TOP
Michel Roux - credit Jodi Hinds

The Interview: Michel Roux

The Interview: Michel Roux

Michel Roux talks to Tina Lofthouse about his decision to shut Le Gavroche and what’s next…

When I speak to Michel Roux just a couple of weeks after the closure of Le Gavroche, he is walking around the site of the iconic Mayfair restaurant to tie up a few loose ends.

“It’s so strange to see the walls bare,” he says. “There are no longer any smells of food, the dining chairs are about to go…” In the background, I can hear a knock at the door. Michel pauses our interview to answer. There’s a would-be guest asking if the restaurant is open. He comes back on the line: “That was weird. I’ve just had to say that we are permanently closed. To use those words… it is hard to describe.”

Le Gavroche has been a treasured part of London’s dining scene since 1967, when it was launched by Michel’s father Albert and uncle, Michel, the legendary Roux brothers. It started in Chelsea before moving to Upper Brook Street in 1981 and was a bastion for classic French cuisine. Many chefs first earned their stripes there, including Gordon Ramsay, Marco Pierre White, Marcus Wareing, and Monica Galetti.

Six months ago, Michel announced it would close, stating that he was seeking a better work life balance. It has been a part of his life for 56 years; he has been at the helm since 1991 and has done pretty much every service since.

“Closing the restaurant has freed up some of my time and it is also a huge weight off my shoulders. Running such an iconic restaurant and keeping the standards consistently high is tough and extremely wearing,” he says.

But it was with very mixed emotions he made the decision. “It has not been easy. I have spent most of my life here.”

He wanted to give as much notice to his staff and customers as possible. Unsurprisingly, his staff have been snapped up and have secured jobs elsewhere – but they all wanted to stay until the last service. After the announcement, messages poured in from customers and from across the industry. Bookings were eagerly made to eat there one last time, even flights booked.

“We’ve had people flying in from all over the world. The support has been heart-warming, and something I’ve never taken for granted, but the outpouring took my breath away. I wanted to bow out gradually on a high. I wanted to make the last six months a party, and they have been.”

Despite Le Gavroche’s popularity, Michel says there was no other option other than to close. He did not want to sell the restaurant or the name, and while his daughter Emily Roux and her husband Diego Ferrari are both chefs, they did not want to inherit. They have their own successful restaurant, Caractère in Notting Hill.

“The only viable option to stay open was to have Emily or Diego at the head. They didn’t want to and I fully understand that, they have their own restaurant and are forging their own life and reputation. That is wonderful and I admire that 100%.”

As for selling, he wouldn’t even entertain it. “I wouldn’t be able to sleep, having someone else owning such an iconic part of UK gastronomy. It would be like selling a part of me.”

The Le Gavroche name will continue for pop-ups and other ventures. This includes Michel’s work with Cunard cruise lines. This summer, he will host dining experiences on board certain Queen Anne and Queen Mary 2 voyages. He also works with Emily with Chez Roux, providing hospitality at sporting events as well as private catering. “I still have a very busy schedule. I’m not putting my feet up.”

He also plans to spend more time with his family and being a hands-on grandfather to Emily and Diego’s children. He steps in to help with the schoolrun and plays board games with the eldest. “I want to do more of that, spend more time with the grandchildren and spend more time with Emily and Diego, and go out for dinner with my dear wife which we haven’t done in years.”

Michel was an avid marathon runner. He says: “My knees can’t take running marathons anymore but I do like keep fit.” He enjoys getting out into Battersea Park and Clapham Common. He has lived in Clapham for over 40 years. “It’s changed a lot in that time. It is a lovely area, we are very lucky. It has a village feel to it with a butcher, a fishmonger, and nice coffee shops.” He also enjoys local restaurants including Trinity, Bistro Union, The Abbeville, and Chez Bruce in Wandsworth Common.

As we wrap up our call, I ask Michel for his memories as he looks back on nearly six decades of Le Gavroche. To have survived, and been popular, for so long is an incredible achievement. “The menu evolved over time, if you don’t you stagnate. But we never followed fads. We are steeped in history and we made history. It was important we stayed true to our roots, we were known for classic French techniques.”

He says he has had many memorable services – good and some bad, he laughs.

Michel has loved the restaurant’s final weeks. “We raised lots of money for charities with our farewell dinners. We hosted an event to say thank you to our suppliers, one of which has been with us from the beginning. I also had an event for catering college students who would never have had the opportunity to dine at Le Gavroche and hopefully it will inspire them to do great things in our industry.

He says his proudest achievement has been to keep up the standard for so long. “Not many restaurants or chefs can keep that up.” They have also hosted many royals and celebs over the years. “We have had many illustrious guests come down the stairs into the dining room, but when the late Queen Elizabeth came for her 90th birthday that really was a pinch-me moment.”

Having mentored many chefs through his career, his words of advice for those coming into the industry? “Don’t cook for your ego, cook for your guests.”

Your customers are everything. Michel adds: “Very often we see ourselves in the catering world as creating memories for guests but it is a two-way street and guests create memories for us. To all Le Gavroche’s customers, thanks for all the good memories.”

More restaurant news and reviews here.

We talk to Claude and Lucy Bosi

Read our interview with Scott Hallsworth

Tom Kerridge on his new Chelsea venture