Without us, you'd still be eating soggy veg: The Roux brothers on how they taught Britain to eat properly
When Michel Roux moved to London in the late 1960s he had a withering opinion of the British culinary scene.
'It was the dark ages,' he says, shaking his head with disgust. 'Nobody was serving decent food. I'm not even talking about good food. You would go to the Lyons Corner House where they would give you bleached bread and vegetables saturated with water. It was inedible. You have no idea what it was like.'
Michel, who had been head chef at the Paris mansion of the Rothschild family, moved to Britain at the behest of his brother Albert, who thought the Brits needed to be taught a thing or ten about how to eat.
Gastronomic geniuses: Michel (left), Albert (centre) and Michel Roux Jr are being credited with encouraging Brits to care about food
The brothers had a dream of running a restaurant together, but never imagined they would start nothing less than a food revolution.
Today TV is dominated by cookery shows, recipe books top the bestseller lists and the supermarkets are full of fruit and vegetables no one had even heard of back then.
'What a change of tune,' laughs Michel, 70, his voice still richly French.
'Back then the British would not talk about sex or food. Now it's gone the other way.'
It's hard to pin down exactly when some of society's more seismic shifts began. But when it comes to British gastronomy the country's top chefs all agree; without the Roux brothers we would be in a very different place.
'They were the Beatles of gastronomy,' says Heston Blumenthal, one of many devotees. 'They changed everything.'
First they opened Le Gavroche in London's Chelsea in 1967. The restaurant, which is now in Mayfair, was the first in the UK to win first one, then two, then three Michelin stars.
Then came The Waterside Inn at Bray in Berkshire (now one of the Queen's favourite places to dine out) and several brasseries.
They worked with Marks & Spencer to create the first truly tasty ready meals, while in their restaurants and through a scholarship scheme they trained a new generation of chefs including Marco Pierre White, Gordon Ramsay and Marcus Wareing.
Taste test: Michel (left) and Albert at their restaurant, The Waterside, in 1988
In the Michelin Guide today, more than half the starred British restaurants have chefs either trained by them or by their protges.
Then there's the family. Albert's son Michel Roux Jr now runs Le Gavroche, with two Michelin stars, and has also made a name for himself as the no-nonsense judge on MasterChef: The Professionals. His daughter Emily also has ambitions to be a chef.
Meanwhile, The Waterside Inn retains its three Michelin stars under Michel Snr's son Alain. No wonder the Good Food channel commissioned a series called The Roux Legacy, a retrospective featuring the family's celebrity chef friends and some of their favourite dishes, which airs over five nights from next Sunday.
'The Roux legacy is a lifetime of hard work which transformed food in Britain,' says Michel Jr, 51. 'We now have a food heritage to be proud of.'
The legacy began in France above a meat shop in Semur-en-Brionnais, Burgundy, where Albert and then Michel were born into a long line of butchers.
Albert, now 76, originally wanted to be a priest, but changed tack after he was abused by a member of the clergy. 'He touched me three times until I got wise and realised this was not normal. So I went on to my second love, which was food.'
The church's loss was gastronomy's gain. He trained as a pastry chef for four years, before a spell at the British Embassy in Paris. Then a godfather, who worked for Wallis Simpson, got him a job as a scullery boy in the UK at the home of socialite and MP Nancy Astor, and he ended up cooking for the wealthy family of Major Peter Cazalet, who trained the Queen Mother's horses.
He loved the UK from the very start. 'I like the people, the way of life,' he says. 'Democracy means something here. When I moved here, France was still very corrupt. There is corruption here but not on that level.'
The big time: Michel Roux Jr (right) with fellow Masterchef the Professionals judge Greg Wallace (left) and the series' winner Ash Mair
He and Michel had long cherished a dream of opening a restaurant together. Since their father had walked out of the family home when Michel was 11, Albert had always been more like a father figure than simply a big brother. 'There was no doubt in Michel's mind that whatever I was doing he was going to do it,' says Albert.
'I think if I was a fireman he would have joined the fire service.'
