With a third restaurant opened and an increasing media presence, Michel Roux Jr is fast becoming one of the nation’s most popular chefs. FIONA SHIELD talks to him about working with his father again, food critics, his expanding empire and going it alone as a television presenter.
Meeting me in the same place he begins every day – his world-renowned restaurant Le Gavroche – Michel Roux Jr isn’t about to let his burgeoning fame take him away from what he loves most, his restaurants. “I don’t consider myself a celebrity, I consider myself to be a chef. The kitchen is always going to be my priority and where I’m most at home.”
But as chef patron of one of the most well-known restaurants in the world, a member of the iconic Roux family and a popular judge on the BBC hit show, MasterChef: The Professionals – which pulled in an average of nearly three million viewers throughout the last series – the media isn’t about to let him slip away that easily.
Nor is the public, as was shown by the rapturous welcome that Michel received at the recent MasterChef Live event at Olympia. So inspired were they during his demonstration, that one budding young chef even took the chance to ask him for a job during the show. Ever the professional, Michel responded on the microphone that he would be happy to look at his CV – a task which he does for each new recruit in his teams – and encouraged him to send it to him. The boy leapt up from his seat to grasp the opportunity, no doubt to the envy of his culinary classmates still seated.
While some chefs might have been caught off-guard by such aspiration, for Michel it has always been something he encourages: “Helping youngsters achieve their dreams has always been an important part of the Roux ethos, whether it’s through the Roux Scholarship or apprenticeships in our restaurants, or even MasterChef: The Professionals. I have always championed teaching and I love it.” True to his ethos, even four days on Michel still remembers the boy’s name.
Wisely, Michel recognises that with two restaurants already flourishing and a new restaurant that opened last month, the team he has behind him will be ever more important in maintaining the exacting standards that he always advocates. “I can only expand because I know that I can rely on my staff to maintain the highest quality. At Le Gavroche, for example, Rachel my head chef, Emmanuel the maître d’, and the rest of the team have been here long enough for me to be able to trust them with the responsibility.”
That confidence will certainly be tested now that Michel’s third London restaurant, Roux at The Landau, is open in the Langham Hotel. Collaborating with his father again for the first time in 19 years – an enormous coup for the hotel – Michel is well aware of the risks involved in expanding too quickly and without consideration. “It is very important that we do not recreate another Le Gavroche. Le Gavroche needs to stay unique and it will. We are still aiming for excellence in fine dining, but the menu will be slightly different and it will be different to Roux at Parliament Square as well.” Obviously excited by his new venture, Michel enthuses: “There will be many different accents and styles going on.”
One thing is certain, is that the menu has been focused and developed around what Michel, his father, and chef de cuisine, Chris King, believe the customer wants. Perhaps his greatest attribute as a chef, Michel regularly shows a culinary flexibility that many chefs are too proud to display. Not long after taking over the ropes at Le Gavroche in 1990, Michel began lightening dishes by reducing the cream and fat content, to adapt to a society of healthier palettes. While, six months after opening, Roux at Parliament Square is considering launching a competitively- priced lunchtime bar menu that will allow time- poor customers to sit down to a delicious dish and glass of fine wine without a booking. “We want to combine the understanding that time is of the essence, with the opportunity to eat in a very luxurious setting. It is something that is missing in that area I feel. Finding out what the customer wants takes time, but I feel that we are well on our way now. It is important to cook for the customer, not the guidebooks or the chef’s ego.”
So, after years at the helm of an established restaurant, how does his own ego deal with the inevitable criticism that a new restaurant always receives? “For the most part we’ve had a good response, a couple of journalists said it was quiet – but that’s a restaurant and it takes customers to bring the ambience, and that the decor needed some polishing off, so I’ve put some of my personal art in there. I have been really pleased with the response to the food coming out of the kitchen, but to me front of house is equally as important, which is why we’ve worked hard to rectify all teething problems.”
Echoing this belief is the premise of Michel’s new programme, Michel Roux’s Service. On screen in January 2011, the reality show followed eight young hopefuls as they learned the complicated and arguably under-valued skills of a sommelier and maître d’ in a fine dining restaurant. Convinced though Michel was about the concept, he has been one of many battling to get it filmed. “When I was first approached with the subject I jumped at it, but it has taken two years of knocking on doors and knocking down walls to people who were not sold – they didn’t think the public would be interested in front of house skills. I’m so glad we managed to get there in the end though, because I really do think it’s a fascinating series and will hopefully inspire more people into front of house roles.”
No longer sharing the presenting limelight with anyone else, could this be a step towards more programmes fronted by Michel in the future? Particularly following the triumphant viewing figures of his recipe spin-off show to this year’s MasterChef: The Professionals.
“Maybe, I don’t know. As I said, I am far happier in my kitchens doing my every day job, but if the occasion does arrive and it suits my priorities then I would do it. I like to be busy, I love what I do.”
With that, he bids a warm and attentive goodbye, eager to return to the kitchen, full of a trademark boundless energy and enthusiasm for fine food that continues to inspire his staff and the public alike.