Michel Roux Jnr on the joys of simplicity, the decline of the rock and roll chef, and the rebirth of Roux at The Landau

Words: Clare Finney

Saturday Kitchen. Masterchef. Hell’s Kitchen. Add in two Michelin stars, six books and the genetic blueprint of Albert Roux, and you have the definitive celebrity chef. Walking through the murmuring, tinkling Palm Court at The Langham, London, Michel Roux Jnr stops to wish a guest happy birthday, and she turns pink with delight, his well wishes clearly the cherry on top of the candlelit birthday financier. I am nervous about interviewing him, despite having met him briefly before, despite the smiling, generous manner of the hotel’s staff when I whisper, “Um, I’m here to see, um, Mr Roux? Junior?” on arrival. Yet at the risk of flogging to death the journalist-finds-famous-person-normal trope, the Michel Roux Jnr who greets me is a chef—catching his breath after checking out the redesign taking place at Roux at The Landau—not a TV star. If he had any airs about him when he arrived, they’ve been left with his coat by the door.

The Roux restaurants represent the ne plus ultra of classical French cuisine—yet Michel himself is really quite British. Born in Kent, he grew up on trifle, victoria sponge and meat puddings, made by the housekeeper at the Cazalet family’s country manor, where his father was a cook. At The Langham’s tavern, The Wigmore, Michel pays homage to these dishes: “The Wigmore takes be back to childhood, and Mrs Badbrook making her great British desserts and pies. She used to look after me when mum and dad were working,” he continues. “It was proper food: nothing fancy, but done fantastically well. My dad prepared classic French food—not foie gras or caviar or anything like that, but French technique applied to good, local ingredients.” Growing up at the Cazalets’, Michel didn’t really distinguish between French cuisine and British, or feel one was superior to the other. “I just had good food, cooked well.”

But when it came to his chef’s training, there was no doubt in which school he’d be versed. In 1970s Britain, it was French or nothing—and besides he was a Roux, son of Albert, nephew of Michel Senior. With the opening of Le Gavroche in 1967, his father and uncle changed the face of London fine dining. The chefs that came under their tutelage would become the lodestars of our food landscape: Marcus Wareing, Marco Pierre White, Gordon Ramsay, Pierre Koffmann, Rowley Leigh, and many more. No sooner was Michel Jnr out of primary school, he was in their kitchen, peeling potatoes and washing plates in return for pocket money. When I ask what he learnt from his parents, he replies: “Respect: for ingredients, but also for my peers and my elders.” He may have been born to a culinary genius, but that genius took great care not to bequeath Michel any silver spoons.

Culinary comfort zone
“Work ethic was instilled in me by my parents from a very young age,” he continues. At 16, he left for Paris, to serve as an apprentice to a master pâtissier, Henri Hellegouarch. After that, he trained under Alain Chapel, then served his French military service at the Élysée Palace. On returning to London, he joined Pierre Koffmann at La Tante Claire, then set off to Hong Kong for the Mandarin Oriental hotel. Here, he was out of his culinary comfort zone. “The different produce and ways of cooking—it was a real eye opener: steaming and frying in a high heat, for example, and flavours like ginger and coriander that were not really that readily available here, as they are these days.” It had, he says, “some influence”, small traces of which can be seen scattered lightly on various menus he’s worked on, “but I am a trained French chef, at the end of the day. I am not trained in Chinese or Japanese cuisine.”

He is still a pretty spring-like chicken—he is 57; his father, still working, is 82—but Michel Jnr has seen it all. Le Gavroche turned 50 last year, and he’s worked there since the 1980s. In that time, plenty of culinary fashions have come and go. Fusion food, for example. “A bit of fusion is great,” he says, pointing to the Norfolk black chicken gyozas on the old menu at Roux at The Landau, served with broad beans and lightly flavoured with lemongrass, “but you have to be careful not to create confusion. I think it is dangerous to dabble in different cuisines when you don’t have the skill or knowledge.”

Likewise foraging, a word that’s now de rigeur on London menus, but which is something Michel “just grew up doing. We’d find snails, pick mushrooms or racine de pissenlit [dandelion root]. We still do,” he says. When you see it on a menu, “whether it’s true or not is, in some cases, debatable. Whether it’s good or not is even more debatable—there are some things out there you can forage and they are bloody horrible,” he laughs. “But it has its positives. It has opened chefs’ eyes up a bit more to natural produce and seasonality”, two principles which, throughout his life, he’s considered the foundation of good food.

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Ingredient-led approach
They’re at the heart of Michel’s latest venture with The Langham, London: the transformation of Roux at The Landau into a more ingredient-led restaurant. “We wanted to make it more convivial, more accessible, and making our produce a centrepiece of the restaurant was one of the ways we thought we could do that,” he says excitedly. “We are converting one of our wine cellars into a mini cheese cave, which guests can go into, and we’re creating a display of our prosciutto di San Daniele and our fresh seafood.”

