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Michel Roux Jr, long the chef-proprietor of Mayfair’s Le Gavroche (and, more recently, the face of MasterChef: The Professionals), had just come back from holiday when I met him for dinner.
We talked about family (his daughter Emily is a chef in Paris), Manchester United (the team’s poor form has been torturing us both) and the reason he had not gone straight back to work – Le Gavroche was closed for six weeks for its first major overhaul in 18 years.
When I went the following week to see the changes, the room was unrecognisable. The bar resembled a furniture store, the cashier’s office was crammed with people and the scene in the dining room bordered on the chaotic.
Front-of-house stalwarts Sylvia and Ursula Perberschlager, the Austrian identical twins who between them speak seven languages, were lugging tables under the watchful eye of maître d’ Emmanuel Landré, almost unrecognisable in a pair of jeans.
There were builders everywhere, a huge sign warned “Wet Paint” and a number of cooks were walking in and out of the kitchen to scrutinise the new equipment.
But the biggest change, Roux explained through the builders’ dust, will not be physical but temporal. From now on, in response to customer demand, the restaurant will open for dinner from 6pm.
“We are going to have to juggle shifts to bring the evening staff meal forward and we are going to have to hoover and reset the tables even faster,” he said. “It’s going to be fun on Thursdays and Fridays when some lunch guests don’t leave much before 4.30pm.”
The trademark smile returned to Roux’s face when he pointed across the room at what is the most obvious physical change. In place of tables 10 and 11 (the least favoured by many customers, as they were closest to the kitchen), builders were putting the finishing touches to what is now the most profitable element in any restaurant: the private dining room.
These spaces, where good food and wine come with intimacy and discretion, are hugely popular at the moment. Roux intends to take this interest to a new level by creating a room for six, which he refers to as the “chef’s library”; it will be lined with his extensive collection of antique cookbooks.
“I’ll write a specific menu, no more than seven or eight dishes, because I can’t eat more than that, and when the guests come in there will be nothing on the table other than the relevant page of the original cookbook,” he explained. “When a poulet de Bresse en vessie, a Bresse chicken slowly cooked in a pig’s bladder, is on the menu, my copy of Escoffier’s 1903 Guide Culinaire will be there on the side. This is going to be my personal little corner.”
There are costs, of course. The initial budget of £500,000 for the kitchen, dining room and new ventilation was blown when it was discovered that the kitchen drains needed replacing. Another £200,000 had to be found (“the bank was very nice,” Roux said) and there is the loss of sales for the period, plus staff wages. “I don’t really want to think about this,” Roux said firmly, before we headed off to the kitchen.
Here, the massive new range runs on induction, although the gas salamander that cooks the famous soufflé Suissesse has been retained. While younger chefs now train on induction stoves at cookery school, Roux jokes that taming the induction cooker – “it’s amazing how quickly it can burn butter” – could be more of a challenge for him and his head chef Rachel Humphrey and sous-chef Monica Galetti, who have long been at his side.
Back in the dining room, Landré assured me that within 24 hours they would be ready for a few days of soft openings and that service would then return to normal.
This has been a protracted heart transplant for Le Gavroche. Yet even its most regular customers (one of whom is referred to as “Mr Pétrus” for his devotion to one of the world’s most expensive wines) should notice only the sliding door of the private dining room as the main difference to this restaurant, now in its 47th year.
More columns at www.ft.com/lander
43 Upper Brook St, London W1K 7QR, 020 7408 0881; le-gavroche.co.uk.
The restaurant will reopen on February 17