Michel Roux obituary: Chef who helped bring French cuisine to London
Le Gavroche opening-night guests included Charlie Chaplin, Ava Gardner and Douglas Fairbanks jnr
Michel Roux snr credited his mother, ‘an inventive, instinctive cook’ whom he enthusiastically assisted in the kitchen, for inspiring him as a chef. Photograph: Leon Neal/AFP via Getty Images)
Michel Roux snr
Born: April 19th, 1941
Died: March 11th, 2020
Michel Roux snr, a French-born chef who lifted fine dining in London to a new plane in the late 1960s when, with his older brother, Albert, he opened Le Gavroche, the first British restaurant to earn three Michelin stars, died Wednesday at his home in Bray-on-Thames. He was 78.
A statement issued by his family said the cause was idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, a respiratory disease he had battled for some time.
Roux, a pastry maker by training, spoke no English when he followed his brother to London and helped him open Le Gavroche, named after the urchin in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, on Lower Sloane Street in Chelsea.
Surveying the landscape, the brothers had decided that the city was ripe for conquest.
“There was no life, no substance to food,” Michel Roux told The Good Food Guide in 2017. “People wanted big portions of hot food, all of it overcooked and mostly reheated. What a sad, terrible time. It was like someone had forgotten to switch on the light. And we did it, we switched on the light.”
In his memoir, Life Is a Menu: Reminiscences and Recipes From a Master Chef (2000), Roux recalled with particular horror the sight of English peas being served at a corner cafe. “Like a witness to a terrible atrocity, I told myself I had to put this out of my mind as quickly as possible,” he wrote.
The brothers offered a rigorously classical menu, with ingredients imported or, in some cases, smuggled from France. Sauces were rich, and standards were high. Londoners with deep pockets were transported by dishes such as lobster mousse with caviar and Champagne butter sauce, duck foie gras with truffles, and a signature double-baked Swiss soufflé.
The restaurant, awarded a third Michelin star in 1982, quickly attained crown-jewel status and served as a training ground for such future stars as Pierre Koffmann, Marco Pierre White and Gordon Ramsay.
Roux and his brother added lustre to their already exalted reputations when they opened the Waterside Inn in Bray, Berkshire, in 1972. Like Le Gavroche, it received a star when Michelin published its first British guide in 1974. In 1985 it was awarded three stars.
In 2005 The Caterer, a British publication, called Roux and his brother “godfathers of modern restaurant cuisine in the UK”. The brothers, they added, “put Britain on the culinary map and raised standards across the board”.
Michel Roux was born April 19th, 1941, to Henri and Germaine (Triger) Roux, above his grandfather’s charcuterie in Charolles, in central France. It was an auspicious beginning.
“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,” Roux told Radio Times in 2012. “You eat food, you breathe food, you talk about food: Food is in the blood.”
His father, who moved the family to the outskirts of Paris after the second World War and opened his own charcuterie, was a gambler and ne’er-do-well who left his home, his wife and his failing business when Michel was 10. Roux credited his mother, “an inventive, instinctive cook” whom he enthusiastically assisted in the kitchen, for inspiring him as a chef.
After serving an apprenticeship with pastry maker Camille Loyal in the Belleville neighbourhood of Paris, Roux found work in the kitchen of the British embassy, where Albert was a chef. He was later hired as a junior chef in the household of Cécile de Rothschild, rising to the position of head chef after completing two years of military service in Algeria.
Albert had, in the meantime, moved to England, where he began cooking for Peter Cazalet, trainer of the queen’s racehorses. His employer’s august circle of acquaintances backed the brothers when it came time to open Le Gavroche in Chelsea in 1967.
The opening-night guest list included Charlie Chaplin, Ava Gardner and Douglas Fairbanks jnr. An overnight success, the restaurant moved to sumptuous quarters in Mayfair in 1982.
Roux is survived by his brother and three children from his first marriage, Alain, Christine and Francine. He and his wife divorced in 1979. His second wife, Robyn Joyce, died in 2017.
For a time, the brothers operated several bistros and brasseries in London, including Le Poulbot, in the financial district, and Gavvers, in the original Le Gavroche. In 1984 they created the Roux Brothers Scholarship, a prestigious competition intended to foster a new generation of British chefs. One winner each year apprentices at a top restaurant, then receives coaching by the Roux brothers.
“The idea was that if somebody won a competition and became a Roux Scholar, it gave them enough credibility so the chefs in France would not be able to refuse them,” Roux told The Caterer in 2013. “It gave us the chance to prove to the continent that there were some really promising young chefs in Britain, which they thought didn’t exist.”
With his brother, Roux wrote several cookbooks, notably New Classic Cuisine (1983) and At Home With the Roux Brothers (1988). His own cookbooks included Desserts: A Lifelong Passion (1994), Pastry: Savoury and Sweet (2008) and The Essence of French Cooking (2014).
The brothers went their separate ways in 1986. Michel kept the Waterside Inn, which he turned over to his son, Alain, in 2002. Albert took over Le Gavroche, which is now run by his son, Michel. The restaurant lost its third star in 1993 and now has two. In 2018, Roux and his son opened Roux at Skindles, a brasserie in Taplow, not far from the Waterside Inn.
“We came to point the way forward knowing that we would face either a quick death or quick success,” Roux told the British newspaper the Independent in 2017, looking back over his career. “Luckily, it was the right time. Now, in restaurant terms, we have landed on the moon and Mars, all in 45 years.”