MICHEL ROUX IS fast with the sound bites and loose with the one-liners. But he’s forced to take pause when asked how many times in his illustrious career he has visited that gastronomic temple of taboo: McDonald’s.
Leaning forward conspiratorially, he agrees begrudgingly to answer the question: “Twice.” But with a qualification – both times were with his grandchildren. And he was thereafter banned from the activity due to excessive grumbling.
Roux is happy to return to culinary basics in other ways, provided that no drive-throughs are involved. That finds him poaching, scrambling and baking eggs one winter’s morning for a breakfast date with Prestige Hong Kong. It’s probably rare for the 71-year-old French-born, mostly UK-based chef to handle his own eggs nowadays, but his eagerness to put together a beginner’s tutorial for a couple of fellow oeuf enthusiasts shows his passion for cooking hasn’t waned since the days he sat in his mother’s kitchen picking up these same skills from her.
Because his older brother Albert is a chef and his sometime collaborator, people assume Michel’s choice of vocation was inspired by him. “The big influence in my life to cook and become a chef came from my mother, rather than my brother,” he clarifies.
“I loved to help her in the kitchen from a young age. I had decided by the age of 14 that I wanted to become a chef and I wrote in a schoolbook that I wanted to open a restaurant with my brother. My brother, Albert, became a chef and we shared a dream to open a restaurant together.” That happened in 1967, after the two brothers had trained in France only to elect to move to the UK.
“When my brother and I travelled there to start a restaurant,” says Roux, “the food culture was in the dark ages; there was so much to be done. We knew it would mean instant success or instant death, and we couldn’t resist the challenge. The UK at that time did not have an identifiable cuisine – only a poor reputation for its food.”
The restaurant they opened was Le Gavroche, which easily became the toast of the town, followed five years later in 1972 by The Waterside Inn (both restaurants, by the way, predate the opening of the first McDonald’s in Britain in 1974). They each took Michelin stars when the guide was brought to London, and almost in tandem rose to the three-star level. But in 1986, the Roux brothers’ school-day dream came to an end when they decided to split the company asunder, the elder keeping Le Gavroche, and Michel retaining control of The Waterside Inn.
“My brother and I successfully worked together for 20 years,” says Roux. “We complemented each other very well and were an unusually strong force. Of course, there are differences in the way we approach business. I prefer to consolidate a project before I move on. I like to nurse it and I take time to ensure it is strong, established and stable. My brother is different; he has many ideas and is often impatient to start another project before stabilising an existing one.”
That isn’t to say that they don’t get along – they still jointly administer the Roux Scholarship annually, a competition for up-and-coming chefs whose winner is given a three-month stint at any three-Michelinstarred kitchen to help kick start his or her career – an experience that proves vital, given a third of former scholars now possess Michelin stars of their own.
But while cooking is “definitely in the Roux genes”, Michel admits that family time often takes a back seat. The only time that he, Albert and their respective sons Alain and Michel Jr, who now run their fathers’ kitchens, can find enough time to get together is for the judging of the competition.
In fact, even Alain’s erstwhile decision to enter this field came as a bit of a surprise. A chef’s life, after all, isn’t exactly compatible with the laws of perfect parenting – the late hours meant that most nights, Michel returned home long after young Alain had gone to bed. So when his rebellious son came and informed him that he wished to take up the culinary trade, it was completely unexpected.
Today, Alain is chef patron and director at The Waterside Inn, having held the position for a decade, overseeing a team of 40 and maintaining the standards that have allowed the restaurant to retain three Michelin stars for 28 years.
That leaves Michel free to pursue other interests – authoring cookbooks, for example, working on new enterprises such as a restaurant collaboration with the InterContinental in Danang, or visiting places like Caprice at the Four Seasons Hotel Hong Kong, which is what brought him to town late last year for a week-long guest-chef gig.
And though you’ll occasionally find him appearing on television, on shows such as The Roux Legacy, he bristles at the suggestion that he might be termed a “celebrity chef”. “I’m uncomfortable with the title ‘celebrity’,” he says. “I do not dance or sing in the kitchen, I just like to cook and help others to learn what I have learned. As leaders in our industry, it’s good to be given the opportunity to appear on television as chefs but we are not celebrity personalities, we are chefs who seek to inspire others.”
On television or off, he is most definitely in possession of the ability to inspire – in fact, most chefs credit him and Albert with the renaissance of good food on British shores – and Michel confirms that “in excess of 800 chefs have trained in Roux kitchens in the UK. Thus our influence on cooking speaks for itself.”
Which brings us to the latest trainees of the Roux school of cooking – myself and Prestige Editor Jon Wall, who feverishly “ooh”, “ahh”, and “mmm” over creations as simple as scrambled eggs with crabmeat and asparagus, mushroom omelette or eggs cocotte. “It is the genius ingredient in most dishes, so fragile yet so indispensible,” he says. If this lesson had come a decade earlier, I’d postulate that my career might have taken a very different path indeed. You wouldn’t be reading about cooking eggs, but you might be eating some of mine.