Michel Roux Jr


Michel Roux Jr

A true master of classical French cooking, Michel Roux Jr’s household name status is a testament to his skill in the kitchen at his legendary London restaurant Le Gavroche.

Many of us know Michel Roux Jr from his TV appearances over the years – MasterChef: The Professionals, Saturday Kitchen, Food and Drink – but he is by no means a ‘TV chef’. He’s still hard at work behind the pass at Le Gavroche, one of the most famous restaurants in the UK. Part of the Roux family, a dynasty which has had a hugely profound impact on the UK’s food scene, he has continued the work of his father Albert Roux and late, great uncle Michel, maintaining Le Gavroche’s reputation for being a bastion of classical French cookery in the capital.

It seems as though Michel was always destined to become a chef; not only was it in his blood, but he has been in kitchens since the day he was born – literally. ‘My father was working as a private chef in Kent, cooking for the Queen Mother’s horse trainers, when I was born,’ he explains. ‘It was a huge estate, with a very Downton Abbey, Upstairs Downstairs type of house. My mum was there as a kitchen helper, as it was only the two of them in the kitchen, and she went into labour whilst working. She was rushed to hospital, I popped out, and the very next day all three of us were back in the kitchen. There was no time off or nannies or anything like that – they just went straight back to work.’

Growing up, Michel was given pots, pans and little pieces of pastry (‘instead of plasticine’) to play with, while his parents cooked. This, of course, meant Michel’s early years were filled with memories of food. ‘My earliest memory was when I was probably about six and making vanilla ice cream with my father. He would make it in a wooden pail with crushed ice and salt, with an iron cylinder inside and wooden paddles so you could churn the ice cream by hand.’

This upbringing meant Michel didn’t ever consider becoming anything else than a chef, and when he turned sixteen he set off for France to begin an apprenticeship in a pastry shop with a master pâtissier named Monsieur Hellegouarche. He then worked with his father and uncle at Le Gavroche for a season, before returning to France to train under Alain Chapel at a restaurant called Mionnay. French military service followed, then after a few more months working at restaurants across Paris, he returned to the UK and joined the Roux fold permanently.

Stints at The Waterside Inn and Le Gavroche followed, before Michel took on the Roux’s catering business and managed the business for three years. In 1987 he returned to Le Gavroche full-time, officially taking on the head chef role in 1991. Michel has been at the helm of the restaurant ever since.

‘I’ve been involved with Le Gavroche in some sense for forty-odd years now,’ he says. ‘In some ways the restaurant has changed a lot over that time, but in others it has remained the same. There are certain things you don’t want to change because there are three generations of guests that come here. Grandparents take their grandchildren just to eat the cheese soufflé, almost like a rite of initiation. The restaurant has of course evolved, but I think it’s important that we keep those traditional elements in place.’

That’s not to say the food has stayed the same over the decades. Michel has ensured the Old-World luxury and sense of occasion has moved with the times. ‘The food we serve now is definitely lighter than what you’d find twenty years ago. The turbot dish we serve, for instance, is a perfect example of that. It’s still true to its roots, being cooked on the bone and served with a cream velouté sauce, but it’s not as heavy as you might expect from a classical French restaurant. We’re still very French and very classical, so we don’t mess around too much with foams and gels and sous vide cooking. We do those a bit, but what we concentrate on more than anything else is those classic core skills in the kitchen.’

While the food has evolved in a more subtle way, the service and overall feel of a meal at Le Gavroche is what Michel has really focused on over the years. ‘There was a time, right after I took over from my father, that the front of house team was incredible stiff and formal. You’d barely hear people talk in the dining room – it was all very hush hush, almost paying reverence to the place, which I didn’t like. So I got the staff to start engaging with the guests, to talk and to introduce themselves. We relaxed the dress code so ties weren’t required, and now jackets aren’t either, just to lighten things up a bit. It’s always going to be a formal place to eat, however, which I think is what people expect. But I think the whole experience you have when eating at Le Gavroche is what’s really changed.’

While Michel has always been incredibly respected within the industry, what made him a household name is his TV work. His warm, amiable demeanour made him an instant favourite, as both a judge on the likes of MasterChef and taking on more of a presenting role for shows like Saturday Kitchen. While chefs these days certainly enjoy plenty of screen time, few can hold a candle to how naturally Michel comes across.

‘I don’t act when I’m on TV – it’s just me,’ he says. ‘I think that’s probably why people enjoyed watching me on television; there was no pretence or façade. I suppose I come across as confident as well, as I know what I’m doing. If it’s a cooking show, I’ve got lots of experience and can talk about food until the cows come home. What I found a little more difficult were live shows like Saturday Kitchen. I did a few dummy runs to build up the confidence but it’s a tough gig when you’ve never done it before! Cooking I can do, but to talk at the same time, ensuring everything is relevant and to keep the conversation flowing, is very hard.’

Michel does less television work these days, but still dips in and out every now and then. ‘If I said yes to every pitch, I would never be here in the restaurant,’ he says. ‘And the one thing which I don’t want people to think of me as is a celebrity TV chef. I’m a chef that cooks in their own kitchen – I spend more time at Le Gavroche than I do anywhere else.’

It’s clear that Le Gavroche is Michel’s true focus, and everything he has done over the years has been to benefit the restaurant. But with the restaurant now over fifty years old and Michel himself turning sixty, what are his next steps?

‘Who knows what’s going to happen? My daughter Emily has opened Caractère with her husband Diego, and they’re doing really, really well. But what about Le Gavroche? Am I going to carry on forever? My father is eighty-four and still fairly active, but turning sixty is a time to contemplate and think. I can’t ever see myself stopping completely, but maybe a few less hours and taking my foot off the gas a bit is the way to go. It’ll give me more time to go fishing and do the things I love outside of the kitchen.’