It's four decades since London got a taste of the Roux brothers' fine French cooking at Le Gavroche, and the restaurant is still very much a family business. Margaret Clancy looks at how they've moved with the times
The entrance to Le Gavroche, in London's Upper Brook Street, is unassuming: a plain door with a little glass canopy overhead to protect visitors from the elements as they enter. Inside, there's an eclectic collection of modern art and a few family portraits and prints, but there's no great design theme. The plush velvet of the chairs and banquettes and the heavily skirted tables are luxuriously comfortable, but it's the antithesis of the chic modernity that we've come to expect from a busy two-Michelin-starred establishment. But then Le Gavroche has always been an exception to the rule.
This seminal restaurant was opened in Lower Sloane Street in London in the spring of 1967 by two young, keen and exceptionally talented Frenchmen, Albert and Michel Roux. The older of the two, Albert (now aged 72), had been working in England as a private chef to the Cazalet family for eight years and generously puts all the early success of the restaurant at their feet.
"First, they helped me with money," he says. "It cost me £1,500 to set up Le Gavroche and we had only £500. The Cazalets gave me £500 as a leaving present and they raised the other £500 that we needed from their friends."
Just as importantly, the Cazalets helped with customers. Mrs Cazalet ran the family house "like a six-star hotel", Albert says, with notes on guests' likes and dislikes, menus and interests. The hot young chef in the kitchen learnt how to please not only his employers but also his employers' friends, some from the highest echelons of British society. And when the restaurant was finally ready to open, Mrs Cazalet invited her circle of friends to the mother of all restaurant launch parties.
"It was a 60-seat restaurant but we had 450 guests on the night," Albert recalls. "There were people partying in the kitchen and on the stairs. I hate to think what Health & Safety would have to say about it now."
But the launch worked. The restaurant was fully booked on the first day of trading 40 years ago and it still is today. The only time when the numbers went down was in the late 1970s when the IRA was targeting London.
"It was a real problem. Our restaurant was filled with grand people and politicians so it could have been a prime target. We ended up putting a metal grille over the windows so that a passer-by could not throw in a hand grenade during the dinner service."
Then, as now, the restaurant attracted huge amounts of publicity, and of course became one of the most sought-after places to work. Albert and Michel took the idea of training seriously, and although the regime was one of the toughest, those that made it through had - and still have - a good chance of making it to the top of the business. Indeed, most of the country's biggest names in catering have spent formative years in the kitchen at Le Gavroche (see page 26). In 1985, Albert and Michel went a step further and formed the Roux Scholarship, encouraging young chefs from all over the country to compete for a placement in their restaurant (or any other three-Michelin-star establishment), an award that is still one of the biggest and most sought-after prizes available to young chefs (www.rouxscholarship.co.uk).
The same standard, of course, has always been expected front of house, where lunch now sees 60 covers at £60 a head and dinner 80 covers at £130 a head. General manager and director Silvano Giraldin, who joined as maitre d' 37 years ago and was made manager in 1974, admits that the regime is hard and his high standards take no prisoners, "but my boys and girls thank me in the end," he says.
Giraldin has a team of about 25, a ratio of one waiter to three customers, but he makes no apology for this: "We've always had a big staff front of house, but it would be impossible to deliver this level of service without it."
He sees his job as keeping the customers happy, as well as being the eyes of the kitchen. "Albert used to say that we had to keep up the reputation of the restaurant, but that we were only as good as the service we had just done - and the one in front of us had to be the same standard. After all, if you please a customer, he may come back again and again, but if you get it wrong once, you've lost the customer for ever."
And if that sometimes meant confronting Albert with a dish that was not perfect, Giraldin would do just that. "There were sometimes huge sparks in the kitchen, but if I saw something not quite right, I would always say so - moving quickly afterwards to the dining room to escape the wrath."
Giraldin admits that things are much less explosive with Albert's son, Michel Jnr, who joined in 1991 - "he has a different temperament" - but he still refuses to send out an occasional dish that he thinks is below standard.
The logistical problems of running a high-class restaurant 40 years ago are almost unimaginable today. England had seen the end of rationing only relatively recently (in 1954) and the idea of specialist growers or top-end ingredients on our own shores was unheard of.
