Roux boys: the ultimate chef
They may argue even over how to make an omelette. But you can’t create
a fine dining empire without breaking a few eggs.
December 16 2010 The Times
Albert and Michel Roux
Running a family business is never easy, but you have only to mention eggs to the older members of the Roux family to see how high passions can run in a kitchen.
“Take the omelette,” says the family’s elder statesman, Albert. “There is no colour in my omelette. I prefer mine to look like a baby’s bottom. My brother likes his brown.”
Michel Senior, who at 69 is six years younger than his brother, agrees: “We can talk for hours about omelettes. If we had four guests we would ask each one, ‘Do you like your omelette runny, medium or well cooked?’ No one should cook an omelette without asking this!”
From this minor difference alone, it’s easy to understand why the Roux brothers eventually split their dynasty in two. Le Gavroche, which they opened in London in 1967, became the first British restaurant to win a Michelin star (then a second, then a third) and established their reputation as the godfathers of modern French cuisine. In the late Eighties it was decided that Albert would keep Le Gavroche, and his brother the Waterside Inn at Bray.
But blood runs thicker than egg yolk, and today, as I sit in the lounge bar of Le Gavroche with Albert and his son, it’s clear that the next generation of the family have learnt a middle way: “I sit on the fence and do it in between” smiles Michel Junior, the star of Masterchef: The Professionals and the current chef de cuisine at Le Gavroche.
Michel Jr’s daughter Emily, 19, who is training in culinary arts at the Paul Bocuse Institute in Lyons, seems to have inherited her father’s diplomacy. Having recently made hundreds of omelettes during work experience at the Lancaster Hotel in Paris, she can see the merits of both styles.
“I was making omelettes the classic French way: undercooking, no colour, more on my grandfather’s side!” she says. “His style is French classic, which is what I’m learning at college now, lots of butter and cream, tasty but it can be rich. My father has modernised French cuisine with less butter and cream.”
For Emily, cooking was second nature. As a child she was taken to some of the best restaurants in the world and before the age of 10 she had knocked up a three-course meal for her parents on Valentine’s Day.
“We always talk about food,” she admits. “How are you going to cook it? Where did you get it? How much did it cost? Have you eaten there?”
How heated do the discussions get?
“We’re playful. I tease Dad and say, ‘I would do it that way’. On television he can appear scary but he’s certainly not like that in real life. I’ve seen Dad work together with Grandfather; they make a funny duo and they are also very respectful of each other.”
Michel Jr, too, emphasises that while the family enjoy a good foodie debate, these don’t end in frying pans being thrown. “We’ve never had full-on arguments about omelettes. But when you get people together who are so passionate about food, we all have an opinion and we are never afraid of voicing it. Ultimately, we are all working in the same direction and that quest is for the best.”
Albert nods his head. “Beautifully said. We all have the same aim.”
For the two elder Roux, life began above the family charcuterie in Charolles, France. They had humble beginnings as sons and grandsons of French pork butchers, yet went on to revolutionise gastronomy in the UK. When as Foreign Secretary he awarded them honorary OBEs in 2002, Jack Straw called them “two of Britain’s finest ambassadors who together have greatly enhanced Britain’s gastronomic standing in the world.”
And the Roux dynasty maintains its firm grip on gastronomy in the UK. While Michel Jr runs Le Gavroche, Michel Sr’s son Alain, 42, is chef-patron at the Waterside Inn, Bray. It is now 25 years since the inn was awarded the three Michelin stars it has retained ever since, the only restaurant outside of France to have held the award for a quarter of a century.
Emily’s dream is not to work in Le Gavroche but to open her own restaurant in London. Assuming she has inherited the Roux genes, this will be one to watch.
So what is the recipe behind the culinary success of the Roux family? “I was almost born in the kitchen and that is no joke!” Michel Jr says. “Mum went into labour while she was helping my father to cook.”
The kitchen also became Michel’s nursery, where he watched his father roll pasta with his hands and his Uncle Michel practise delicate sugar roses for patisserie competitions. As a toddler he made tarts rather than playing with toys. “My earliest memories are of the scent of caramel,” he says.
Albert, 75, has more savoury recollections of his own childhood. “I knew the days of the week by what was being made in the charcuterie: black pudding (boudin) on Monday, sausages (andouillettes) on Tuesday.”
Both men started their training as patissiers in Paris the father at 14, the son aged 16. “I was overjoyed when Michel told me,” says Albert, who knew from his own experience that training in patisserie would give his son a firm foundation for the future.
At 18, Albert travelled on his own to England where he began work as a scullery boy at Cliveden; he later worked as a chef for several distinguished families including that of Peter Cazalet, who trained the Queen Mother’s horses. “I have very happy memories working for the Cazalets,” he says. “One day when Michel was small he went missing and there was a knock at the kitchen door. The Queen Mother had Michel and said, ‘He must be yours!’”
While working as a private chef, Albert fostered an ambition with his younger brother, Michel Sr, who was then based in Paris, to open a London restaurant. The brothers felt that England was “in the culinary stone age”: the food was poor and service was bad. They planned to pioneer a change in the eating habits of the English.
