A chef who will never Roux the day

A row with the BBC over potatoes still rankles with former ‘MasterChef’ judge Michel Roux jnr, but, with his Michelin-starred restaurant and love for Man Utd, rugby and marathon running, his plate is still full

Man of taste: Michel Roux jnr. “I haven’t closed the door on the BBC and I was very proud of my work on ‘MasterChef’ and on ‘Food & Drink’, but I think the station questioned my integrity – and no one questions my integrity.” Photograph: Bernard Zieja

Man of taste: Michel Roux jnr. “I haven’t closed the door on the BBC and I was very proud of my work on ‘MasterChef’ and on ‘Food & Drink’, but I think the station questioned my integrity – and no one questions my integrity.” Photograph: Bernard Zieja

Sat, May 10, 2014, 01:00

The Michelin-starred Michel Roux jnr is a soft-spoken and gentle man, but he can shout and swear like an East End docker if he has to. He rarely raises his voice in Le Gavroche, the swanky London restaurant he runs to the same exacting standards set by his father Albert and uncle Michel snr when they first opened its doors almost 50 years ago, but when he does, his people know he means business.

“I don’t swear often but when I do, all the staff pay attention and they know they’re in real trouble,” he says over the sound of his kitchen gently humming as it ramps up for lunchtime service.

“This is a high-pressure environment and I will lose the rag and let loose sometimes, but what is most important is that when things settle down, I explain to them why I did what I did.”

In Roux’s world, if the explanations are missing, the shouting exercise is meaningless. His kitchen “is a learning environment and it is about teaching. There is no point in just screaming for the sake of it,” he says, speaking like the anti-Ramsay. “If you do it all the time, then eventually it stops making an impression and nothing you do or say sinks in. Do it sparingly and it actually means something.”

Like Gordon Ramsay, Roux is a master chef. He entered the public consciousness through the television, but unlike many so- called celebrity chefs, his passion for the business that made him burns as brightly today as it did when he started out as a pastry chef in the early 1980s.

“I am most definitely a chef first. The fact that I walked away from MasterChef proves that point. If I was chasing media coverage I would have stayed, but Le Gavroche is my passion and it has made me who I am.”

It didn’t take long for his acrimonious departure from our television screens to come up. Just two months ago, Roux ended a long-standing relationship with the BBC and announced he would no longer be a judge on the wildly popular MasterChef franchise, with the split coming after a row over potatoes.

He has endorsed the Albert Bartlett brand of potato and served them in his restaurant for more than a decade, but a series of TV adverts screened before Christmas in Britain saw him fall foul of the broadcaster’s less-than-consistent guidelines.

Alan Sugar and Gary Lineker are just two high-profile people who have developed significant commercial interests in tandem with their television roles, but it was not to be for Roux, with BBC bigwigs seeming to suggest that his relationship with a potato grower could cast doubt on his impartiality if spuds were ever to feature in one of his programmes, ridiculous as that may sound.

Weeks on from the breakdown, it still rankles. “I haven’t closed the door on the BBC and I was very proud of my work on MasterChef and on Food & Drink, but I think the station questioned my integrity – and no one questions my integrity.

“At the end of the day it is a shame. I am not the only one who has outside commercial interests but I am not upset.”

He pauses. “Actually I am.”

Fans – and he has many of them – were bereft, as were the makers of MasterChef, but he is confident his commercial break will be brief. “I have had a million offers to come back to television but I am in absolutely no hurry, although I do think I have unfinished business there and I love the whole idea of making programmes about food history and I really enjoy the combination of food and health. I have a lot of projects which are being discussed.”

Late last month, a list of the world’s best restaurants was published by Restaurant magazine, with the experimental Copenhagen restaurant Noma declared top dog for the third time in four years.

As with past years, no French restaurant featured in the top 10. “They never get a great showing and it is a shame,” Roux says. “I can’t really put my finger on why not. I was on the panel and I certainly voted for a couple of French restaurants. I’m not going to tell you which ones.

“But listen, the World’s 50 Best Restaurants has a place and it is a great event because it raises the profile of restaurants that would never otherwise get a mention in the media. I have been to Noma a few times and it is this tiny ramshackle place. Without the world’s top 50, it would never have got the high profile it has got,” he says.

Does Noma deserve the profile it has got? On the day after it won the accolade for the first time, 100,000 people tried to reserve a table. For what, though? Does it serve food people actually want to eat or is it – and many of the other new wave of restaurants now being hailed as great – serving food as art to be admired more than savoured? Do people really walk into Noma thinking to themselves, “God, I could really go for some lichen served on a bed of moss right now?”

Roux laughs. “Maybe serving ants and live shrimp is pushing things to the extremes, but it is not just about the art. If its aesthetics were good but its food had no taste, then Noma would never have got to number one. Some chefs get it wrong and can put food on the plate that looks pretty and like a piece of art, but if it doesn’t have the taste then what is the point. Noma doesn’t get it wrong. The food tastes great.”