The chefs will work at a central island, at which couples or single diners can sit and watch their meal unfolding. “The new restaurant is about paring back, returning to the true essence of French cuisine, without unnecessary garnishes.” But I thought extravagant garnishing was the raison d’être of French cuisine? Such simple focus on a single ingredient is an approach I’d associate more with Italy, I venture nervously. “Actually, if you look at the recipes in my books, none of them have loads of garnishes. It is just the prime ingredient, and the sauce,” Michel corrects me kindly. “French food has had a bit of bad rap for being rich and overcomplicated, which it absolutely can be—but it’s technique and bringing panache to the table that make the difference between French and Italian food.”

Restaurant H, a restaurant Michel ate in recently in Paris, is a case in point. “No more than three or four ingredients on a plate, and great sauces. The red wine sauce with the beef—it was stick-your-bread-in-it stuff. I could have had a bowlful.” His face lights up at the memory. Roux at The Landau, Roux at Parliament Square and the family’s Scottish outposts cook along similar lines: “French food, but more contemporary—less formal in style,” he says. Think celeriac, goat’s cheese and dank quince with pungent black truffle; wild seabass with bright, vivid sorrel velouté; heritage carrots and the hot jelly of bone marrow jus served with the short ribs and pink roast fillet of beef. These aren’t the new Landau’s dishes—those will remain under wraps until the big reveal this month—but they are the sorts of meals you’ll find on Michel’s menus. In their composition and produce-led pursuit of perfection, they are typical ‘Roux’.

And then there’s Le Gavroche: the two Michelin-starred beacon of excellence tucked discreetly within a townhouse in Mayfair. The name alone conjures images of silver cutlery, stiff napkins and the barely perceptible hiss of cold, effervescing champagne. It can’t ever really change—the secret to its continued success is its constancy. But to remain relevant in this century, even the most ancient and prestigious of institutions must evolve.

Modernising without compromising
“I think the fact it hasn’t followed contemporary trends is one of the reasons Le Gavroche is still around, but it has evolved over the years. If you don’t you just stagnate.” It’s not been quick, nor radical—“revolution for its own sake would alienate our regular customers”—but Le Gavroche has succeeded in modernising without compromising its values or traditional roots. “Le Gavroche is still a stalwart. It is still very much a classic in its approach to food and service, but I think it’s in a league of its own,” Michel muses. “There’s a limit to how many Gavroches there can be in the world. The food is fairly, well, calorie-laden. You don’t want to eat it every day.”

The next time I speak to Michel he is calling from Le Gavroche, in a snatched few minutes before the evening service kicks off. “Bear with me,” he says above the rattling crescendo of the busy kitchen, “I just need to find my keys.” He’s hands-on as a chef: more comfortable in whites than in the natty suit he wore at The Langham—but as an employer and teacher, he also knows how to keep his distance. Each of his restaurants has a head chef of great talent managing the day to day running of the kitchen, and Michel takes pride in giving them their freedom. “It is very important the head chefs of each outlet have an input and take ownership of their particular restaurant—that it feels theirs.”

“It is the Roux style, and the Roux name above the door, but our head chefs don’t do it by rote. They have to bring their own soul to it,” he continues, “A recipe alone is not delicious. It’s the chef who brings it alive.”

The Roux family are strongly committed to investing in the next generation of chefs. Through their restaurants, an aspiring talent like Chris King can progress from trainee to executive chef of The Langham, London. Then there’s the prestigious Roux Scholarship scheme, now in its 35th year. “The scholarship’s first winner was Andrew Fairlie, who now has two Michelin stars at Gleneagles in Scotland. He has since trained loads of chefs, so it’s become self-perpetuating. Great chefs are training great chefs, who are training great chefs, and the knowledge filters down,” enthuses Michel. “I find the young chefs of today are more knowledgeable than they have ever been before.”

Post-Brexit cheese smuggling
Michel is excited about the future. Looking at our flourishing food scene, who wouldn’t be? He jokes about smuggling French cheeses and wines post-Brexit, like his parents did for Le Gavroche pre-EU, but is confident our culinary reputation will continue to rise. “In 25 years, I have found the changes amazing; ask my father, and he’ll say he never dreamt that London could offer the standard of food it does now. It is so vibrant.” Slowly but surely, the cult of the Michelin star is waning in favour of “extremely good cooking at extremely good value”.

“We went through a stage of chefs having ‘attitude’, but I think the younger generation realise it’s not just about being the next Gordon or Marco.” We diners don’t want what Michel calls “rock and roll” chefs: increasingly we want talented cooks who care about their producers, their impact on the environment and the work-life balance of their staff. At their restaurants, the Roux family have heeded these concerns as much as possible, forging long-term relationships with trusted suppliers and adjusting contracts so staff have longer weekends. “I think generally in the hospitality industry we have to look after our staff, and that means looking at the hours we ask them to work as well as looking at pay.”

The reopening of Roux at The Landau, with its slightly informal tone and unabashed celebration of beautiful, ethically-sourced produce, is in a way a culmination of this. “It says, these guys are serious about their food and they know what they are doing.” A man with countless openings and refurbs under his belt could be forgiven for feeling just a wee bit blasé about this one. Nevertheless, as we leave, I hear him and Chris discussing its progress. “I’m excited, chef,” says Michel. “Walking though earlier, I looked at the hole in the floor where they have started work, and I thought to myself, it’s a new beginning.”

Roux at The Landau