Foodie Features

The Roux Dynasty

By Jenny Linford

These are exciting times for the renowned Roux family and there is a celebratory mood in the air at Le Gavroche. This year sees Michel Roux Jr. celebrating 25 years at the restaurant, whilst 2017 brings the 50th anniversary of its foundation.

There is another reason, a personal one, why Michel Roux Jr. is feeling proud: his daughter Emily, now 25 years old, is stepping into the limelight, happy to tell the world that she will be following in her father’s, grandfather’s and great uncle’s footsteps. Having trained and worked as a chef in France, Emily has returned to London to work in the world of restaurants. She will debut her cooking in London at Le Gavroche, at an aptly named New Generation event.

Meeting three generations of the Roux family – a family who have been so influential in shaping Britain’s restaurant culture – is a fascinating experience. Albert Roux, impeccably dressed in a suit, formidable, charismatic, humorous, a wonderful storyteller; Michel Roux Jr., with his penetrating gaze, talking courteously with thoughtful, assured intelligence; and Emily, youthful, with a wonderful smile, and a great energy about her. Each of them is an individual in their own right, very different from one another; yet they share a drive, a certain toughness, a willingness to work hard and a commitment to doing what they do to the very best of their abilities, each professional to the fingertips.  That this is a close-knit family is manifest when one sees them together: the affection with which Michel treats ‘Papa Roux’, the humour as they speak, often teasingly, to each other and a sense of pride when they talk of each other. Each of them switches effortlessly from English to French, and then back again, reflecting the continued importance of France, with its great culinary heritage, in their sense of identity.

The roots of that family drive to achieve are clear in Albert Roux’s story, which he tells with emphatic relish and a wonderful French accent, retained despite his decades in Britain. He came over in 1953 at the age of 18 years old: ‘It was just as if they sent me to the moon.’ He remembers being asked by the chauffeur if he’d like a cup of tea at a Lyons teahouse, and his amazement at seeing him bring out coupons – tea and sugar were still rationed. He began his career in England working as a servant in great houses; ‘I was not cooking, my dear; I was, what you would say in good English, a scullery boy. I worked my way up. After six months, I started to get near the stove.’

Shrewd and imaginative, Albert felt that there was a gap in the market for Le Gavroche. ‘What was on offer here – Caprice, Mirabelle – there were about three or four restaurants who were offering those kind of dinners, where the food was’- here he pauses and shakes his hand in an expressive  ‘so so’ gesture – ‘in my view,’ he emphasises. ‘We wanted to offer something new, a shorter menu and lighter cuisine, without losing the base of our identity which was fundamentally classic French.’

Albert brought over his brother Michel Roux to work in partnership with him setting up Le Gavroche, fulfilling the brothers’ long-held dream to work together.  That bond can be traced back to their childhood, Albert explains, when his father left the family while the children were young. ‘Mum was our jewel. She had to go and scrub floors. When I was in Scotland earning £5 a week I used religiously to send £4 to my mum. Michel and I were always very close and we were always going to be in business together. We used to write to each other and say “To my future associate”.’

With regards to Emily, his granddaughter, Albert declares, he is ‘extremely excited she has decided to come back here. She has my blessing, though, I would tell her if I felt what she was embarking on was not financially right. That is my duty.  She is,’ he adds, ‘a very forceful young woman and she has ideas of her own for her future.’

Michel Roux Jr.’s love of food was apparent ever since he was a boy, although Albert thought that his son might become an architect.  ‘When Michel had finished his O-levels, I asked him what he wanted to do and he said “Dad, I’m surprised you’re asking. I want to be a chef.” Michel trained as a chef in France rather than with Albert, working there for some years before returning to England and working at Le Gavroche, taking over the running of it in 1991.

