For many years, Michel Roux Jr was the face of one of the most popular culinary programmes on the BBC. Television, in particular Masterchef, was a significant part of his life but now he is focusing on other projects and on his restaurants.
In Britain, the surname Roux is synonymous with the qualities of French haute cuisine. It all started with his father and uncle in 1967 who opened Le Gavroche. Since then, the restaurant has been a London institution marking a revolution of restaurants in London.
An award-winning chef, Michel Roux is known for his deep respect for the classical foundations of French cooking. He loves simplicity and classic combinations.
He now has three restaurants in London. Le Gavroche, which he took over in 1991 from his father, is classic French with a lighter modern twist and his two recent openings are Roux at Parliament Square and Roux at the Landau.
A Frenchman in the UK. You have successfully followed in your father’s footsteps and not only, you have also become a TV personality in your own right. Are you missing the TV experience following many years hosting MasterChef among others?
I’ve had some great experiences with television. MasterChef was obviously a significant part of my life for some time but I am now enjoying having a little more time for myself, other off screen projects and my restaurants.
How important has the TV experience been for you?
There is no doubt that it has developed my profile here in the UK and has also given me the chance to be part of some really inspiring food based programmes.
What impact does TV have on the restaurant business? Does it help or distract young chefs who might be thinking of pursuing a media career as well?
If cookery on television can either encourage an interest in food and cooking among the general public, or can inspire young chefs that will be the future of the industry, then this is certainly a positive thing.
I think what’s important for a young chef is to always remember that you are chef first. For me that hasn’t been too difficult as cooking is what I am most passionate about. I live to provide menus and dishes that delight those who eat them.
How difficult was it to follow in your father’s footsteps? What influence did he have on your style of cooking?
I have so much respect for my father but taking over Le Gavroche in the early 90s was a challenging time for me. It was the time that my father and I felt that I was ready, but it was certainly tough, probably the toughest time in my life. In terms of the food, I couldn’t bring myself to do a complete change, I had too much respect for what my father and uncle had built up over the years, so I always felt that Le Gavroche had to continue on as it was under me. I have definitely clashed with my father a few times over the years, when I’ve wanted to bring in new dishes or ideas to the business over the years, but mainly we have a very good relationship.
Britain suffers from a bad culinary reputation for those not in the know, though over the past years it has emerged as one of the most exciting scenes in the world if not the best. What has led to this revival? Where do you see the British scene heading in the coming years?
It seems Britain is more concerned than ever with the provenance of food and this seems to have created a more discerning diner. Restaurants have to meet these standards. Even country pubs are serving incredible food now. It’s not just restaurants in central London like Le Gavroche serving high quality food, which keeps us all on our toes!
Looking back at France, what are your views of the culinary scene in France?
I may be biased but I do believe France has one of the most impressive culinary scenes in the world. I think this is inspired by the role cooking and eating plays in family life. It’s central to it. Recipes are often passed down through generations and regionality in cooking is paramount and fiercely defended. All this seems to result in the professional culinary scene in going from strength to strength and constantly evolving. With restaurants like Le Lisita in Nimes and Chefs like Alain Ducasse at Brasserie Benoit, the French culinary scene has so much to offer.
Many people nowadays dream of becoming chefs. But it is obviously very hard work. What is your advice to young chefs taking that step today?
Ask questions and never give up.
You follow French classic cuisine but give it a modern twist. What inspires your creative process. How do you come up with new ideas?
I’m passionate about classic simplicity in cooking. So I am usually inspired by classic flavour combinations, such a sweet and sour or tomato and basil. These partnerships are the cornerstones of the classics that feature in my restaurants or recipe books. I don’t think there is a simple answer as to how I come up with new ideas. Sometimes they just come to me as I’m cooking at home or in the restaurant but a strong French influence and emphasis on quality produce is always at the core.
How long does it take you to create a new dish?
This is a question without any one definable answer. It varies!
Images and news travels extremely fast in today’s world. You know what is happening on the other side of the world instantly. What’s your view of all this. Is this killing creativity? Will we end up in future with an ‘international cuisine’ without any roots of the location and the tradition?
I feel quite excited about this inevitable product of globalisation and developing technology. We are all learning so much about other cuisines and doing so in just a few clicks. The ability to share recipes and images of the food we are making in our homes around the world seems to me to be reinvigorating a love and passion for cooking and food and this can only be a good thing.
You are obviously seen as a mentor by many chefs also because of your previous role in MasterChef. Who are the new chefs to watch both in the UK and outside the UK?
I love being a mentor. You can’t be a good Chef unless you are prepared to pass on your skills to professionals and interested home cooks too.
Recent Roux Scholarship winner Tom Barnes is definitely one to watch. He’s already worked under Simon Rogan in his Michelin-starred restaurant so I’m sure we can expect big things from him.
How important are guides for you? Do you take any notice of bloggers? What influence do they have today?
International recognition is a wonderful thing to enjoy, and there is no question that the Michelin Star system has credibility amongst every restaurant goer and restaurateur, wherever they live. So that guide is important to us. Whilst we cook for our diners first and foremost, we are delighted to be recognised by Michelin and enjoy our two star status.
Blogs are becoming more and more important as many online restaurant critic bloggers are getting significant followings. Like standard print reviews, as an industry we need them; some are knowledgeable, and others are just humorous.
What are the main trends you see today in the gastronomy world?
Thai food seems to be set to make an impression on the gastronomy world.
There has been a big debate about photos of food in restaurants. Some chefs seem to hate it, others don’t mind. What’s your view?
Whilst it might be a compliment to the chef to see that the diner is appreciating the aesthetics of the food, I actually think the presence of phones, cameras and flashing lights can fundamentally affect the atmosphere in a restaurant. It just doesn’t feel very considerate.
Who would you consider to be your mentors?
I have worked with a number of tremendous chefs over the years, all of whom have been an inspiration to me. Growing up I saw my father and uncle working in Le Gavroche when it was originally located on Sloane Street. I learnt a lot in those years.
At the very start of my career, I worked with Maitre Patissier Hellegouarche and the legendary Alan Chapel, both of whom made a great impression on me and were like mentors – and, of course, I continued to work with some fantastic chefs at Le Gavroche over the years who continue to inspire me.
Food waste is a major issue and many believe that this will be the theme for 2015. What can we do to tackle the issue and raise awareness?
One solution is to ensure people know how to use all the food they purchase. Making simple recipes readily available for consumers is important.
On a business level, there is also a lot of bureaucracy around sell by dates and food disposal. I don’t have the solution to these but there’s certainly a lot to think about for policy makers and government as far as this is concerned.
The chef that has impressed you most in your career?
I have worked with so many great chefs that I couldn’t possibly name one. However, a celebrity chef who I admire is Rick Stein.
Your best ever meal?
Lobster served with Gosset Champagne.
Favourite places to eat in the UK? And outside?
In the UK Zuma, Nobu, Chez Bruce… There are too many to mention. I’d have to say that La Lisita in Nimes is my favourite outside of the UK.