The Roux Legacy revealed

The four famous foodies discuss growing up and growing older in a family of chefs

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The Roux Legacy revealed
Written By
Claire Webb

Michel Jr on his father Albert

“My father more or less disappeared” 

I was seven when my father Albert and Uncle Michel opened Le Gavroche in Mayfair in 1967, and that was it — my father more or less disappeared.

I would see him when he woke me at an unearthly hour to take me around Smithfield, Billingsgate and Covent Garden, when it was still a flower, fruit and vegetable market. It was my job to carry the big leather satchel with all the cash. 

Everyone knew the two mad Frenchmen with their total disregard for the unions. The markets were heavily unionised back then: you couldn’t pay and walk off with your side of beef; you had to hire a porter. My father and uncle pleaded incomprehension: we’re French, we don’t understand! So these incensed porters would chase them down the road. Great fun.

At 16 I went to Paris for my apprenticeship; at 20 I undertook military service. After basic training I was assigned to the Elysée Palace, soon in charge of cooking for the President — first Giscard d’Estaing, then President Mitterrand’s gargantuan petit déjeuner: creamy scrambled eggs with smoked salmon, oysters and a vast array of cooked meats. 

Did I feel out of my depth? No, I don’t think we do, we Rouxs — though there was huge expectancy when my cousin Alain and I took over the restaurants. I’d been at Le Gavroche about three years when Father retired in 1991 — officially retired, that is. He still likes to have a say on the menu and I’d be a fool not to listen because he’s a wise man (whether I take heed or not!). It’s very difficult to take over but equally as difficult, I think, to let go. 

My daughter Emily is in her third year at catering school in Lyon. She’s very much like me: from the moment she could cook an egg, which was young, she always said she wanted to be a chef.

Albert on his son Michel Jr

“Handing the restaurant to my son was easy”

My earliest memory is of seeing my baby brother Michel for the first time. I was five and I thought: “My God, what’s this?” I love my brother very dearly, but that’s not to say he didn’t get on my nerves. He still does!

During the war our parents were very hard up, but my mother would cook something appetising with next to nothing. I’ve happy memories of the family sitting together around the table: blessing the bread, cutting the bread, sharing a meal that was put on the table after a day’s slogging by my father. Perhaps that’s why food and family are so important to me, to us.

At the age of 13, I thought the priesthood was my vocation. I won’t go into detail, but I had an encounter with a priest that put me off. So I decided to train as a pâtissier in a pastry shop in the little town where we lived outside Paris, Saint-Mandé.

Had I been a fireman, Michel would have enrolled in the fire brigade: he was always going to do what his big brother did. I had just turned 18 when I was told of a job as private chef to a wealthy household in England. Michel came eight years later for the opening of Le Gavroche.

Back then there was more of a battle to find ingredients than there is today, so we’d go to the markets ourselves to see what was on offer and how fresh it was; we couldn’t rely on a supplier.

In the kitchen, we complemented each other: I am better at the sauce side, whereas Michel is a more accomplished pâtissier. I did the maître d’s job as Michel couldn’t speak English for the first year and couldn’t be let loose front of house.

When Le Gavroche became the first restaurant in Britain to win a Michelin star [in 1974], it didn’t affect me at all. I don’t work for Michelin; I work for my bank account and my customer, that’s what drives me. I was over the moon when Michel Junior decided to follow in my footsteps.

Handing over the restaurant to him was easy. I left that day, never to come back; and I never did. I started a second career in the hotel and restaurant business. It surprises me when people ask if I’ll retire to France: I will never retire and certainly never to France. I feel like a foreigner in France; I will die in this country.

I tease my brother about being unpatriotic because he’s moved to Switzerland. I consider myself more English than the whole nation put together and I’m a strong royalist — at Le Gavroche I cooked many, many times for the Queen Mum. God Save the Queen!

Michel Sr on his brother Albert

“I always looked up to my big brother Albert” 

I always looked up to my big brother Albert and he always looked after me. When we were at school, he would scare off bullies.

