The Roux Spirit
Emily Roux talks to Tina Lofthouse about her new restaurant, life in south west London and being part of the legendary dining dynasty
The name of new Notting Hill restaurant Caractère aims to reflect the personalities of the two founders: chefs Emily Roux – daughter of Michel Roux Jr, grand-daughter of Albert, niece of Alain – and her husband and former head chef of Le Gavroche Diego Ferrari.
The restaurant is cool, casual, with exposed brickwork and banquette seating; the menu inquisitive and adventurous – and the concept is winning over local diners and critics alike with its approach, dividing dishes according to traits such as ‘curious’, ‘subtle’, ‘robust’ and, even, ‘greedy’.
“We want it to be about who we are,” Emily tells me as we sit in the restaurant midmorning, staff bustling around us preparing for a busy lunchtime service ahead. “We both have quite strong characters. And I’d say we are quite stubborn.”
Both Emily and Diego, who hails from Italy, were classically trained in France and met while working in the kitchens of one of the world’s most revered and formal Michelin-starred restaurants, Alain Ducasse’s Le Louis XV in Monaco.
But Caractère is altogether more playful, and combines both French, Italian and British styles. The signature dish is celeriac cacio e pepe with extra-aged balsamic vinegar. “Cacio e pepe is my favourite pasta dish and Diego’s mum would cook it for me. But we wanted to do our own take on it, which is where the celeriac, sliced thinly on a mandolin and into tagliatetelle, came in.”
“There is a lot of cheese in there with aged parmesan and pecorino. You have to be a real cheese lover. 99 per cent of our customers absolutely love it, but we have had a few say it is too al dente for pasta and we have to explain it isn’t actually pasta!”
The duo are firmly stamping their identity on the restaurant, and, with it, avoiding direct comparisons with the Roux family’s classic French stalwart Le Gavroche. While the Roux name may help open doors, it brings with it great expectations.
Says Emily: “When I went to catering college [the highly regarded Institut Paul Bocuse] in Lyon aged 18, nobody knew who I was as Roux is a very common name in France. It was great. I flew by my internships without mentioning it to anyone. When we came back to the UK, it was an appropriate time as I had worked for over five years in France and gone through all the hierarchical kitchen stages, which has made me feel able enough and comfortable enough to come home and carry that name on my shoulders.”
Emily notes though that it was Le Gavroche that first piqued her interest in cooking professionally. “As soon as I was 10, I was spending time in the kitchens there. I loved the ambience and the family feel of a kitchen. They put me in the corner to peel spuds and tomatoes and I spent the evening doing it and loved it.”
The first dish she ever cooked was for her parents, although she admits it didn’t quite go to plan. “I cooked them a Valentine dinner with salmon and potatoes but the potatoes were quite underdone. They were still very nice about it.”
Having grown up in Clapham, Emily has come back to her roots, and now lives in Putney. She loves the food scene south of the river.
“We are very lucky and have so much to choose from, with the likes of Trinity, Chez Bruce, and The Dairy. We have Sundays and Mondays off so we relax, go out for dinner with friends and see my parents who still live close by in Clapham.”
She also sources some of her ingredients locally too. Wimbledon legend Vallebona is one of her go-to suppliers. “We get our charcuterie and cheeses there – the parmesan and pecorino are used in our signature dish, and Stefano (Vallebona) always chooses the best produce, which is exactly what we need in creating authentic flavours.” Tooting market is also on her radar for seasonal mangoes.
Other ingredients are sourced in the UK as much as possible. “Around 90 per cent of our produce is from the UK, particularly Scotland, Wales and Cornwall,” she says.
The menu changes frequently according to what is in season, as well as ensuring that locals return for more. And indeed they are returning. “We have lots of happy customers and many regulars. It is so rewarding to read the beautiful comments we get from both customers and critics,” says Emily.
She admits though that the occasional criticism has stung. “At the beginning it was difficult to read the ones that were less kind. It is our baby and we spent so long in creating this and dreaming about it. When somebody doesn’t appreciate it or it’s not for them they are obviously entitled to their opinion but it does hurt.”
As to whether she is hoping that their efforts will be rewarded with Michelin stars, she is level-headed: “We want this restaurant to be full and to make people happy and that is our number one goal. If that accolade were to happen we would be thrilled. But I don’t wake up for that every morning.”
Her family has been in several times, including her grandfather Albert. “He always pre-orders his pasta and says what pasta he wants. He is privileged!” she laughs. Emily works front of house, while Diego is in the kitchen, a dynamic Emily says works really well. “I have 100 per cent trust in Diego and what he is doing and vice versa. It really helps how things flow. During service, I’m his eyes on the restaurant and he is my eyes in the kitchen.”
She is still in the kitchen each day, however, and the pair work closely together on the menu, with dishes such as a banana tarte tatin a case in point. “I love tarte tatin and Diego loves Balvenie whisky so we created a banana version with an ice cream flavoured with the whisky. It is delicious, not too sweet.”
The pair are dedicated to food, and even plan holidays around dishes they want to eat. “We went to Copenhagen as we wanted to try a few restaurants there. We also go back to Italy a lot and to the south of France where my family are from. But it is usually the food that decides where we go.”
While Emily may be forging her own path in terms of what a restaurant can be, she clearly has the same passion as the rest of the Roux clan…