There are very few people who can say cooking is more in their blood than Michel Roux Jr. His mother went in to labour while cooking in the family restaurant, and most of his earliest childhood memories are based in the kitchen. Partly due to the fact that the family couldn’t afford a nanny, but partly because this was always where Roux was destined to end up. When asked whether he was always going to be a chef, Roux simply replies, “I can’t imagine myself doing anything else.” After speaking to students at the Oxford Union last Friday he went straight back to La Gavroche, his two-Michelin-Star restaurant, in time to work the evening shift. He likes to be very closely involved with the running of the restaurant, he tells me, and still genuinely enjoys cooking and hosting more than anything else. Endearingly, Roux still gets butterflies before every lunchtime and evening service begins.
For him, and for the entire Roux dynasty, running La Gavroche is far more than just a job. Set up in the sixties by Albert Roux (Michel Roux Jr.’s father) and his younger brother Michel Roux Sr., La Gavroche was famously the first British restaurant to be awarded three Michelin stars.
In 1992, two years after Roux took over the mantle of maintaining La Gavroche, the restaurant was demoted from three to two stars. When asked about this, Roux jokily replies, “You try getting two Michelin stars!” Like many restaurateurs, he is sceptical about society’s modern obsession with collecting Michelin stars, and realises there are problems with “chasing accolades”, encouraging people to forget it. “The Michelin Guide is not the be all and end all. Cook from the heart and cook for the customers. Happy and loyal customers are the most important thing.”
Outside the world of La Gavroche, Roux has carved his own career as a television personality, a little hypocritical considering he publicly resents the title and the concept of a ‘celebrity chef’. Although appearing on Masterchef, Roux left the BBC after a rift with their editorial policy, and believes that their system stifles and limits contributors to have outside financial interests. “This is why Jamie Oliver left as well”, he says, “and the BBC are losing a huge talent pool.”
Roux takes his profession seriously, and is a passionate believer that he has a social responsibility. He wants to use his profile to open doors, and is clearly in support of trying to unearth new talent as seen in his continuation of the Roux Scholarship for up-and-coming chefs. Taking the form of a competition, the winner gets a work placement and the Roux family acting as mentors throughout their careers. When founded, it was radical and unheard of for a British chef to feature in a three Michelin starred kitchen in France apparently due to the old stereotype that British people can’t cook; “The French are arrogant about their food and Parisians are stuck-up”, Roux agrees. It was significant in establishing a culture of homegrown culinary excellence in Britain. The whole Roux family adjudicate, and Michel Roux is keen to point out that he and his family are “excellent calibre judges,” making the right choice nine times out of ten.
Roux is famous for his unwillingness to compromise on the standard of food. When asked if there is ever a valid excuse for a ready meal, he simply replies, “No. For me, an egg is fast food.” Roux firmly believes that the pleasure of cooking from scratch outweighs any arguments that it may be more expensive. He hates processed supermarket bread, “cotton wool loaves” as he calls them, and believes that we should buy less meat at higher prices, describing the mouthwatering smell of good-quality chicken browning in the oven with such obvious delight that even the most frugal student would feel compelled to fork out the extra couple of pounds.
Roux had to earn La Gavroche, and believes it is important not to have a legacy handed to you on a plate. He tells me that he worked extremely hard for a long time, paid money for it, and had to prove himself to his father many times before he finally handed over his life’s achievement to his son.
His daughter Emily, now 24, is an aspiring chef, and it is evident that Michel Roux is immensely proud of her. When I ask about her taking over La Gavroche at some point, he says fondly that if someone had asked him when he was 24 (which in fact they did several times) to come and work in the family business he would have said he didn’t want anything to do with it. Eventually, however, he came round, and he hopes she’ll do the same one day. If Roux could tell his 24-year-old self one piece of advice, he tells me it would be to “walk before you can run.” He doesn’t elaborate, but these words of wisdom ring true in Oxford