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How Michel Roux transformed the British culinary landscape and shaped a generation of chefs

13 March 2020 by
How Michel Roux transformed the British culinary landscape and shaped a generation of chefs

Yesterday the culinary world lost one of its greatest masters in Michel Roux. The chef transformed the British culinary landscape founding two restaurants with brother Albert that achieved the pinnacle of three-Michelin stars and shaped the generation that followed him through the Roux Scholarship.

Paying tribute yesterday Hrishikesh Desai, the 2009 Roux scholar and executive chef, at one-Michelin-star Gilpin hotel in the Lake District, said: "Sharing one's success is the best success and Michel Roux Snr proved this by creating a scholarship which changed the British culinary map."

Through the scholarship, Michel and Albert Roux introduced the talent within the UK to the rest of the world and in turn broadened the horizons of dozens of chefs who have gone on to achieve too many accolades for us to mention in this piece.

Michel was a chef driven by his professional ambitions and culinary passions, who was, by those fortunate enough to have known him, described as charming, charismatic and debonair.

Even from a young age his life revolved around food, growing up above his grandfather's charcuterie in Challons, France - his first exposure to a world of wonderful aromas of patés, terrines, hams and bacon. Later in Paris, aged just 14, he took on an apprenticeship with a grand pâtissier in north Paris where he would spend three years learning his craft. He was then taken on as a commis in the kitchen of Cecile de Rothschild's household, becoming her youngest personal head chef, an experience that he credited as being "life-changing" citing Baronne de Rothschild "his greatest influence".

It is incredible but, also, unsurprising that he was just 26 when, along with his brother Albert, he founded Le Gavroche in London's Lower Sloane Street (which has since moved to Mayfair), followed by the Waterside Inn in Bray, both of which would go on to win three-Michelin-stars. Roux personally won national honours in both France and the UK, as well as global culinary awards and wrote more than 15 books and made numerous television appearances, devoting his later years to consultancy and lecturing.

The Roux Scholarship, launched by Michel and Albert in 1984, is now one of the world's most prestigious cooking competitions offering one of the most coveted prizes in the culinary world: an all-expenses-paid stage to train in a three-Michelin-star kitchen anywhere in the world, thousands of pounds to spend on career development and exclusive behind-the-scenes access to restaurant kitchens rubbing shoulders with the most famous chefs in the world.

But the true value for the Roux Scholar – and indeed even for those who took part without scooping the coveted prize - was becoming part of the unique Scholars Club, a network of winners and esteemed chefs who were exposed to world-class restaurants that enhanced their knowledge of global gastronomy, through study trips and travel with the Roux family, and who supported and helped each other throughout their careers, calling on the guidance of the family whenever they need it.

Speaking to The Caterer in March 2013, Michel said his inspiration for starting the Roux Scholarship was down to a lack of "talented young British chefs" in his restaurant kitchens. After being awarded Michelin stars and attracting the attention of the press, he said they wanted to help nurture British chefs by placing them on stages in two- and three-Michelin starred restaurants in France. But he quickly identified a common response shared by his French colleagues when he asked if they'd host them: "Is this a joke?" they'd invariably ask. "Nobody on the continent wanted to take them," he said. "It really annoyed me."

He found a sponsor - Nick Rowe from Diners Club - and as the competition developed over the years, going from "kindergarten to university level", it was instrumental in launching the careers of British chefs who benefited from the Roux's dedication, experience and hands-on involvement. "Albert, Michel Jnr, Alain and myself have the combined professional experience of more than 150 years and we are all still working," he said at the time.

High profile chefs whose careers were shaped and forever changed by taking part in the Scholarship are too many to list and are forever grateful to the life-changing experience. Sat Bains, who won the Scholarship in 1999, and knew Michel well, spoke of his friend's passing saying that he loved him as a father figure and thought the world of him.

Summing up what so many others would doubtless echo, Bains said: "I think if we can all lead 10% of his life, of his successes and achievements, then I think we will have lived a full life. I will always feel grateful, privileged and humbled to have known him so well. He had a glint in his eye - a spark - and we had an instant connection."

It was in Sydney in 1982 that Michel met his wife Robyn, reportedly on a blind date. Described by Michel as "his inspiration", she played a key role in the operations at Waterside Inn, overseeing the interior design and managing staff. A former drama student and self-taught cook, she was reported to have said that she didn't do interviews as Michel was always their "public face". Michel was left widowed when she passed away in 2017 following a two-year illness, aged 66 and after 35 years of marriage.

In 2014 Michel opened up in an interview with The Telegraph that he had for a long time secretly been battling bowel cancer and confided how the disease had robbed him of his sense of smell and taste, leaving him weak, exhausted and overwhelmed by nausea.

His death will affect many in the industry, including Brian Turner, Pierre Koffmann, Marco Pierre White and Antony Worrall Thompson who have spoken of the impact Michel had on both the British culinary landscape and their lives.

André Garrett, 2002 Roux Scholarship winner and executive chef at the Corinthia Hotel London said: "I am truly blessed to have known him and shared some special moments that I will cherish forever, through the Roux Scholarship, his energy and passion were amazing and his legacy will live on for ever, my thoughts are with the whole Roux family at this time. Thank you Michel for so much, god bless."

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