Forty years after his father and uncle opened Le Gavroche, Chef/Patron Michel Roux Jr shares his feelings about the London stalwart
You could set your clock by Le Gavroche celebrations. While other restaurants come and go as regularly as ever, you can always be sure that Le Gavroche is ticking along nicely and gearing up to celebrate another major birthday or glowing review. This month, the legendary London restaurant celebrates the big 4-0.
Founded by irascible, indomitable French brothers Albert and Michel Roux back in 1967, Le Gavroche transformed the face of dining in Britain and, ultimately, put it on the culinary map. Their philosophy was simple: introduce the best of produce and culinary techniques from their native France to an English audience, starved of all things gourmet. Albert has ascribed part of the success to the dismal state of dining in London at that time.
But that's only half the picture. How to account for Le Gavroche's continued success in a city that is full of quality restaurants? Michel Roux Jr, son of Albert, nephew of Michel Snr, now Chef/Patron of Le Gavroche, shares his point of view.
On the original Lower Sloane Street site: "It was very rare that I was allowed in – I was only seven at the time. It was just pop in, say hi to my father, grab a couple of petit fours and off I'd go.
The old Gavroche had a particular smell that was very different – of cooking foie gras, fat, roasting meats. That was always the first thing that hit me. And it was hot like a dungeon down there."
On London then: "The two brothers introduced fine food prepared in a way that it hadn't been prepared before here. From what I hear, it was pretty dire back in 1967. Even the grand hotels weren't serving particularly good food."
On London now: "I think it's a slight exaggeration when you read that London is the gastronomic capital of the world, but in my view, it is jostling for that position with Paris and New York. There is such a vast choice and the quality is there. The British are becoming a discerning and very knowledgeable public."
On taking over from his father: "He's a very hard taskmaster. He certainly did not give any preferential treatment to me – if anything, it was the opposite. Obviously, it took a while for me to be able to say it's got my stamp on the menu.
It's not easy. You're talking about Le Gavroche!
He had to learn to let go as well, of course, which is not easy. It's his baby, his life. Entrusting it to someone else, even if it's your own son, can't be easy."
On joining the family business: "A lot of my school holidays were spent doing the washingup in one of the various restaurants, basically for pocket money and to get used to kitchen life.
I got my first racing bike with money earned washing up, and my first sound system."
On the next generation: "My daughter [Emily] is 16. She comes in now and then to give a hand.
In fact, this summer she's going to be working a bit at the front door. She enjoys the camaraderie and life of the catering industry and wants to go into it, but whereabouts, we don't know. She wants to do catering school in France, though."
On their legendary service: "Retention of staff is very important. Silvano [Giraldin, Gavroche's General Manager and Director] has been with the restaurant for over 35 years. We've one member of staff who has been with us since day one.
Customers like to see familiar faces and they like to be recognised. Even if it's only the second or third time they've been in, a member of staff should be able to give a nice big welcome and say, ‘Nice to see you again, Sir.'"
On old favourites: "Good food is good food, whatever the era. The Soufflé Suissesse has been on the menu for 40 years. The Omelette Rothschild [Apricot and Cointreau Soufflé] likewise. The Mousseline de Homard au Champagne et Caviar [Lobster Mousse] has been on for at least 35. And then there are dishes that crop up seasonally. The Oeuf Carême always comes back in the summertime, and the Daube de Boeuf, made with beef cheeks, always comes back. Good food transcends fads."
On food fashions: "Take nouvelle cuisine: it was abused very much in the 80s, with gigantic plates and tiny little portions. Le Gavroche steered a wide berth from it. I think the same could be said now of molecular gastronomy (I'm using the term because it's something people instantly recognise) and this insistence on froths and warm jellies and, in my view, totally indigestible and not particularly pleasure-giving food. It's not something I enjoy eating and it's not something I want to know how to cook."
On embracing new influences: "Personally, I sit very comfortably with Asian food, because Japanese and Chinese food has deep-rooted culinary truisms like French cuisine. I'm quite happy to serve a seared tuna at Le Gavroche or a tartare of tuna. If I go back to my early experiences at Alain Chapel in 79 and 80, he had some dishes that were deemed revolutionary at the time. One was a Crêpe Japonaise, as he called it, served with black bream and using a sweet and sour sauce made with red wine."