In 1967, they opened Le Gavroche with backing from the Cazalet family and savings of £3,000 each. Michel Sr, who had also trained in patisserie, left his job as a private chef to Cécile de Rothschild in Paris. In the boot of his Renault was an oil painting of a “gavroche”, or urchin, which he had found in Montmartre and which became the Roux symbol. Five years later they launched the Waterside Inn at Bray, before officially separating the businesses in the Eighties.
“We decided to split,” said Albert. “We exchanged two big kisses. Michel took the Waterside Inn and I took Le Gavroche. He blossomed and I felt liberated.” Michel Sr, who is based in Switzerland, describes the time he worked with Albert as the best years of his life. “For me, opening Le Gavroche with Albert was a dream come true. My brother has a lot of charisma and is a loveable person. Having a family business is both wonderful and a lot of hard work. Fourteen-hour days, six days a week were typical. But it was good to share in the success of the business, which thrived because we complemented each other so well.”
Splitting up was hard, therefore. “It was a bit like a marriage when you realise that the way you both think has changed. There came a time when we didn’t share the same point of view on cooking. There was some friction, but it wasn’t nasty because we love each other; we came to the conclusion it would be better to part.”
In 1991, Michel Jr became chef de cuisine at Le Gavroche, where he made his own mark on the menu. “Michel’s cooking is imaginative and light with strong foundations,” Albert says. “It’s not crazy food!”
Cassoulet and roasted rib of beef count among Albert’s favourite meals, and Michel Jr always makes his father a meal he will love whenever he comes to stay. “I had a wonderful New Year last year,” says Albert. “Michel invited me over and he cooked a lovely leg of wild boar. We went to a truffle market together in southern Ardèche, which was a real education.”
Father and son admit there can be tensions when running a family business. Albert is now content to leave his son alone to run Le Gavroche while he pursues his consultancy and management of the Roux brasseries at Sofitel, St James and at Terminal Five, Heathrow, plus three restaurants in Scotland: Rocpool in Inverness, Inver Lodge at Lochinver and Greywalls, East Lothian.
“I’m very proud of Michel and he is extremely successful at what he is doing. He wouldn’t be if I was on top of him,” he says of his son.
Both concede that tempers can fray in a kitchen, but through experience they know how to handle the pressure. “I think we all lose our rag when things don’t go well,” says Michel Jr. “Kitchens can be hot and furious and sometimes we lose our temper. There has to be humility if you lose it; there has to be reconciliation afterwards. We are striving for excellence but we can’t do it without a good team of chefs.”
How do father and son find working together? “He’s a very hard taskmaster but I’m also very hard on myself, which is a family trait,” says Michel, who this year opened Roux at Parliament Square.
Over the years, the family have nurtured a number of successful chefs, who Albert affectionately calls his “babies”. These include Gordon Ramsay, Pierre Koffman and Marcus Wareing. The brothers are chairmen of the Roux Scholarship, which offers the winner three months’ training at a three-star Michelin restaurant; their sons are judges. The training is legendary and has produced many top chefs.
Michel Sr says he was delighted when his son, Alain, announced he wanted to be a chef. “Alain phoned me out of the blue when he was 14 and told me he wanted to be a cook and study pastry first as I had done. The phone call left me speechless.”
But for Alain, it was natural: his childhood was centred around food, as he explains in the tranquil riverside surroundings of the Waterside Inn.
“I was born in 1968, a year after my father opened Le Gavroche, so you could say I was born straight into it. Mum used to leave me behind the bar because the basement kitchen was hot and too small.”
Alain moved to France with his mother as a child but returned in the holidays to join his father in the family business. “When my parents divorced I went to France with my mother and two sisters at the age of 10. Luckily, we got long holidays, so I used to spend them helping Dad at the Waterside.”
Alain, who is the epitome of modesty and understatement, never wanted to work front of house. For the past nine years he has been chef-patron.
“I always wanted to be in the back. I was shy and discreet. I was given big boxes of spinach and French beans to prepare. The boxes were bigger than me and a few times I did a runner! The chef said, ‘Don’t worry you can come back’.”
True enough, after years of training in family-run businesses Alain found his niche at his father’s restaurant. “Alain asked if he could work for a couple of years at the Waterside and go from there,” says Michel Sr. “He came as chef de partie \[in 1992\] and he has stayed ever since, so family can’t be that bad, really!”
Currently writing a book on desserts, Michel Senior reflected on how to treat his son in the kitchen.
“I demand a lot of myself and I believe I was as demanding with Alain as I was with the other staff. I was always thinking, ‘Am I hard enough? Am I too soft? Am I doing the right thing?’”
Michel Jr holds his cousin in high regard. “I think Alain is similar to my uncle in many ways. They both specialised in pastry. Alain is like an artist and his style is more modern. Uncle once cooked me artichoke filled with lobster mousse, which was gorgeous. I’ve had many good meals at the Waterside Inn but that one stands out in my memory.”
Alain, who is all Gallic charm, clearly works hard and rarely allows himself the treat of dining at Le Gavroche.
“The food is too good, the wine list is too good. My cousin makes me drink too much; he is a bad cousin, very cheeky!”
The latest addition to the family empire is Roux at Parliament Square; reservations 020-7334 3737; rouxatparliamentsquare.co.uk