Before Michel Roux Jr. settles down to talk to me, having first politely excused himself, he adjusts two pictures on the wall, carefully straightening them, then, satisfied, sits down. It is a small thing but a telling one – both the courtesy and the perfectionism are revealing of the man himself.  Thinking back to his extensive training in France, he talks of the impact of his ‘first boss’ Henri Hellegouarche.  ‘Very much a mentor figure. Very rarely did he shout in the kitchen. You would follow him through thick and thin because of the respect he commanded through his authority. I think it’s important, especially in your first few jobs as an apprentice, that you have people that you can see as a role model, someone about which you think that’s the way I want to work, who instils values and respect.’ Of course, Michel, like his father and uncle before him, is a role model himself. Working with young people is, he agrees, a Roux trait. ‘My father and uncle have worked with so many young people and go into colleges inspiring young boys and girls to come into our industry which is so, so important. That’s definitely something I’ve embraced and wish to continue. With the Kitchen Impossible series I was working with people with disabilities. Sometimes people just need a chance. It doesn’t take that much time or effort for someone like me and can make so much difference.’ He feels deeply that working in kitchens can be life changing for the disaffected and is eloquent on the subject. ‘They have a sense of belonging, a sense of being important – and that’s what a restaurant can give, because if you’re prepared to put in the hard work then you can very quickly become an important member of team. That makes you feel good inside yourself, gives you self-respect.’ He talks animatedly of what’s required at Le Gavroche: ‘Running a restaurant is challenging as well. Every day you have different clients with expectations that you have to be able to match and exceed, which is,’ he widens his eyes expressively, ‘a challenge.’

The opening of Le Gavroche in 1967 was a great success. ‘I had the Who’s Who of Great Britain here on the opening day,’ Albert tells me with evident relish. ‘Dukes, duchesses, artists like Noel Coward; they all came. Fur coats piled on each other. The next day the phone didn’t stop ringing and we’ve been packed ever since.’ A born raconteur, Albert regales me with restaurant tales, including the time when the manager was alarmed at the arrival of a party of ‘hooligans’ in sheepskin coats who had reserved a table– it was, in fact, the Rolling Stones.

The musicians were unrecognised by Michel Roux on front of house that night, who, when Albert told him who these diners were, memorably asked, ‘Who are the Rolling Stones?’

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Twenty-five years at Le Gavroche and, next year, fifty years since it opened are significant moments. ‘Milestone after milestone and they’re important ones. You look back and think, wow, where did that time go?’ It’s a time for reflection, Michel feels. ‘The name Le Gavroche has become an icon almost. It’s a place that people look up to, and know about – it has a worldwide reputation. It’s amazing; sometimes I have to pinch myself. It is something special,’ he smiles happily. Dining at Le Gavroche, he says, is an all-round experience. ‘It’s not just about the food; it’s the service, the buzz, the atmosphere, the décor, and the feel of the place. Everyone has a special occasion they want to mark, and wants to be pampered now and then.  Over the years we’ve evolved and become less formal with the service. But we remain classic, we have all the trappings, all the foibles. I think every restaurant has to be individual – wouldn’t it be boring if every restaurant was the same?’

This is also, he asserts ‘a time to look at the future’, with the New Generation events part of this. Le Gavroche will be closing on Mondays, “which means everyone gets some time off, so staff will be less tired.” The closure gives Michel the chance to hold occasional events and ‘have a little fun, experiment, do things that we wouldn’t ordinarily be able to do.’  He might he suggests do charity events, bring in Roux scholars or past chefs . . . Ever practical, he is aware of the logistics: ‘Because they are just an evening event, with a set menu, I could run it with very few staff.’ Fittingly, the first New Generation event features Michel and his daughter Emily. He reveals that she ‘was always interested in food, always wanted to be a chef.’ As her father, while pleased at her interest, he also had concerns: ‘I know of course how hard it is.  All you can do is open their eyes and say how tough it is, that these are the hours we do. We certainly didn’t push her into it at all. It was her choice. I remember last year when I went to see her in Paris and she looked absolutely knackered, more knackered than me, and had burns all the way up her hand. At the end of the week, though, she had a really big smile on her face and said she had a really tough week but that it was great.’

Le Gavroche, of course, has been part of Emily’s life since she was very young. ‘My Dad bought me some mini chef whites when I was small, about seven years old, and I would help the guys and I just used to find it really fun. My job was to peel tomatoes to make concasse. They would do the scalding, I would peel, then slice to get out the pips – we’re talking about 10kg’. She laughs at the memories. ‘That would take me all night. I was really happy doing that – the only person who wasn’t happy was my mother when I came home in a tomato-red outfit!’

