Given that there was no food culture to speak of when it launched, the Waterside Inn could have sunk unnoticed into the Thames. That it thrived and became the leading light of UK gastronomy is a story of persistence, perfectionism, and a father-and-son duo at the top of their game. Joanna Wood reportsI
t's hard to imagine the Berkshire town of Bray in the era BR (before Roux), but it did once exist. Actually, it existed at the dawn of the 1970s, a decade most people tend to try and forget. Then came 1972, which, if it is remembered for nothing else, will be recalled as the year that an unassuming, quaint former pub in a quintessentially English setting on the banks of the Thames was transformed into one of the most iconic French restaurants in the UK - the Waterside Inn.
The change was down to the brothers Roux, Albert and Michel, who had already won renown and a cult following with their London restaurant, Le Gavroche.
In the early days, they used to alternate weekends working at the restaurant, but from 1986 onwards the brothers split their business and the Waterside became synonymous with Michel, Le Gavroche with Albert.
Under Michel's leadership, the Waterside has won numerous plaudits, including the holy grail of three Michelin stars, awarded in 1985, and it has held that accolade longer than any other restaurant in Britain. Michel is justifiably proud of the achievement, but such recognition, he reflects, seemed a long way away when the Waterside was launched 35 years ago.
"The Gavroche wasn't so well known outside of London in those days," he recalls, "and food was not at the top of the agenda for the British then. In the first few weeks, there were no clients during the week - it was as dead as a dodo. But the weekends were pretty chaotic, because we used to take extra bookings to cover."
He adds: "Sometimes, to be honest with you, I didn't want to be there when I knew we had bookings for 100 and only enough seating for 90. We were a very small brigade in those days, only five or six, and we weren't geared up for the kind of gymnastics to serve that kind of number. It was tough - but it was a matter of survival. You've got to take risks."
The turning point for the restaurant came in 1973, after Egon Ronay tipped the Waterside as one of the best restaurants in Britain in an article he wrote for the Daily Telegraph: the reservations book filled overnight and the Waterside has never looked back.
"You shouldn't cook for the guides, but my god when you're starting a business they're bloody helpful, especially when you're in the middle of nowhere and nobody knows you," says Roux, in his trademark basso profundo voice.
What sent Ronay, and later Michelin and the rest, into raptures was the Waterside's superlative execution of classic French cuisine, coupled with the professional but welcoming way in which it was served in the riverside dining room. One of the hallmarks of the Waterside has always been the personal touch that Michel has imparted to the whole restaurant. In the early days, he would sometimes take a turn serving front of house (on one memorable occasion, he accidentally tipped peas over a customer's head) and he has always been a stickler for detail, whether in cooking or service.
"The only recipe for keeping standards up, is to have a standard yourself," he says. "My standard is that I want perfection on every level and in every area that is around me - from sweeping the street in front of the restaurant every morning, to the quality of the flowers, to the look of the doorman, to the look of the chefs and the attitude of the waiters."
It's all very well setting standards, but you have to ensure that you pick the right staff to carry them through, and Roux has always been a shrewd judge of character, surrounding himself from day one with a group of talented, eager-to-learn chefs and a series of outstanding head chefs.
The first of the head chefs was a certain Pierre Koffmann, who himself went on to garner a loyal following at his legendary London restaurant, La Tante Claire, during the 1990s. He was followed by Christian Germain (who now owns the Michelin-starred Château de Montreuil in Brittany), Michel Perraud, Mark Dodson (of the Michelin-starred Mason's Arms in Devon), Russell Holborn and, most recently, Belgian-born Fabrice Uhryn.
Dodson, Holborn and Uhryn rose through the ranks of the Waterside's kitchen, a fact which underscores one of its most important contributions to the culinary world: the nurturing and polishing of cooking talent. In its kitchens, young chefs still gain a thorough grounding in skills including butchery, pâtisserie, bakery and sauce. Dodson says: "As a young chef, in 12 months at the Waterside, you cover everything. One year there is like two or three years anywhere else."
If a chef shows any promise, any passion for his craft, he is rewarded. Donovan Cooke recalls: "When I was 21 years old, Michel Roux gave me the biggest break a young cook could ever wish for - he changed my section to the sauce. It was the biggest building block of my career." Cooke went on to become head chef at Marco Pierre White's Restaurant MPW before heading abroad to Australia and Hong Kong.
