The merit of the Roux Scholarship is that, "The scholars bring back new expertise, but also enhance the reputation of British cooks abroad." So writes Michel Roux, co-founder with his brother Albert of the scholarship in 1983, in his newly published autobiography, Life is a Menu (see Book Review, Caterer, 26 October, page 82).
Publication of the book was due the week after Roux flew to Paris last month to visit the brothers' latest scholar, Frederick Forster, who was halfway through his three-month working stint with three-Michelin-starred chef Pierre Gagnaire at the Hotel Balzac. Forster had won the chance to cook alongside one of the leading stars of the modern French kitchen as a result of his success in the 2000 scholarship earlier this year.
Roux is in a reflective mood. Early in his career his initial ambition, with Albert, was to introduce new flavours to Britain and improve the quality of food, but now he is primarily concerned about giving something back to the industry that has enabled him to make his mark in such a significant way. Through the scholarship he is able to showcase some of the best young British talent abroad - something which could not have happened prior to his and Albert's arrival on these shores. "Before we started the scholarship it would have been inconceivable for a British cook to work on the Continent," he writes. "In the 1970s British cooks were a laughing stock."
Of course, much has changed since those dark days. Thanks, initially, to the benevolence of the Roux brothers, young British chefs are now found working as stagiaires, as well as in more permanent positions, in many of Europe's leading restaurants. Indeed, when Forster arrived in Paris, one of the first faces he saw on walking into the kitchens at Pierre Gagnaire was that of Carl Shillingford, a former chef de partie at the Waterside Inn in Bray, Berkshire. It was a relief to have another English-speaking chef to work alongside in the 16-strong brigade.
Forster, who is taking three months' leave from his permanent position as sous chef at Addington Palace, makes no bones about the fact that fulfilling his scholarship place is proving tough. As well as dealing with the prejudices that still exist for a British chef within a French kitchen, he is having to work hard at building up his knowledge of the language. The hours are long, with split shifts from 8am to 3.30pm and 5pm to 11.30pm, Monday to Friday, and dinner service on Sunday evenings. There is little time to do much else besides travel to and from his lodgings near the Gare du Nord to Gagnaire's restaurant just off the Champs Elysées.
And, as a perfectionist who likes to work in an ordered, pristine fashion, he finds the service - when 70 customers at both lunch and dinner are served some of the most exacting and imaginative dishes currently to be found in France - can be disorganised at times.
But for Gagnaire himself Forster has nothing but praise. "He's involved in every aspect of the service and is a great communicator," he says. "He talks to all of us before service, during it and after it, and is always even-tempered.
"I'm learning some good techniques from him. For instance, he makes this wonderfully light, fragrant jelly that is almost a liquid. There are many different flavours, but the tuna jelly with black olives, served with rouget, is superb." Forster is also impressed by Gagnaire's treatment of sea bass. "He removes the skin and marinates it in olive oil before cooking it very gently on the top of the stove for six to seven minutes, so that it is very delicate, like a confit."
Even before winning the scholarship, Forster had set his heart on working at Pierre Gagnaire. "I'd read a lot about his cooking and liked it for its freshness and its naturalness," he says. "It is different from anything I've seen before. There are so many ideas that I will be able to take back with me and use in England."
Every year Roux likes to visit the scholar bearing his name, wherever he or she may choose to go for their once-in-a-lifetime experience. On this occasion he is accompanied by his nephew, Michel Roux Jnr, chef-proprietor at Le Gavroche, London.
Roux explains that the restaurant in which the scholar ends up is usually the scholar's own choice. "But I will ask them what they want out of the experience; what type of food they want to see; do they want to be in a city like Paris, where the pressures are going to be greater than out in the countryside? Although they have the choice of going to any three-Michelin-star in Europe, almost invariably they will choose France, as it's still regarded as the cradle of gastronomy." The only exception during the past 17 years has been Scott Hessel, who chose to work with Eckart Witzigmann at Aubergine in Munich.
There is no doubt, though, that Forster's choice of Pierre Gagnaire has been a good one. As well as opening his eyes to new techniques and flavour combinations, the experience is also giving him the opportunity to work with some of the best-quality produce he has ever seen. "The fish is so fresh that it could almost talk to you, and the foie gras is just unbelievable," he enthuses.
It is the third time that Roux has eaten at the restaurant, and once again he is impressed by Gagnaire's imaginative use of ingredients and the labour involved in his cooking. Among the dishes that impress is royale de foie gras aux huîtres, fondant de thon rouge et caviar pressé. This is served in a small bowl and is basically a thick emulsion created by the whizzing together of foie gras and oysters, into which a small slab of tuna and some caviare is immersed.
Another dish that stands out is velouté vert, mousseline de poivron rouge et déclinaison de tomates, scampi de grenouilles, (frogs' legs served on a trio of brightly coloured purées - spinach, red pepper and yellow tomato).
Forster, who is working on the fish section producing the garnishes, was involved in the preparation of another dish to catch Roux's eye and taste-buds - aiguillette de saint-pierre à l'origan, galette de pomme verte au concombre, pulpe de mirabelle en amertume which was served alongside le peau craquante, venträche et petit encornet farci d'orge perlé aux câpres, suc d'étrille au vin du Jura. A base of finely sliced Granny Smith apples and cucumber on a mirabelle plum purée provided a base for fillets of John Dory, shallow-poached in a butter sauce for maximum moistness. This was accompanied by a green side salad topped with baby squid stuffed with pearl barley, capers and herbs. "The flavours are complex, but always clean," comments Roux.
Gagnaire explains that he can't leave the restaurant for more than a day or two at a time as he is intensely involved during every service in putting together and changing dishes. While business is good now, it hasn't always been that way. Gagnaire went bankrupt in 1995 when the restaurant he was running at the time in the industrial city of Saint-Etienne closed. It was the first three-star failure since the Michelin rating was created in the 1930s. Paris has proved to be an astute move.
THE 2001 ROUX SCHOLARSHIP
A boost to the prize purse for the 2001 Roux Scholarship establishes it as one of the most prestigious events in the culinary calendar for young chefs.
As well as being given the opportunity to work for three months under the supervision of a three- Michelin-starred chef anywhere in Europe, the winner, for the first time, will be flown to Japan for four nights to visit the Global Knives factory in Tokyo. He or she will also win a £2,500 cash prize, the chance to join the culinary team on board a Celebrity Cruises liner in the Caribbean, an overnight trip to the wine cellars of Gosset at Aÿ, France, and a magnum of Champagne Gosset Grand Rosé and Grande Reserve; while the winner's establishment will be presented with a range of All-Clad cookware, worth £2,000, and a coffee machine and coffee, worth £2,000, from L'Unico (Caffé Musetti).
The runner-up will receive £1,500, as well as two weeks' work experience at Le Gavroche, London, or the Waterside Inn, Bray, Berkshire. And, for the first time, the remaining four national finalists will be presented with £500.
To enter the 2001 Roux Scholarship you must be a British-trained chef, aged between 22 and 28 (as of 1 February 2001). Following an initial round of paper judging, a series of regional finals will take place on 8 March 2001, with national finals being held at Claridge's, London, on 9 April 2001.
Entry forms are available from Alison Jee at Golley Slater Public Relations on 020 8831 7660, via e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org, or on the Web: http://www.rouxscholarship.co.uk
Also, next year there are plans to introduce the Roux Scholarship abroad for the first time, with a launch in either the USA or Australia.
Source: Caterer & Hotelkeeper magazine, 2-8 November 2000