Proving his doubters wrong, masterchef Michel Roux Jr has continued to uphold Le Gavroche’s reputation as one of the best restaurants in the world. FIONA SHIELD talks to him about following in his father’s footsteps, being shunned by his peers and why he won’t tolerate bullying in the kitchen
Standing in the shadow of the green awning of his restaurant, it is no surprise that every supplier rushing through the busy trapdoor to the cellar wants to shake masterchef Michel Roux Jr’s hand. But it is not without apprehension and great respect that they approach the man from whom a twitch of an eyebrow on MasterChef: The Professionals can turn even the most capable of chefs into a blancmange. World renowned as Chef Patron of Le Gavroche, after taking over from his father nearly 20 years ago, Michel’s marked hands tell of a chef that has toiled hard to prove himself as a worthy heir to the kitchen of one of London’s finest French restaurants.
Introduced to the intensity and pressures of Michelin-starred cooking at a very early age, Michel’s world was rocked when Le Gavroche opened its doors in 1967. A childhood of playing with pastry scraps and churning ice cream underneath the kitchen table while his father worked as a private chef to one of the country’s grand estates was replaced by the reality of never seeing his father. He resolved “never to be a chef or go into the business.”
But it was not long before he was lured in to the infamously adrenalin-fuelled intensity and camaraderie of a high-performing kitchen on his school holidays, and a series of illustrious internships with the world’s top chefs, including Alain Chapel and Pierre Koffman, were arranged to teach the young chef the foundations of truly exceptional cooking.
Not coy about the benefits of his family name, Michel freely admits that many doors were opened by his father: “Through my father’s connections I had the opportunity to work with chefs at the top of their game that everyone wanted to learn
from.” However, he is also quick to point out that as fast as doors were opening for him, people were trying to close them: “When I was working with Maître Patissier Hellegouarche in Paris they all knew about the reputation of the Roux brothers in England, so there was a lot of finger pointing and accusations that I was only there because of my father, but that just made me want to be even better to prove I could do it.”
Visiting the Le Gavroche kitchen during preparation for the lunchtime service, it is clear that it is with this same determination and discipline that he leads and inspires his team now. Surfaces are spotless, chefs’ whites crisp and heads are down, as each member of the team is unwaveringly focused on perfection of the task at hand. Inspired by his own mentors, Michel admits that developing young chefs is one of the favourite aspects of his job. “It is something that’s dear to my heart – even to help someone achieve their dreams in the kitchen in the smallest way is so rewarding. I love what I do and I feel that we should be encouraging more youngsters to join the industry because it has so much to offer.”
However, contrary to the portrayal of a kitchen environment in many popular food programmes, one thing he does abhor is bullying.
“Some of these kitchens on television are portrayed as very macho, high testosterone-filled places full of swearing and living on the edge. Yes, kitchens can be like that, especially in the middle of service, but I don’t believe it should ever go into the realms of bullying or physical violence, there’s no excuse for that.”
Turning the tide of food programmes as a judge on the skill-focused MasterChef: The Professionals, Michel admits that he has turned down many television opportunities because they have not fitted with his own ethos.
“I am very wary of what I do on television. I have had lots of offers over the years but I have
only taken up the ones that I feel fit my brand, my name and what I represent. MasterChef fit the bill exactly because I’m not just judging, I’m in effect mentoring young professionals whose goal in life is to achieve greatness in the kitchen.”
Nevertheless, true to his own deeply embedded beliefs, Michel is very cautious not to let his television persona impact on the quality of food being served from the Le Gavroche kitchen. “I get great pleasure out of filming, but I am insistent that my time in the studio has to be cut to a minimum because I will always spend 90 per cent of my time in my restaurants. I believe that chefs should be in the place that they work – it is my name on the door. My number one priority is Le Gavroche and always will be.”
For Michel, like his father, exceptional ingredients and dishes will always be the linchpin that they refuse to compromise. For Albert Roux it meant illegal dashes across the Anglo- French border, laden down with ingredients not yet available in England. For Michel it means compromising on a media career that would no doubt have made him a worldwide celebrity. Even his latest book A Life in the Kitchen is less of a typical autobiography, but instead a culinary education through the eyes of a true foodie. Regional French dishes are intermingled with elegant haute cuisine and home-cooked comfort food; a deliciously curious mix of flavours and tastes that have marked Michel’s journey as a chef.
Following the opening of his new restaurant in Parliament Square, expect to see even less of Michel on screen and more stunning French- inspired dishes pleasing London palates.
Never straying far from his heritage, Michel was brought up on mostly French cooking as a child and even completed national service in the kitchens of the Elysée Palace so that he could hold on to his dual nationality. Yet he still maintains that it is the London restaurant scene that fills him with excitement.
“I think London has the edge on any other city. It has such diversity and you can eat great food from all corners of the world to an extremely high standard. The whole country’s attitude has changed throughout my career and it’s changed for the better.”
Michel believes that the trend for consumers asking where their food has actually come from is the key to a bright future for our food industry.
“It’s about showing respect to the person that produced the ingredient, and as a restaurateur it’s fantastic to be able to say where the ingredients have come from – I even have a supplier who puts the name of the animal on the bill! I’m not saying that we should put it on the menu, but that says everything to me, and that is the direction we should be going.”