Talking with both vivacity and firmness, Emily describes her journey to becoming a chef; something she had set her heart on at age 14. Her parents were adamant that she should carry on at school, get good grades and ‘then we’ll see’. After getting ‘great grades’ in her Baccalaureate, Emily headed off to the Paul Bocuse Institute in Lyons to train. One of her reasons for training in France, rather than England, was to make her own way. ‘I knew that if I put one step in a kitchen, I’d be “daughter of . . .” which is absolutely not what I wanted and that is why I left. The name Roux is like Smith in France, so I was very Joe Blogg, which was great.’ She relished the camaraderie of catering college, the sense of having found her métier. ‘I was quite different from other kids at school, in the sense that I hate McDonalds and we didn’t have the same conversation. When I got to the Institute, there were 1000s of me everywhere! We all gelled; it was like one big family.’

The course involved two internships, the first, as Emily shrewdly observes, ‘to say are you sure this is for you? A few people left after this, so then you have the people who really want to go forward with it.’ Emily worked in Paris at La Table du Lancaster; ‘It was a very hard experience in the beginning. The first week was’ – she pauses to emphasise what she’s saying – ‘tough, mentally and physically. Your body has to get to grips with standing 16 hours a day. At first, you do jobs like peeling vegetables, passing things through sieves. That changed very quickly when they grasped I was hardworking, didn’t complain about the hours and was very happy to be there,’ she smiles broadly.  Having recognised her work ethos, Emily worked as commis to the fish section: ‘Preparing all the garnishes for the person cooking the fish and, when there was a bit of a rush, I’d do some plating as well, which was amazing. Just doing things right, being part of a team, feeling included in the brigade.”

Emily’s second, longer internship was at Alain Ducasse’s legendary Le Louis XV in Monaco. ‘I did that in pastry because my grandfather and father told me, you will do pastry!’ she laughs. ‘I prefer savoury food, but I thought it was important to learn about it.’ It was another hardworking experience, working as one of four. The recipes were ‘classic Ducasse – they were quite simple recipes, very well done. Everything is done to the moment, so the baba au rhum is tempered then and there; the pineapple is roasted for each customer, which is rare. It is very different from how other pastry sections work, which was good to see. Because its three star Michelin, they have the chocolate, marshmallows, caramels, so I had to do that as well. A huge amount of work for four people. I learnt immensely from that place.’ Working in pastry, as the family had advised, was useful, Emily acknowledges. Thinking back on what she gained, she says, ‘Focussing, concentrating – your eyes are always on the scale, which is what I dislike, but it’s important. It’s the precision and it’s a lot of organisation. For example, we had two scales for four of us, so you have 10 minutes to scale out everything you need for the day. You have boxes everywhere and you fly through the day. You get used to it after a month or so.’ Another result of the time in Monaco was that, while working there, she met her husband-to-be Diego Ferrari, an Italian chef.

When Diego was offered a ‘very good position in Paris’, Emily also moved to the French capital and found herself a job, working first at Le 395. She was, however, ‘hungry for more’, and moved on to work for Chef Akrame Benallal at his eponymous restaurant, where she stayed for two years, working her way up to be a Junior Sous-Chef. She talks about her time there with a real enthusiasm. ‘It was crazy! He’s very different from most chefs, in the sense he has an imagination, which is beyond belief. He works in a very different way – very spur of the moment – which was challenging. He’d go into market in the morning and return with three cauliflowers and say, right we’re putting cauliflower on the menu, when we’d already prepped everything for lunch. So you turn it around, learn a new skill, do something completely different.’ She is admiring of Akrame’s culinary creativity. ‘Peas were in season and he did a dish with pea and peppermints – you wouldn’t think to use a sweet in that way, but it was fantastic.’ Black charcoal powder was another favourite ingredient: ‘Completely black plates, black ice cream, black caramel.’

Autumn 2015 saw Emily and her fiancé move to London; ‘great to be back in London, we’ve never been in a better place when it comes to food here.’ The couple have a plan in mind, she explains:  ‘The project is to do something together, open our own place. We thought London would be a better scene for this than Paris, which is less open to the young, the different, the dynamic.’ When it comes to her own cooking style, Emily feels ‘the couple of years with L’Akrame have brushed off, in the sense that I like bold colours, bold tastes. I’m also quite health-conscious, a lot less butter and cream. It’ll take some time to find my own path, we’ll see.’ She is palpably very happy indeed in her chosen career. ‘If you’re not enjoying working in a kitchen, why would you do it? I am very outgoing; I always get on with the people I work with. That’s why I love the industry and I love working in a kitchen, because you have your own little family where you work – and most days it goes well and it’s fun.’ There is no doubt that the ‘new generation’ of the Roux family will be one to watch with interest.

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