Steve Groves is head chef at Roux at Parliament Square, the London restaurant operated by Restaurant Associates in consultation with Michel Roux Jr. He was sous chef at Launceston Place before taking part in and winning MasterChef: The Professionals in 2009 and after impressing Michel Roux Jr took up a sous chef role at Roux at Parliament Square a year later. The restaurant, based in the heart of Westminster, re-opened last month after undergoing a refurbishment in August. Steve talks to Hospitality & Catering News about the restaurant’s new look, working for the industry’s most famous dynasty and how to strike the all-important work-life balance.
Tell us about the refurbishment – what has the impact been?
We’ve given the restaurant a completely new look. Beforehand we had a few comments about it being a ‘bit beige’. Admittedly it didn’t feature much colour, but the positive comments were it was quite homely, so we wanted to maintain that feel with the redesign. In terms of the design of the dining space, we’ve introduced some dark wood panelling and we’ve now got burnt orange and a floral print on the back of the chairs. For me the whole room feels a lot more cohesive now. It’s got more of an identity. Also the back room for the dining room itself is split into three rooms: The private dining room, the main room as you walk in and through that there’s another dining space. Previously I’ve felt that it’s like a back room and you almost feel like you’re in the overflow so it was something we wanted to address. That room’s now called the drawing room and has a big feature wall with lots of sketches of local architecture. It feels a lot more in touch with the main room now and feedback has been really good so far.
Did you make any changes to the food or menu?
We were happy with where we were at with the food. The menu changes as we go through the seasons, so there was no need for a radical change there. The refurbishment was really about making the dining room more in-tune with the food.
You’ve worked as a chef at the restaurant for seven years, four as head chef, what do you love about working there?
I’ve always felt there’s room to grow here. For the first three years I was sous chef working under someone else and that was great, but when the opportunity came to become head chef I felt it was my time to step up and start creating something in my style. I’ve never felt like I’ve reached a ceiling and can’t take it any further here. There is still space for me to grow and continue pushing forward, plus I’ve always had the support of the Roux family and Restaurant Associates so while that’s the case I’m happy to keep working here. We’ve always had a good group of people working here in the kitchen and front-of-house so that helps. Job satisfaction has always been high here, so why would I step away from that?
What’s it like working with the Roux family?
I did MasterChef: The Professionals in 2009 now and to me it was about making the connection to Michel, so having the opportunity to work for him has been great. There’s no other family in the industry who has been more influential on the British dining scene ever, really, so to have the opportunity to work with Michel and Albert, who gives feedback when he comes for lunch, is invaluable.
How would you define your style of cooking?
The style we do here is very much based on classics with a modern interpretation. We cook for a more modern-day palate. Today people don’t want everything drowned in butter and creamy sauces, they want a lighter touch, so we cater for that, but there are also more indulgent things like a Dartoire of Veal Sweetbreads with Corn and Girolle. It’s made with lots of butter in the puff pastry, so it’s quite rich and I guess you could call that one of my signature dishes, along with the Langoustine with a Prawn Consomme served with some Prawn Tortellini. We cater for quite a broad range because we have dishes that are lighter and fresher and with keen flavours. Ultimately, though, it’s food that’s really tasty. That’s the overriding factor. It has to be seasonal, tasty and using the best quality ingredients we can.
Over the years the cooking style has evolved as well. We looked at modern techniques and now I think we’ve moved back towards classical style. We’re using less sous vide, because we feel we get better flavour by cooking in more of an old-school way now.
Who or what has been your biggest inspiration?
My inspiration comes mostly from the ingredients I use, but in terms of people and places, there have been a lot of influences along the way. MasterChef marked a big changing point in my career, because, just before I went on the show I’d moved away from cooking at a slightly more relaxed level and into the fine-dining scene. Cooking with Tristan Welch at Launceston Place was a defining moment for me. I found it really inspiring to work with him and I took a lot away from my time there. There are obviously different stages in your career where you learn different things, but that has stayed with me. Then I came here and all the chefs I’ve worked with here have had a big impact too. It’s not always the chefs you work for, but often the ones you work with who inspire you as well.
Who or what do you admire in the industry?
You look at people like Jason Atherton and he’s relentless. He has so much energy and is involved in multiple projects, all at a really high level. A lot of that is down to the fact he’s surrounded himself with really good people and looked after them to keep them around. People like Paul Hood and Paul Walsh at City Social. A lot of people who have worked with him have stuck around and he’s reaping the rewards for it. Everything he does is at a quality level.
What’s the biggest issue in the industry and how can we solve it?
Obviously staffing. We’ve done a lot to try to improve our staff’s work-life balance here. We are quite lucky being a Monday to Friday restaurant, so staff get weekends off which gives a bit of normality. However at the same time there are Monday to Friday restaurants which expect you to work from 7am to 1am and I don’t think that 80 hour weeks are sustainable. To ensure we don’t do that, we’ve reduced our kitchen hours down to a four-day week so all the chefs get an extra day off in the week.
I think there’s always been this mentality that working long hours is the way it is, but I think with more and more intelligent people coming in the industry they are less likely to put up with that and quite rightly so. As an industry, we’ve got to look at ways of making it better and it can’t be that we double the labour costs and take on twice as many people, because that’s not feasible and we’d all go out of business. We have to look at other ways around it.
Here it’s been a case of reducing the amount of dishes we offer, so rather than having a set lunch menu and an a la carte alongside it we condensed it down to one menu, which reduces the workload. We’ve worked hard on engineering of menus. We don’t want to take the choice away from the customers, but we need to find a balance and something that works with the guys.
There’s not one solution. It’s been a problem for many years and it’s not going to get better overnight. However, the more of us who do something means it will make things change.
What’s your plan for the next two years?
I want to take the restaurant as far as I can. This refurbishment has given us a nice platform to push off from and start to put ourselves out there a bit more and push ourselves further. I’ve got an ambitious team here. We all have similar goals: To push for higher standards, keep the restaurant busy and pick up a few accolades on the way. That’s all I want.
Hospitality & Catering News, Interviews Editor