Our father and grandfather were charcutiers. When you’re born above a charcuterie, every day has a different flavour — one day it is pâté, another day it is sausages or rillettes or ham. You eat food, you breathe food, you talk about food: food is in the blood.

Like Albert, I was apprenticed as a pâtissier when I turned 14. But in my 20s I nearly abandoned cooking to be an opera singer. Instead I chose to come to the UK because Albert was here, but I kept my big voice. When I was in charge in the kitchen, I didn’t need a microphone!

In the late 1960s, British cuisine was still in the Dark Ages. I still shudder at the memory of the sliced bread, bleached so frighteningly white. Even in good restaurants, the menu comprised 20 or 30 dishes that were frozen or cooked far in advance. At Le Gavroche, we cooked short menus à la minute: we brought fresh food to the British palate. We were revolutionary.

Albert and I were partners for nearly two decades, sweating together for 12, 14, 16 hours a day. We were always thinking of new things, wanting to develop. We worked with the best idea, it didn’t matter which of us had it. It’s like when we cook: Albert has a slightly different style, more classic, but it doesn’t matter — it’s food on the plate and it will be as good as mine, if not better.

Alain is my only child born in the UK. He was ten years old when I divorced his mother, who took him back to France. He used to visit during the holidays and hang around the kitchen, peeling potatoes or prepping vegetables. Aged 14, he phoned me out of the blue: “Dad, I want to be a cook and I’d like you to guide me, to tell me where I should start my apprenticeship.” I was very proud and very concerned: it is a tough job. 

Family comes second because you are married to your job. Cooking is something you live for, something you love and are exhausted by at the end of the day. It’s no coincidence that both Albert and I are divorced.

Alain on Michel Sr

“Dad is a perfectionist”

I didn’t have much of a father at first. Dad had been running Le Gavroche with Uncle for less than a year when I was born. You have to give 100 per cent of your time to a new restaurant so he was hardly ever home. 

Then my parents divorced and Mum moved me and my two sisters to France. The only time I got to spend time with Dad was during the school holidays. Even then he was stuck in the kitchen and it was sometimes wise to steer clear. 

Yet I was lucky: that month every year at the Waterside Inn (at Bray in Berkshire, opened in 1972) was my favourite time of year because it was in the countryside, on the Thames. There can’t be a better spot for a boy who loves fishing. When I wasn’t running off with a rod and bait, I used to stand in a corner of the kitchen and watch the show. 

I was always moving, seeing what the pastry chef was up to; sneaking into the dining room, behind the bar, reception, even the front desk. I fell in love with the whole thing, not just food: being part of a big team practically living together because of the hours; a big family. You don’t count the hours you work in this trade. 

I can remember the first dessert I made for Dad: poached pear, scooped out, filled with caramel mousse, served with chocolate sauce. I was an apprentice at the time. I’ve been cooking at the Waterside for 20 years and the first ten were alongside Dad. I was 23 with eight years’ experience, but I started at the bottom and worked my way up.

Dad was very professional; a very honest teacher. He still is, every time he comes over, because he’s a perfectionist. It’s sort of good — although sometimes I don’t agree and change it as soon as he turns his back! I think all we Rouxs are different in the kitchen. 

Being a chef is a little like being a sportsman: you have the preparation, and you’ve already lost if you don’t do that properly. During the service it’s all about speed, focus and working as a synchronised team. At the Waterside I cook with a team of between 24 and 28. It’s quite a challenge. Just like after a match, you feel you need a good drink afterwards — a nice cold beer. I became a father nine months ago.

My son Paul is a joy, a big eater, naturellement — his favourite dish is carrot purée with veal. Will he continue the Roux legacy? We’ll see. As soon as I can, I’ll certainly be asking him to wash up because there’s always stacks to do.

This is an edited version of an article in the issue of Radio Times magazine published 31 January 2012

You can find out more about the Rouxs tonight in The Roux Legacy at 8pm on Good Food

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