"There are some things that England does really well, then as now," Albert says. "We could get beautiful lamb and beef and I persuaded fishermen to send me the whole of their catch, whatever they'd caught, so that I could serve it really fresh in the restaurant."
But other luxury ingredients were much harder to find and Albert and his then wife, Monique, took the matter into their own hands.
"Monique used to drive to Paris every week with a car full of the finest beef and lamb we could get to swap for good chicken, foie gras, mushrooms and charcuterie," he admits.
On the way back she would smile innocently to the customs officials and most of the time she was allowed through. Occasionally she was stopped and would have to take the whole car-full back to France, where she would drive round to the next port and make a different crossing over to England.
"It was illegal and risky, but the results were worth it and she never failed to make the crossing," Albert says.
He is at a loss to know what the then minister of Agriculture, Fisheries & Foods thought he was doing when he tucked into these smuggled delicacies at lunchtime. Of course, once EEC trade regulations relaxed, Roux took the opportunity to establish a proper import and export business, and brought food in from the Paris market, Rungis, every week, eventually supplying most of the top establishments in London with their fine salads and produce, and though there was a certain amount of rule-flouting - "the red tape was unbelievable" - Le Gavroche's smuggling operations came to an end.
Michel Jnr's hand at the pass has changed more than the extent of the fireworks in the kitchen. His is a younger, lighter touch. Giraldin comments: "His cooking is more modern and fresh. Watching him steer the kitchen from his father's cooking to follow his own path has been very impressive."
It is true that Le Gavroche no longer has three Michelin stars, but a placement in the kitchen or front of house here is as desirable for the next generation of chefs and maitre d's as it ever was, and Michel Jnr truly does not regret the star's loss.
"Certainly, I would love three stars. I believe in the system and the recognition would be wonderful. But I am not cooking that style of food. There are dishes that are worthy of it, but my style really doesn't suit that status. Besides, we have changed the feel of the restaurant over the past 16 years since I took over. People come here to laugh, to enjoy themselves and to have great food. We are not a temple and there are no hushed voices. With a third star that would change again and I don't want it to."
And though the menu is a much leaner, fitter affair under the younger Roux, there are Gavroche classics that will never fade. "Some people who came here when we first opened still come, their children come and their grandchildren come," explains Michel Jnr. "We tried once to remove the Soufflé Suissesse (cheese soufflé baked on double cream) but there was uproar so we quickly brought it back. We've lightened the recipe for Le Caneton Gavroche [whole poached duck in a light consommé served with three sauces for two] but it's still there and there'll always be an omelette Rothschild.'
So, what of the next chapter in the history of this grand institution? Giraldin will start to take a step back next year after 34 years in charge front of house but he has been training his replacement for years and he thinks the changeover will be almost unnoticeable.
"I will still be here, but I shall start to do less than 10 shifts a week. I am looking forward to taking it a bit easier," he says.
As for Michel Jnr, he has many years in the kitchen before him and his 16-year-old daughter, Emily, has shown a keen interest in the industry. "She's worked in the kitchen here a little bit and she is going to try to work in the room in the summer," he says.
Does he hope that she'll follow his footsteps? "Let's wait and see," he answers pragmatically.
Win a stage at Le Gavroche
Michel Roux Jnr is offering one lucky chef or trainee chef the chance to spend a day working with his brigade in the kitchens of Le Gavroche.
To enter the competition, simply submit your CV with a 20-word sentence explaining why you deserve to win this opportunity. Post your entry to Ian Haworth at Redleaf Communications, 9-13 St Andrew Street, London EC4A 3AF
Candidates must be over 18.
Staples in the larder
1967 Cheese, foie gras, butter, cream, good stocks, fine herbs and spices, great meat and fish. Classic staples of the time such as smoked salmon, caviar and French fries were banned.
2007 Olive oil, walnut and hazelnut oil, wild mushrooms, herbs and spices. Great fish and meat. Cheese, both English and French. Salads and herbs.
Specialities of the house…
|Soufflé Suissesse||19s (2 pers)||£19.90 (1 pers)|
|Caneton Gavroche||70s (2 pers)||£62.60 (2 pers)|
|Omelette Rothschild||30s (2 pers)||£20.80 (1 pers)|