Michel Roux Snr, OBE, is a global culinary legend. Having travelled to these shores from his native France in the 1960s to work as a chef for the Rothschild family, he and brother Albert became the talk of London when they opened first restaurant La Gavroche, which remains an institution to this day. Two decades later Roux earned three Michelin stars – the highest distinction a chef can achieve – at the brothers’ second restaurant, the Waterside Inn, in Bray, Berkshire.
To mark the 30th anniversary of The Roux Scholarship, the UK’s premier culinary competition and producer of some of the country’s very finest chefs, the family has invited cameras in to record each exciting stage. Along with Albert, son Alain and nephew Michel Roux Jnr, Roux has been joined by some of the most famous names in cooking to crown this year’s winner.
There are quite a lot of cooking competitions on television these days. What does The Roux Legacy offer viewers that they might not have seen before?
I don’t think viewers will have seen anything like this anywhere in the world, because nobody else does anything like The Roux Scholarship. There will not be another series after this one – the last thing we want is to become a television series, and the Roux family is not taking a penny of the fee, which is going to three charities associated with the trade. This is not a reality show, with retakes and directors telling people how to react. All that you’ll see on screen are true moments in the life of the judges and the competitors.
The Roux family has helped so many of the UK’s top chefs. What is it that makes you such great teachers?
Since we came to this country the Roux family has not only done what it loves – cooking – but has been successful because doing so is our passion. We never get up in the morning and view the day ahead as ‘work’. For the past 40 years my philosophy has always been to pass on that passion to the younger generation.
The Roux Scholarship was established to raise the level of British cooking. As a proud Frenchman, did you have any qualms about helping to boost this country’s culinary standards?
If I had any problem on that front, I would not have left France at the age of 28 to become the youngest chef ever to serve the Rothschild family. It took me five years to earn anything from La Gavroche, so I didn’t come here for money. I came here because I believed I could be a success, but more than anything I wanted to be considered the best and it was in this country that I saw the possibility of realising that. Before we arrived, this country was living in culinary darkness. The Roux family was the switch that turned on the light.
When you arrived in England in the 1960s, how bad was the cuisine?
Frankly, it was so bad that there are no words to describe it. Being as it was I wondered if the public would be able to distinguish good food from bad. I knew one thing about my chances – it was either going to be a quick success or an even quicker failure.
So when you and Albert started La Gavroche in 1967, were you fearful that the British might not take to the concept of French fine dining?
As I said before, we didn’t know if it was going to be a quick success or a quick death. If it was to be the latter it would’ve meant that the public hadn’t taken to smaller portions or a menu that included fish prepared properly. In those days in Britain, fish was always boiled and overcooked and vegetables were floating in water. The attitude was “if it’s very hot, it’s done�?, so we were certainly playing against the odds.
You have cooked for legendary celebrities like Charlie Chaplin, Ava Gardner and Robert Redford. Who has been the most memorable?
For me it is Her Majesty The Queen. I have been extremely lucky to cook for so many leaders in their own field and heads of state throughout my life, but she is unique. We are very fortunate in the UK to have a queen like we’ve got. I’m not British, but I consider myself to be one of her citizens.
Do you ever feel reticent about passing on the secrets of your technique when cooking on television, like a magician revealing how to perform a trick?
No. It’s all in my head and in my hand, and if one day someone can perform my ‘trick’ better than me, it would be a gift for the world.
If you had one bit of advice that you could pass on to young chefs who aspire to Roux greatness, what would that be?
Walk before you can run, and don’t ever think about the money. If the money comes one day then great, but if it’s not something you’re excited about every day, do something else.
The Roux Scholarship continues weeknights at 8pm this week and next on the Good Food Channel, Sky 247 and Virgin 260.