While Restaurant’s top list made all the headlines last month, the more long-standing arbiter of fine taste, the Michelin star, remains undimmed and two of them still shine brightly over the door at Le Gavroche. Does Roux think people are still impressed by the niceties needed to secure stars?

“Of course people still want that stuff, not all the time obviously, and there is a trend towards simplification, but people will always want to be made feel ultra-special,” he insists. “Sometimes it can be over the top, but it is always nice to be pampered and made to feel a million dollars in a restaurant.”

He is equally insistent about the recipe needed to make a great chef. The secret ingredient is the genes.

“I think great chefs are born, not made,” he says. “I am talking in terms of their palate and their taste and their creativity and artistic flair. You can’t teach those things. There are things which can be taught though. You can teach someone knife skills and recipes and cooking styles, but I think you have to be born with it.”

He thinks his daughter Emily has been born with it. Like her father and her grandfather and great-uncle, she appears to be on the road to greatness and is already gainfully employed as a chef. “She is an exceptional talent and she is working full-time and is off my books,” he says.

His advice for would-be chefs can be condensed into two words: start young.

“I am all for apprenticeships starting at the age of 16, after you have done your basic education,” he says. “If you have a natural passion for food then explore it when you are young. If, after a couple of years, you realise that it is not for you, then you can go back and get a degree or do something different and it is not too late, but if you get all your degrees first and then try and get into it at the age of 24, the best part of your learning age is already gone.”

He can spot potential from some distance and says it is all in the “nuances and the way people approach certain tasks in the kitchen. That tells you a lot about someone’s potential, but it is a very intuitive thing.”

At the start of this month Roux launched his own-brand beer in the restaurant. Is it not far from beer that fine dining was reared? “Oh no, I am a great fan of beer and I think it definitely has its place in fine dining,” he says, “but it can’t just be any beer. Last year I set a brewing challenge to small breweries to make a something worthy of the Roux name and worthy of Le Gavroche.”

In response, 22 breweries sent in samples and they were blind-tested by Roux jnr, his dad, fellow MasterChef judge Gregg Wallace and the restaurant’s sommelier and head chef.

It sounds like a tough panel? “Oh it was, we were very hard to impress.”

One brewery pulled it off. “It has the flavour of the hops and grapefruit and orange peel with a hint of coriander and it has been bottle conditioned, so has a lovely refreshing zing with all these floral notes. It is absolutely delicious. We got our first consignment yesterday.”

How did it do on the restaurant floor? “Well, we only sold two bottles,” he laughs. “It is not really a business proposition, to be honest, and I don’t think we are going to make any money out of it.”

While food is what has made him who he is, it is not his only passion. He is a keen supporter of Manchester United and Harlequins rugby team. When asked to name the best United player yet, he barely hesitates.

“It would have to be between George Best and Eric Cantona and I think I’d go for Cantona. It has to be him for what he brought to the team and the way he inspired a whole generation, the class of 1992, which went on to achieve greatness. He was also very French, very haughty and very aloof.”

He speaks with a soft English accent that masks his essential Frenchness. He was cheering for Les Bleus as they sought to rain on Brian O’Driscoll’s retirement parade in March.

“Of course I wanted France to win, but I am first and foremost a rugby fan and I think we all appreciated Bod’s class and his longevity and the way he always played rugby with a smile on his face, and it was a great way to bow out.”

He has run 18 marathons. Where does he find the time? “I have a lot on my plate for sure and it is not just the restaurant, but all the commercial interests and the television work and the books – but I find time to train. I start work at 7am and work through the busy lunch period, but then I have three hours off between 2.30pm and 5.30pm and that gives me time to chill out and maybe go for a short run Then I do a long run at the weekend, maybe an hour and a half or two hours.”

All the running must explain his monkish leanness?

“That is part of it, but only part of it. I don’t eat yoghurt or cheap confectionary or overly processed food or unnecessary fats. I just eat good food and, yes, I really do spread the butter thick on my toast in the mornings, but that might be the only time I have it. Anyway we all know that butter is good for you really!”

It features in much of his cooking; when asked what his death row meal would be, his answer comes naturally

“It would have to be a roasted lobster, a blue lobster sourced around these islands, slathered in garlic butter and served with chunky chips cooked in goose fat, with a big pot of béarnaise sauce on the side. I am salivating just thinking about it,” he says.

Roux is coming to Ireland next month to give demos at Taste of Dublin in the Iveagh Gardens.

I ask him where he will eat, and he asks for recommendations before saying: “Well, I might have to try Nick’s place,” referring to the Nick Munier-owned Pichet. “He used to work for the Rouxs. You won’t find many great restaurant people who haven’t worked with us.”