Located at the prestigious Langham Hotel in London, JAMES MASSOUD and KERRY SPENCER go behind the scenes to meet the team who make it all happen at Roux at The Landau restaurant.
Few locations in the capital command such respect as The Langham Hotel. It comes then as no surprise that one of the UK’s most well-respected chefs takes the reigns at the hotel’s prestigious restaurant, bringing with him a highly-talented team.
Taken under the wing of the revered manager of The Savoy Grill, Angelo Maresco, for 20 years, Franco gained the experience to become restaurant manager at The Grill at Brown’s Hotel before leading the team at Roux at The Landau.
WHAT MADE YOU GET INTO THIS INDUSTRY?
As a youngster my decision was made easy because my brother, who is four years older than me, studied to be a chef. So the idea was that if I got in to the industry in the front-of-house then we would some day be able to open our own restaurant. When I was off school during the summer recess I travelled up to Venice to work for the three months. Straight away I liked that side of the business, meeting new people every day, and by the end I developed a strong passion for it.
YOU WORKED UNDER ANGELO MARESCO FOR SOME TIME, WHO IS OF COURSE WELL KNOWN IN THE INDUSTRY. WHAT DID YOU LEARN FROM HIM?
I learned a great deal. In my opinion, I consider myself a lucky man to have worked with the best maitre d’ who’s ever lived. I learned [from Maresco] not just about the business, but about how to treat the guests. At The Savoy they were not just guests, Mr Maresco considered them as friends. In his unique way he managed to attract the cream of London; people such as Lady Thatcher, John Major, the Queen Mother, as well as global stars such as Frank Sinatra and sporting legends like Sir Alex Ferguson.
HOW WAS YOUR TIME AT THE SAVOY?
I spent over 20 years at The Savoy and each year was a special one to me. I actually left The Savoy while I was head waiter for a year in order to further my career, but Mr Maresco called me when his number two was about to retire and asked me if I would like to join him as his new number two. I told him I would love to join and spent three years working alongside him, until Gordon Ramsay took over The Savoy.
ZACK SAGHIR, HEAD SOMMELIER, IS CONSIDERING RETIRING. HAVING WORKED WITH HIM FOR NEARLY 30 YEARS, WHAT KIND OF INFLUENCE HAS HE HAD ON YOUR CAREER?
I have experienced a lot in my career with Zack, first at The Savoy, then at Browns, and like Mr Maresco he treats the staff around him with respect. He looks after people and they look after him. He’s got such a vast knowledge of wines and has always been willing to pass his knowledge on.
HOW WILL YOU FEEL WHEN ZACK DOES RETIRE?
I will miss him. He is a father figure to the youngsters. In our 29 years together we have had occasional moments where we’ve not seen eye-to-eye but the nice thing is that if we have a disagreement within minutes we are best friends again. I will miss him dearly when he retires. Another thing I learned from Mr Maresco though is that unfortunately not all good things last forever.
HOW HAS YOUR TIME BEEN AT ROUX AT THE LANDAU?
I’ve been here four years now and it has been a fantastic time. We’ve managed to bring in regulars and earn some really positive feedback. The restaurant has been done up in a very nice way and having experienced three openings this has been the most positive feedback I have heard by far.
WAS THERE PRESSURE WHEN YOU CAME IN AS RESTAURANT MANAGER?
Because of the state of the economy I put a lot of emphasis on keeping the regulars because there were places around us that were struggling and making redundancies, but we still managed to keep the place going and have done very well.
WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO BE A SUCCESSFUL RESTAURANT MANAGER?
I’ve been lucky to learn from the best. You need to be fully committed, 100 per cent, and you have got to be passionate. The way I see it, we have got to be actors. On screen you may only see an actor for half an hour but for us we have to be on stage for, in my case, 12 hours a day. So our guests have always got to enjoy the show. It is unsociable hours so you need a wife who will understand. I’ve been very lucky again in that I have a supportive wife who I have been married to for 22 years.
WHAT IS IT LIKE TO WORK WITH THE ROUX FAMILY?
I’ve had a brilliant time with them so far. It’s early days, they joined us in December, but I was very, very excited when the news came to me and I’m glad to be able to work alongside them.
Michel’s protégé completed his apprenticeship at Le Gavroche before going on to become the sous chef there and at Roux at Parliament Square. Chris is now the chef de cuisine at Roux at The Landau.
WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO BECOME A CHEF?
It’s something I always wanted to do, ever since I was younger. I remember the other kids in class when they used to say: “What do you want to be when you grow up? Do you want to be a fireman or an astronaut?” And I always wanted to be a chef. I can remember very vividly different meals throughout my childhood, so when the time came to choosing my career it was a very natural choice.
WHAT KIND OF TRAINING DID YOU HAVE TO GO THROUGH TO GET TO WHERE YOU ARE NOW?
The best training I had was working my way up through the ranks at Le Gavroche. I first worked for the Roux family seven years ago, where I started at the very bottom, and I had the opportunity to work my way up.
HOW WAS IT COMING IN TO ROUX AT THE LANDAU AS THE CHEF DE CUISINE?
It was definitely a learning experience but it was also something that I had been looking forward to for a while and something that I had been readying myself for. It was certainly challenging to begin with. Of course there is pressure but it’s what every chef aims to do, so you just have to roll with it and relish it.
MICHEL DESCRIBED YOU AS ‘A RISING STAR.’ DOES THAT LEVEL OF SUPPORT INSTIL CONFIDENCE OR ADD TO THE PRESSURE?
