By Denis Sheehan FIH
The recent notification from Michel Roux of his decision to close – please note my very considered and rare use of the term – ‘iconic’ Le Gavroche sent shock waves around the culinary world. Shock waves that resulted in people scheduling flights from every corner of the globe to book one of the last tables before the doors finally close next January.
On receipt of the news, I like countless other media people I am sure contacted Shelley Sofier who looks after Michel Roux’s PR requesting an interview with Michel, which was promptly arranged, thank you both.
Speaking with Michel Roux is a pleasure, he makes conversation easy, it flows effortlessly and takes the form of an enjoyable chat.
Over recent days following the announcement of the closure the subject has come up with almost everyone in the industry I have spoken with. It’s a big deal, as Le Gavroche stands for so much with so many.
So, to start our chat I asked Michel what led him to his decision. The reply was instant: “I wanted to leave on my terms, on a high, and to make a splash before we close the door one last time.” More on the splash later.
Talking then more generally about his life and times with the restaurant his father Albert Roux and uncle Michel Roux opened in 1967 the conversation focused squarely on two elements, I am unsure if his focus on either was prioritised, colleagues and guests, guests and colleagues.
I have referred to reactions I received from industry people, Michel referred me to a guest. A woman in her forties who first dined at Le Gavroche as a child of six with her parents, who now dines there regularly with her young children. Speaking with Chef about his decision the woman reminisced on her family’s multi generation tradition of dining at Le Gavroche with a tear in her eye. It meant a lot to Chef. I suspect she wasn’t the first, and undoubtedly won’t be the last.
The family, his words not mine, of people Chef has worked alongside over many decades was his other focus. Most people know of the industry names that emerged from experiencing Le Gavroche culture first hand. Most notably perhaps Marco Pierre White and Gordon Ramsay, alongside Marcus Wareing, Pierre Koffman, Monica Galetti, Jun Tanaka, Bryn Williams, Stephen Terry, Rowley Leigh, Paul Rankin, Brian Maule, and many others.
There is also the front of house legends, Silvano Giraldin: Born in Italy near Padova, Giraldin went to the catering school at Abano Terme, and subsequently worked in France for 5 years in numerous high profile restaurants and hotels. He then ventured to London and joined Le Gavroche in 1971, four years later becoming General Manager in 1975, a position he maintained until his retirement in 2008. He remains a Director of Le Gavroche and a Consultant at Chez Roux.
Then there’s Sylvia and Ursula Perberschlager, the Austrian identical twin sisters who between them speak seven languages and share a commitment to attentively looking after their guests. Head Sommelier, Rémi Cousin who always knows with precision exactly what goes with what, of course deserves an honourable mention too.
Last and certainly not least is Le Gavroche’s kitchen porter Joao, as Michel refers to him, “our kitchen porter extraordinaire for 34 years, and most definitely part of the family”.
I asked about fond memories and there were many, one typified team culture at Le Gavroche, when Queen Elizabeth II came to dinner to celebrate her 90th birthday. The diners that evening sat in utter amazement as the Monarch entered the room to take her seat, meanwhile the team took care of service and did the cooking. “Everyone needed to be a part of that special occasion, so all did what we do every day and together we all looked after a very special guest,” said Chef.
Michel then added that he gets every bit as much pleasure and satisfaction from seeing all guests enjoy their experience of Le Gavroche. Some save up over time to dine, while others can quite easily frequent, however guests make their way to one of his tables, Chef always appreciates their patronage. You might call it égalité.
While busy establishing Le Gavroche founders Michel and Albert Roux also created what has become arguably the world’s most revered chef competition, the Roux Scholarship. Launched in 1983 the star prize was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity – a stage in kitchen of the of one of the world’s finest chefs, Michel Guérard at Les Près d’Eugénie. The brothers were pioneers in improving Britain’s culinary reputation, at the time holding three Michelin stars at Le Gavroche and two at The Waterside Inn (gaining a third the year after).
In 1984, the first competition took place at Inn on the Park and the winner was 20 year old Andrew Fairlie, who went on to hold two Michelin stars at his restaurant at Gleneagles.
From there, the competition brought further esteemed winners who went on to enjoy opportunities working in some of the world’s best restaurants.
Nearly four decades later, the competition has helped the careers of hundreds of chefs working in the UK play a key role in improving Britain’s culinary reputation across the world. The Scholars now also enjoy being part of a close network of top-class talent.
The Roux Scholarship is a vital part of the Roux heritage that continues to drive our industry forward.
I referred earlier about ‘making a splash’, when I asked about his plans in the months ahead before closure, Chef clearly relished one particular splash, providing the Le Gavroche experience to young students making their way into the industry. Twenty chefs from University College Birmingham, Westminster Kingsway College, and the University of West London will enjoy an all expenses paid dinner at Le Gavroche to encounter its culinary culture first hand.
Given what the Roux family over generations have given to British gastronomy it is a truly emblematic and fitting part of Le Gavroche’s final act.