Michel Roux: Chef and restaurateur who revolutionised UK dining

Marcus Williamson

Michel Roux and his brother Albert are renowned as the godfathers of the contemporary cooking revolution that has transformed British dining over the past 50 years. Michel Roux, who has died aged 78, brought classical French food to London in the late 1960s at a time when British fare was, in his own words, “so awful”.

Roux was born in Charolles in the Bourgogne region of France in 1941. His father, a charcutier, gambler and adulterer, left home when Michel was 10. He and his brother were brought up by their mother, Germaine, who he said was “an inventive, instinctive cook” and “raised us during the war, so learnt to nourish and inspire us with her simple, but delicious cooking based on sparse, humble ingredients”.

Aged 14, and following the family’s move to Paris, Roux became an apprentice at a patisserie in Belleville, Paris, which entailed gruelling 72-hour weeks but prepared him for his career. His introduction to the world of fine dining came when he gained a position in the kitchen of the wine magnate Philippe de Rothschild at his Parisian home.

Roux’s older brother Albert moved to London in the mid-1960s and Michel soon followed. The pair opened Le Gavroche – so named after the urchin in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables – in 1967 on Lower Sloane Street, Chelsea. “I would never have come if it hadn’t have been for Albert,” Roux once said. “People thought that I was mad – I didn’t even speak English – but there was more scope. The food was so awful at the time.”

Despite this generally negative view of British cooking, there were some occasional highlights, as he told The Independent in 2017: “Although the food scene in general was almost non-existent, we both fell in love with the tradition of afternoon tea and still adore Britain’s array of cakes and pastries, such as treacle tart and scones with jam and cream and so many more.”

Having cooked for the Cazalet family and the Rothschilds, the Roux brothers found backing for their venture from the aristocracy and their friends. The opening night brought an array of stars including Robert Redford, Ava Gardner and Charlie Chaplin, and the restaurant soon became a favourite of celebrities and royalty, including the Queen Mother as a regular visitor. They received their first Michelin star seven years later.

Le Gavroche moved to Upper Brook Street, Mayfair, in 1981. The following year, the brothers gained three Michelin stars. Signature dishes on the menu include le caneton gavroche, a whole poached duck in consommé and soufflé Suissesse, a cheese souffle with a cream sauce.

Michel with his brother Albert, right (ANL/Rex)

The restaurant has become the nurturing ground for many other chefs who have since become household names, including Marco Pierre White, Marcus Wareing and Gordon Ramsay.

The Roux brothers bought the Waterside Inn in Bray in 1972, converting a local pub by the Thames into what would become another of Britain’s best known restaurants. It received its first Michelin star two years later.

The next generation of the Roux family would go on to continue their fathers’ enterprises. Michel’s son Alain was born in 1968 and began his career as a pastry chef at Patisserie Millet in Paris, following in his father’s footsteps. He moved his family to the Waterside Inn in Bray in 1992. A decade later, he took over the role of chef-patron, while Michel Roux Jr, Albert’s son, had already taken the reins at Le Gavroche.

Michel Roux received an OBE in 2002 for services to cooking. He wrote numerous books on French cuisine and founded the Roux Brothers Scholarship in 1984, a cooking competition for up-and-coming chefs, with a three-month restaurant placement as its prize.

In 2010, the Roux family celebrated the Waterside’s 25th year as a holder of three Michelin stars, the only restaurant outside France to achieve this feat.

Michel’s second wife, Robyn (nee Joyce), whom he married in 1984, died in 2017. He is survived by his son Alain.

Michel Roux, chef and restaurateur, born 19 April 1941, died 11 March 2020

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