add texture. With fish, I like a lovely crispy skin – you can either take the skin off and crisp it up separately or cook the fish with the skin on, and make it crisp by flouring it or cooking it with fresh butter.
Heston Blumenthal takes the idea of the dining experience one step further by putting iPods on people’s heads when they’re eating fish so they can hear the sea and the sound of waves. Apparently it enhances the pleasure in a subliminal way.
I can understand this. I wouldn’t dream of doing it at Le Gavroche, but I do understand it.
It’s also important to have a balanced menu and a lot of chefs don’t pay attention to that. It’s wonderful for a customer to sit down and look at a menu and think, ‘I’d like to try this and this and that’. You want them to be enthralled and want to order lots of things, to be spoiled for choice, so they can choose something light to start and then something heavier to follow. I suppose it does come down to experience, and again chefs should put themselves in the diner’s position and imagine they are eating in the restaurant.