On being ‘traditional': "We stick to our beliefs, which are classical, but classical in the way I see it, which means using the best ingredients and letting them shine without over-complication, staying very French and very seasonal. We get the odd person who says, ‘Your décor's really old-fashioned,' and this and that, but OK, I don't find it old-fashioned. I find it comfortable and warming and chic. I'm not particularly keen on white walls and straight lines. I like comfy chairs as opposed to bits of metal poking up my arse."
On guide books: "The Good Food Guide is unbelievable. They've got a bee in their bonnet.
They've never been very generous in points towards Le Gavroche, but if you don't look at the points and you read the article, you think, ‘Shit, I want to go and eat there. This is one of the restaurants in London I've got to go to.' Then you look at the points [7/10] and think, ‘Oh.'"
On Le Gavroche's most fearsome alumnus, Gordon Ramsay: "Gordon's first week was probably one of the worst weeks of his life. He was probably the most untidy, clumsy chef that ever walked into our kitchens. He was all over the place. And mucky; dirty. Now look at him. He is spotless, organised, switched on. I can quite honestly say that he has been the most talented chef I have seen in the Gavroche kitchens."
On Le Gavroche's reputation for discretion: "So many things have happened here that we've kept secret. We're very strict and we don't divulge anything. Whether I'll ever reveal them, I don't know. Some are just too close to recount; too close to me ending up in jail if I spill the beans."
On the secret of their success: "We haven't changed. We've stuck to our roots. When my father was here, he had a very active role; he was here all the time, just like I am now. I'm here from 8 o'clock in the morning. I spend 90 per cent of my time here at the restaurant, which is pretty unusual for a chef nowadays."
Le Gavroche, 43 Upper Brook Street, London W1 020 7408 0881 le-gavroche.co.uk michelroux.co.uk
LE GAVROCHE TIMELINE
1967 Le Gavroche opens at 61/63 Lower Sloane Street in Chelsea
1971 Silvano Giraldin joins as Junior Waiter
1972 The brothers open the Waterside Inn at Bray
1974 Le Gavroche becomes first UK restaurant to be awarded a Michelin star
1977 Le Gavroche becomes first UK restaurant to be awarded two Michelin stars
1979 Albert's son Michel Jr joins Le Gavroche as Commis de Cuisine
1981 Le Gavroche moves from Lower Sloane Street to Upper Brook Street, Mayfair
1982 Le Gavroche becomes first UK restaurant to be awarded three Michelin stars
1986 Michel Snr concentrates on the Waterside Inn leaving Albert in charge at Le Gavroche
1987 Le Gavroche becomes the first Michelinrated restaurant to serve a set lunch
1991 Michel Jr takes over the kitchen on the occasion of his father's 55th birthday
1998 Le Gavroche bans Michael Winner for life
2002 Albert and Michel awarded honorary OBEs
2002 Albert given Chevalier de la Légion d'Honneur
2007 Le Gavroche voted 28th in Restaurant magazine's World's 50 Best Restaurants
CRITICAL ACCLAIM FOR LE GAVROCHE
Fay Maschler The Evening Standard (2007)
"I've seen small children instantly absorb the principles of good behaviour simply through being exposed to them at Le Gavroche."
Giles Coren The Times (2003)
"…such high French cooking as survives is bedevilled by smallness, restraint, sarcastic piquancy, misplaced intensity, gimmickry and facile wit. Not at Le Gavroche… Frog's legs and snails with crumbled tomatoes bubbled in six little pots of green. The famous Mousseline d'homard was full-bodied and insistent, not the baby food such dishes so often resemble… and there was truffle too, fat shavings of black; the best and Frenchest thing I've eaten in London…"
Jay Rayner The Observer (2005)
"The fact is, Silvano Giraldin is the best maître d' in London by a very long chalk and runs an extraordinarily tight operation… If I were a less polite man I'd tell you Silvano is the bollocks, but I'm not, so I won't."
AA Gill The Sunday Times (2006)
"If I had to pick a meal as being particularly enjoyable last year, on a simply gastronomic level, I'd have to greedily choose two: both of them lunch at Le Gavroche."