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April 19, 2013 6:57 pm
It’s almost unnerving to find Michel Roux Jr presiding over his modest domestic kitchen. Most know the Michelin two-star chef from his role as a judge on MasterChef: The Professionals, where, dressed in a starched white uniform, he strikes fear into the hearts of even the most seasoned cooks. But here, perched on a stool at a breakfast bar, wearing jeans and a shirt – the surrounding walls strewn with framed photographs of his family – he looks not the least bit intimidating.
Roux, 52, comes from the culinary dynasty that produced Britain’s first super chefs. In 1967, his father Albert and uncle Michel opened Le Gavroche in Mayfair, the first restaurant in the UK to garner three Michelin stars – the industry’s highest award. The establishment soon became the country’s leading academy of haute cuisine, where chefs, including Gordon Ramsay, Marco Pierre White, Roux Jr and his cousin Alain, trained and perfected their craft. It wasn’t long before more Michelin stars followed at the brothers’ other restaurant, the Waterside Inn in Berkshire.
When he started out, Roux expected to have it tougher than his contemporaries. “I knew it was going to be interesting working for my father and uncle. It was more difficult for me than for other youngsters, because I had a point to prove,” he says of working for his family at Le Gavroche and the Waterside Inn.
Unlike his father, whose French accent and ebullient style is straight from central casting, Roux sounds British and has a slight Cockney inflection – and, defying that old adage about good chefs, he is lean, and strikingly mild-mannered.
“As a dual citizen, I feel more British than French. I was born in Britain and educated in the English system rather than the French Lycée, but very much brought up at home in a French environment,” he explains. “I wouldn’t want to set up a business or earn my living in France because of the red tape and the bureaucracy. I love France for holidays and to visit my family, but I certainly wouldn’t want to live there permanently. Besides, the French are grumpy, especially in Paris,” he adds.
Roux and his French wife Giselle spend most of their time in London in their Clapham flat, a small but perfectly formed Victorian conversion. Divided into three bedrooms, it has a separate sitting room and dining room, and a small garden with a shed and enough space for a barbecue. The couple purchased the flat in 1990, and before that, from 1984, lived just 500 metres down the road. The interiors have a French feel, with cowhide rugs displayed alongside Oriental chests, Tintin paraphernalia and Parisian flea market finds. “I love it,” he says. “It’s homely and well-used”.
Teacup in hand, Roux settles himself on a wooden chair to discuss his latest venture, a cookery school in partnership with Cactus Kitchens. From a converted chapel located just around the corner from his flat, he runs several courses, including the Michel Roux Jr Premier Experience, a one-day, £895 course that he oversees himself. Teaching in a formal setting has always been something he’s wanted to do.
“My classes are small and convivial. I expect amateur chefs would be keen to enrol. But if someone has never held a knife or can’t boil an egg, then I will deal with that.” And will less skilled students be subject to the same no-holds-barred criticism as his MasterChef contestants? “It’s important to give feedback,” says Roux, who is also a host on BBC2’s new programme Food & Drink. “If someone messes up, I’m not going to tell them, ‘Well done. Your husband is going to like that.’ I will tell someone where they went wrong and how they can rectify the situation. I think it’s important to be honest, and also truthful in praise.”
It’s the same approach he used in raising his daughter, Emily, 22, who now works at Le 39V restaurant in Paris. It comes as no surprise that she decided to follow in her father’s footsteps but Roux says he didn’t push Emily into the business. “If anything, my wife tried to dissuade her. Giselle kept on telling Emily, ‘There are other things you can do. If you want to stick to food, you can try food photography or explore other options.’ ”
Emily is the first female member of the Roux culinary lineage – in a trade where women rarely get top billing. “It’s true that there aren’t many women at the helm of restaurants. But, recently, a few daughters have taken over their fathers’ establishments. Elena Arzak of Arzak in San Sebastián and Anne-Sophie Pic of Maison Pic in Valence have both been awarded three Michelin stars and found fame in their own right,” says Roux, whose own head chef and sous chef at Le Gavroche are both women.
While he is keen to see more female chefs in the kitchen, he doesn’t believe in positive discrimination. “It should all be based on merit. If you’re good enough, it doesn’t matter what your gender is.” He admits that there is still discrimination in some restaurants. “There are bosses, especially in France, who are not sympathetic to having women in the kitchen. The idea that being a chef is a male-dominated vocation and women aren’t allowed to join still pervades in some places. But, in my view, they’re wrong and they’re making a big mistake.”
From the kitchen, we move into the sun-drenched sitting room, where a glass coffee table propped by silver dolphins takes centre stage. Other idiosyncratic pieces include a female nude by Australian painter David Bromley and a cast-iron fireplace bordered by ornate floral tiles.
He leads me through the main dining room, where a painting by French artist Pierre Yves Gervais looms large. “I’m a big fan of Formula One. This painting is a replica of the Renault EF15 engine used in the 1985 Brazilian Grand Prix,” he explains. Blue and cream striped wallpaper covers a room overflowing with delicate china, vintage menus and old cookery books. This is a home where food is taken seriously.
“I collect old cookery books,” he says. “I’ve got lots of old [Mrs] Beeton ones. Most of them have been attacked by bookworms. You can see the holes in them. I also collect restaurant menus. One of the first restaurants in Paris was called Beauvilliers. If you look at the dates of the wine, it goes back to the late 1800s. The menu has about 200 odd dishes on offer – from turtle soup to a whole range of offal.”
As an advocate of nose-to-tail eating, Roux is Malthusian in his warnings about modern food consumption. “If the world’s population carries on growing as much as it does, there will be a serious food shortage.”
Droughts increasingly cause crop failures around the world, with falls in Russian wheat production and US corn production triggering price spikes in 2012. “We’ve seen how at risk the world is. Dry weather has taken a particular toll in the United States and Russia where corn and flour prices have skyrocketed. They are going to jump again this year. We are going to have to find new ways to feed people.” The solution, he says, won’t come from Europe, but from the emerging economies of Africa, South America, India and China.
What does he propose? “I think part of the solution is to be less wasteful, looking carefully at what we discard and eating parts of the animal we might not normally eat. For instance, the Chinese have for centuries eaten ears, hearts, trotters, tails, spleen and offal.”
Certainly, meat is becoming increasingly expensive, while our appetite for animal protein shows no signs of diminishing. Roux considers other possible alternatives. “I am sure that there are more things at the bottom of the ocean that are good to eat that we haven’t even considered. Experts also say we’ll be eating more protein from insects. But I don’t really fancy that.” So don’t expect to see locust soufflé on the menu at Le Gavroche any time soon.
Roux selects a side table as his favourite object: “My wife and I bought this in a quirky little shop in Paris in the old market area. It’s Parisian, it’s cheeky, it’s got a sexy little look to it and it’s not that practical because it’s small. I suppose that’s my taste as well – fun and quirky.”
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