Michel Roux Jnr
Le Gavroche, in London, is considered by many to offer the ultimate in dining experiences. Jane Pruden talks to chef Michel Roux Jnr and his father, Albert, about cooking, family, shooting and fishing.
Michel Roux's earliest memories of his childhood in Kent are of eating wonderful food and ferreting with his father. "Dad had loads of ferrets," smiles Michel, "but there was only one that I could handle, their loyalties were definitely to Dad. We'd go off with our nets looking for rabbit holes, Dad would bring all these ferrets out of his trousers and we'd catch all we needed, go home and cook them. He really was the French/English countryman, a sort of French Compo."
Of all the people he has met through his work as a top chef with two Michelin stars, he readily admits that his father has been the biggest influence on his life and one he has probably taken most for granted.
When the Roux brothers, Albert and Michel opened Le Gavroche on Lower Sloane Street in 1967, England was only just out of rationing and the restaurant scene was, not surprisingly, unbelievably bland. There was very little in the way of quality ingredients to buy in the shops. For example olive oil could only be bought at the chemist for medicinal purposes and there were other complications to overcome acquiring ingredients from France.
Due to the restrictions of the Common Market importing regulations Michel's mother would transport a lot of produce back from France in her clapped-out old Peugeot estate. Travelling from England, she would stuff the car with any available game, sell her produce to the French and bring back Poulet de Bresse, peaches, truffles, cheeses and any other goodies to use in the restaurant. All worked well apart from the occasional time when the customs officers rumbled her and no doubt gorged themselves on her efforts.
Albert left his chef's job at the British Embassy in Paris and arrived in the country in 1958 to work as a private chef for the family of Major Peter Cazalet, the Queen Mother's racehorse trainer, on their estate in Kent. During much of his spare time, Albert would take the young Michel fishing, show him the pigeons and rabbits he was rearing for the table, take him shooting and then cook for the family. "From that early age," says Michel, now 47, "I was being taught to appreciate food and where it comes from."
Alain Chapel, another great influence, was believed to be one of the greatest chefs of his time and to Michel he was the greatest on the planet. He spent two years working for him in Mionay, Lyon, in the early 80s. He learnt to concentrate on taste and not to over complicate food and unlike today's celebrity chefs, Alain governed his kitchen and restaurant with the utmost respect; there was no shouting or foul language. Sadly he died in his early 40s but his style of cooking and his management skills, especially in the kitchen, had a huge impact on Michel.
This year Le Gavroche celebrates its 40th anniversary. The style has changed very little, although since Michel took over from his father in 1991, and without the constraints of working within the confines of his father's coveted three Michelin stars, a little more experimentation is visible and a lot of the heavy richness associated with bourgeois French cuisine has gone. "The menus are more innovative and the French style is lighter," explains Albert who despite working as a consultant for Sofitel St. James Hotel still finds time to dine in the restaurant three or four times a week. He has very little input these days apart from remaining on the board and offering constructive criticism as a customer when he feels it is needed.
The former 'chef extraordinaire' has opted for a passive seat it would seem. "Was he a hard taskmaster?" I asked Michel, "Oh yes," he says, with furrowed brow and an expression revealing stressful flashbacks, "of course, a very hard taskmaster," and then smiles. As for losing a Michelin star he is quick to point out that he cooks for his customers not for Michelin and his loyal customers and the steady stream of new diners passing through the doors certainly don't seem to be bothered.
Perhaps we are more aware of cholesterol or maybe our palates have become accustomed to so many other international cultures but although the style remains classically French, there is a hint of the orient in many dishes. Michel spent some time working in Hong Kong and would have loved to have stayed longer in Asia or worked in his favourite restaurants, Nobu or Zuma. Both father and son and Silvano Giraldin, Maitre D' for 36 years, put the Le Gavroche's continuing success down to not following trends or fashion.
They stick to what they know best; using quality seasonal ingredients cooked to their tried and tested formulas. In the spring, the menu features British asparagus, which in Michel's view is the best in the world, British langoustine, scallops, Gull's eggs with their almost brown yolks from the Welsh coast, Scottish or Welsh wild salmon and sea trout and the freshest fish caught off our own shores. Venison, pigeon, rabbit and wood-pigeon are also regulars, and when the season and availability allows during the autumn and winter months, grouse, pheasant and partridge are all popular favourites.
The game season perhaps evokes the most passion from the staff who love shooting and fishing. Silvano, when time allows, is a regular at the West London Shooting School and has teamed up with clay pigeon shoot champion George Digweed for a charity competition in the past. But he loves shooting pheasants and partridges and particularly grouse. "I am a lucky man," he explains with effortless charm and a wickedly seductive smile, "I love shooting all game and over the years I have been invited to some very fine shoots by our customers."
The first grouse of the season is Michel's favourite; he doesn't now shoot, partly due to lack of time, but his excitement about game is tangible. "There is something about grouse," says Michel, "around the 19th or 20th August when it has been hanging for three to four days, cook it and serve it the traditional way. Roast with some bacon, make a good gravy from the roasting juices and add some toast topped with the liver and heart, a nicely spiced bread sauce and even some fried breadcrumbs and most importantly of all, cook it on the bone."
Albert no longer shoots because of a bad hip but loves taking his chocolate labrador, Canelle, aged 9, that he trained himself and swears has never let him down, to pick up or load. "We don't get out as much as I would like, but we stay out for as long as we can until we are both exhausted," he says. He is also a keen fisherman and fishes all over the world; Iceland, Australia, Florida for bonefish, Sweden for pike, Scotland for salmon and sea trout and shares his passion with his wife who is also keen to fly-fish. He loves a beautifully, fresh, wild salmon, tenderly poached with a light hollandaise sauce. Like his son though, he believes roast grouse is hard to beat and jugged hare and pheasant would be close but secondary contenders.
There is great energy and passion in both Albert and Michel that is reflected in every attention to detail at Le Gavroche. From the welcome you receive from Silvano, with his photographic eye for a face and memory for a name to the unique and exquisitely crafted silver sculptures on every table made by an artist in south west France.
The Roux family is synonymous with fine food, not forgetting Uncle Michel and cousin Alain at their three Michelin-starred Waterside Inn at Bray in Oxfordshire. The last 40 years have proved that they can withstand ever-changing fashions and competition and continue to prize an enviable reputation.