So they took over an Italian restaurant on Lower Sloane Street and renamed it Le Gavroche (meaning urchin). The Cazalets invited all their friends to the opening night and it was an instant hit; it was the Queen Mother's favourite restaurant.
Albert and Michel found themselves invited to posh cocktail parties – but once there they were treated very differently from the superstar chefs of today. 'People would ask, “What do you do” and if you said, “I cook” they'd walk away,' recalls Michel. 'Now, when I go somewhere, everyone wants to talk to me and women want to sit on my lap.'
More than the accolades, the biggest joy for the brothers was being able to work together. Their love for each other is tangible. On their new show they cook together for the first time in 24 years and it is a special moment.
'We love each other very much,' says Michel. 'What we have achieved is down to hard work, dedication and family love.'
'We love each other very much. What we have achieved is down to hard work, dedication and family love'
That's not to say they always agree; indeed there's often a real rivalry. 'If you cook alongside someone who cooks well, that is an invitation to you to do better,' says Albert of the competition that helped propel them boys to success.
The pair split the business at the end of the 80s,with Albert taking Le Gavroche and Michel The Waterside Inn because they had very different ideas about business.
Albert says of Michel, ‘He is not an entrepreneur. When I was buying more restaurants he was voting against it. My idea of success is to come out winning. I’ve had losses, but to me if you have six wins but lose four that’s fine.’
Michel bristles when I tell him this. ‘My brother is a fantastic man of ideas but not a great businessman. He’s never been able to streamline and that’s why we split. In the 20 years since I left Le Gavroche my returns at the Waterside Inn are bigger than Le Gavroche’s. So who is the better businessman’
Despite their disagreements they insist they have never really fallen out. ‘If he says something I don’t like I tell him, but we love each other so we never part as anything but good friends,’ says Michel.
Although family is clearly important to them, it was also something they didn’t get to enjoy in their early days. ‘It’s always a regret I didn’t spend more time with my children,’ says Albert. ‘I was working hard and I spent a lot of time womanising – I had countless mistresses. Seeing the way my son leads his life, I should have been more like him.’
He never expected Michel Jr to take up
cooking as he was so good at school, but the younger chef says he never
considered another career. ‘I was almost born in a kitchen – my mother’s
contractions started as she was helping in the Cazalet kitchens – and
it’s where I feel at home,’ says Michel Jr. ‘It was a huge burden to
take on the Roux legacy but you can’t turn your back on it.’
Celebrity chefs: Michel Roux Jr wuth Antony Worrell Thompson and Aldo Zilli in 2008
Similarly Alain never thought of doing anything differently. ‘He joined me at the Waterside Inn when he was 24 and he worked at every level in the kitchen,’ says Michel. ‘At first when he took over the restaurant he was just following me but now he’s really showing his colours.’
The brothers were among the first TV chefs with a show on the BBC in the 1980s and mentored many of the current crop. Albert says he does not recognise the foul-mouthed Gordon Ramsay we see on TV today. ‘Gordon doesn’t have a nasty bone in his body,’ he insists. ‘That’s not the real him – he’s doing that because he’s been told to.’ He admires Jamie Oliver because ‘what he does is so simple it’s an invitation to do something’. But he’s disparaging of Nigella – ‘she is known more for this [he puts his hands in front of his chest] than for anything else.’
But, surprisingly, he’s a fan of Delia Smith: ‘A lot of my colleagues mock her but there are a lot of people who are afraid to touch a frying pan – she encourages them to do it.’
Although all the men admit to occasionally losing their temper in the kitchen, none revel in it. But all are perfectionists. Albert berates his son if he thinks a sauce at Le Gavroche needs more seasoning, and Michel Snr is also critical of his son at times. They can get away with it because of their love for each other – and the strength of that bond is, in a way, as admirable as any other part of their legacy.
‘We all have this fantastic love and affection and admiration for each other,’ says Michel Jnr. ‘We all think we’re not as good as our brother or cousin or uncle, and that stops us from getting a big head.’
The Roux Legacy, Good Food, Sunday to Thursday at 8pm from 29 January.