“Asperger’s, autism, Down’s syndrome,” Michel Roux Jr lists some of the conditions that the young people he mentors in Channel 4’s Kitchen Impossible with Michel Roux Jr live with. “I had never encountered them before so it was very hard, but I adapted. Tourette syndrome, though!” He half throws his hands in the air, a gesture straight from his six- year stint on MasterChef: the Professionals. “The physical ticks, the very very crude language…Tourette syndrome absolutely shocked me.”
We’re in the first-floor bar of Roux at Parliament Square, Roux’s pricey – that’s £23 for a duck egg pricey – restaurant between the Houses of Parliament and Buckingham Palace. Below us in the kitchen and dining room there’s a febrile scurry as participants and crew prepare for tonight’s service.
It’s the culmination of a series in which Roux serves as guide and overseer of eight young people with varying disabilities attempting to learn skills that could lead to a career in the hospitality industry. Upstairs there’s just me, the opulent fittings, Roux and, as I’ll find out, his occasionally remarkable opinions.
Roux left MasterChef: the Professionals and the BBC in 2014 after refusing to renounce his paid endorsement of Bartlett potatoes. He was replaced by Marcus Wareing (who trained at Le Gavroche, the Michelin-starred London restaurant run by Roux’s father Albert and Uncle Michel) and left the ranks of BBC celebrity chefs, though he disagrees sharply with the description. “I’m not a celebrity chef,” he says. “A celebrity chef is a chef who spends more time on television than in their kitchen. The television work that I have done is a by-product of my job, it has never ever taken over my life.”
Despite its sour ending, he claims he liked his time at the BBC: “I have enjoyed telly, absolutely all of it.” But it’s clear he was tired of the corporation’s relentless need to make food programming competition based. When I question the format of Bake Off and MasterChef, he shakes his head and states, “Beating people is not the best way to approach life. It’s wrong.” At one point I refer to the young people in Kitchen Impossible as contestants. “Don’t call them contestants,” Roux almost snaps. “They’re not competing.”
Kitchen Impossible doesn’t aim to create a winner but simply to advance the participants’ self-esteem and basic skills so they are able to attend a job interview with some confidence. Roux has a record of good works. He’s a patron of Victa, the charity for blind and partially sighted children, and even though First Class Chefs, his children’s cookery show for the Disney Channel, is a competition, the £10,000 prize money goes to a socially useful project.
In BBC2’s Michel Roux’s Service he trained kids “from broken homes and disaffected backgrounds” as waiters. This led, memorably, to a Roquefort-wielding teenager yelling, “‘Oo wants cheese” across a high-class restaurant. It was a brave show,” says Roux, now 55 and thinner than ever, his face etched with worry lines.
“But this is braver. It’s been emotional. You want to hug them and cajole but that’s doing them a disservice. You have to push them.” How do you push someone with Down’s or Tourette syndrome? “Exactly,” he says. “It isn’t easy. There have been moments where we all felt downhearted. Asked, ‘Where do we go from here?’ ”
Roux is defensive when I suggest such a show risks exploiting vulnerable people. “There is a duty of care,” he says. “And I take pride in what I do, I would never do any telly work that I am not 100 per cent behind.” He’s already told me that one girl with Down’s syndrome became upset at the prospect of parting when the show ends. “I said, ‘Don’t be silly, we are going to see each other again. This is just the beginning.’ ”
It wasn’t an empty offer: Roux is still in contact with Roux scholars dating back 30 years, and all MasterChef: the Professionals finalists. “It’s not in my contract,” he says. “It’s not part of the deal but it’s very important for me to know how they are doing. It’s a personal mission.”