I would say that it does give you some confidence but at the same time, a chef of Michel’s calibre complimenting you like that, it does add to the pressure a little bit.
HOW’S YOUR TIME AT ROUX THE LANDAU BEEN SO FAR?
It’s been very busy, thankfully it’s a very busy restaurant, and we’re packed every weekend. We’ve had good guests so the most rewarding part has been cooking for so many people week in, week out.
WHAT’S YOUR FAVOURITE DISH TO COOK ON THE MENU?
My favourite dish to cook at the moment is a chicken galantine we do with a jelly because it’s technically quite a challenging dish to cook, so for a chef it’s quite fun. It’s also a very classical dish so it’s nice to take something classic, lighten it, and make it modern. It’s a great dish for chefs to learn how to do, those classic techniques, and bring them into the 21st century.
WHAT IS YOUR FAVOURITE SPRING INGREDIENT TO USE?
Definitely my favourite spring ingredient would be St. George’s mushroom, which come along at the end of April – around St. George’s Day. They are full of fantastic aroma and flavour, and are only around for a very brief period of time.
CAN WE EXPECT TO SEE YOU APPEARING ON MASTERCHEF ANY TIME SOON?
No, no, my place is definitely in the kitchen. I don’t particularly enjoy the limelight, I’d much rather be cooking.
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR TIME WORKING WITH THE ROUX FAMILY?
Working with the Roux family has definitely provided me with a lot of opportunities. It gave me the chance to move abroad [Per Se in New York in 2008], to experience different restaurants and ultimately to come back and help them open this restaurant.
Zack has built up a reputation as one of the best sommeliers in the business, recommending wines to some of the world’s most famous faces, including Frank Sinatra and the late Queen Mother. After 25 years at The Savoy, followed by a spell at Rocco Forte’s Brown’s Hotel, Zack joined his long-term colleague and friend, Franco Becci at Roux at The Landau, in 2007.
YOU HAVE BEEN IN THIS INDUSTRY FOR 38 YEARS, HOW HAVE YOU SEEN IT EVOLVE IN THAT TIME?
It has changed a lot. We get a lot of people who go for wine pairing and in the old days people would just order a bottle of white or bottle of red, whatever they felt like. Now they talk to the sommelier and ask us to recommend what will go with dishes.
It is a modern thing to pair wines with dishes, and as cuisine changes, modern, nouveau cuisine, the wines change too.
I would have recommended wines to go with dishes [25 years ago], but people didn’t ask for advice as much then, whereas people always want to ask for advice now.
WHAT QUALITIES DO YOU BELIEVE MAKE A GOOD SOMMELIER?
Always listen and don’t ever think you know it all, because you never stop learning, especially in wine. I have been doing this for 38 years and I never stop learning. Taste a lot, all the time tasting, new styles, old styles, New World, Old World and remain open about new types of wine.
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO A SOMMELIER IN TRAINING?
When you go to a table to talk to a guest, do not automatically recommend a wine that is expensive, always take the feedback from the guest and let them give you a guide of what price they want to spend. Then we always go for something to suit each clientele, budget-wise. If the client is looking for something expensive, they will let you know. I don’t like it when they [sommeliers] go straight for a higher-priced wine, when possibly the guest might not even like it. Don’t try to impose yourself on your clientele and always talk to the guest, [find out] what kind of wine they like.
WHAT ARE THE CURRENT TRENDS IN WINE AND WINE-TASTING?
A lot of people like New World wines because it is low in acidity and high in alcohol, which means there are not many people going for the Old World wine any more, especially nowadays. Unless, of course, I suggest something from the Old World and they decide to go for it.
YOU HAVE WORKED WITH FRANCO FOR MOST OF YOUR CAREER, WHAT HAS MADE YOUR PARTNERSHIP SO SUCCESSFUL?
We worked together for over 25 years at The Savoy and then we moved to Brown’s in 2003, and now we’ve been here since 2007. When we were at The Savoy me and Franco worked with the great Angelo Maresco, he was the maitre d’, and then in 2003 Mr Rocco Forte bought Brown’s hotel and he asked Angelo to work for him, and he said: “I want to take Franco and Zack with me,” so we went with him. And then from Brown’s, Duncan Palmer, who was the managing director of The Langham, started renovating the restaurant here, and the hotel, and he asked us if we wanted to move with him, just me and Franco, because Angelo retired in 2008.
I’m looking to retire next year, Franco is trying to keep me going for a few years yet. I’ll see in 2012; I might put my feet up and watch the Olympics!
WHAT HAS BEEN THE MOST MEMORABLE MOMENT OF YOUR CAREER?
The most memorable night was at The Savoy Grill the first time I served the Queen Mother. She liked gin and tonic as an aperitif and then a nice white, preferably Alsace or a nice German dry wine.
I served the great Frank Sinatra in ’78, he used to go to a gig and then come to The Grill. We’d keep it open late for him and he’d usually buy expensive bottles. I remember he once bought a 1966 Chateau O’Brien. I also used to serve Princess Margaret, she never drank wine, always whiskey.
WHAT IS IT THAT YOU LOVE ABOUT YOUR JOB AND THE INDUSTRY THAT YOU WORK IN?
I love serving people, talking to people. It’s a fantastic job working in hospitality and with wine, especially when guests have never tried a wine before and they appreciate the wine and the service. That’s what I’ll miss the most when I do retire.