"If you look after people well," Roux says, "they give in return their trust and dedication and do a lot more than a job." He clearly regards the staff of Waterside as an extended family.
Cooke confirms this, saying: "He always said, ‘On my own, I'm nothing. The Waterside Inn is about everyone from the dishwasher to the head chef. We are one team'." Of course, Roux is no pussycat (perfectionists never are) but the paternalistic style of management ensured an enviably low turnover among key staff and kept many former employees in touch over the years.
The baton of this paternalistic leadership is now being carried by Michel's son, Alain, who took over from his father as chef-patron in 2002. His father is still a strong presence at the Waterside, and on hand for advice, but it's now Alain who calls the shots on day-to-day operations in the kitchen.
There's a darts board in their shared office. It's there both for relaxation and as a satisfyingly physical stress buster. "If somebody has pissed me off or things aren't going well, I throw a dart," says Michel. Alain jokes: "We throw them at each other - and I'm better because I've had more practice!"
That exchange contains all the tension and affection that you'd expect between a father and son, but the truth is that the changeover has proved seamless, with Alain overseeing an evolution, rather than a revolution. Despite mischievous industry murmurings that Michelin would dock a star, that has not happened.
And in truth, it was never a given that Alain would take over the family business, despite obvious parallels with his cousin, Michel Jnr, who took over from Albert at Le Gavroche, and even though as a young boy he used to hang out in the Waterside kitchen, doing commis jobs. "The first day I helped out," Alain reminisces, "I was picking spinach - I had to go to the end of the jetty to fish and recover my sanity."
Michel says: "Maybe 10, 20 years ago, French restaurants used to pass from generation to generation, but not any more." He admits he was both "over the moon" and "disturbed" in equal measure when Alain announced, at the age of 14, that he wanted to train as a chef.
It's easy to understand why he was concerned - following in a famous parent's footsteps is a pretty thankless task: comparisons will always be made by press and industry alike. However, with the Roux family's hallmark professionalism, Alain took himself off to France for eight years, training first as a pâtissier in Paris then spending his formative years working in one-, two- and three-Michelin-starred French restaurants (something, incidentally, which his father never did).
When he himself considered that he was ready, he returned to the Waterside kitchen, aged 23, going in at demi-chef de partie level and working his way up through the brigade."You can't tell people what to do if you haven't done it yourself," he says quietly. Pushed, he concedes with a smile: "It was a tough school - my Dad is a tough teacher." Pushed again, he grins, adding: "And he likes to repeat himself - he's stubborn if you don't do what he wants then you're in trouble!"
As for Michel, between repeating instructions to Alain, he has been, unsurprisingly, deeply satisfied to be able to pass on his life's work to his son. "I'm very proud of him," he says. "I find it admirable that he has been at the Waterside for 14 years now - already half a lifetime - and is able not only to run the restaurant but to get the best out of his head and sous chef. Will he keep the three stars? I don't know. The future is uncertain for everyone. It will be up to him and up to the guide."
• "The whole story of the Roux family is, we're in a profession for life. We don't look for fame, we don't look for scandal, we don't want to have our name associated with people who are in the business for the wrong reasons."
• "If you are just running a restaurant without thinking about the industry around you, you are not thinking about having a full life. To pass on your knowledge and see young people grow and develop further gives you a wonderful sense of satisfaction."
• "You need difficulties in life to become successful. The Americans very often give jobs to someone who has gone bust because they think that person will bring an experience he doesn't want to have again. I think that's good."
Waterside Inn timeline
- 1972: Opened in Ferry Road, Bray, Berkshire, by Albert and Michel Roux, bringing "the London touch" to the county of Berkshire. Financed by bank loan, leased from Whitbread.
- 1973: Egon Ronay article predicting legendary status for Waterside.
- 1974: Awarded one Michelin star.
- 1977: Awarded two Michelin stars.
- 1985: Awarded three Michelin stars. Michel wins Independent Restaurateur of the Year award at the Cateys.
- 1986: Michel Roux becomes sole chef-proprietor.
- 1988: Roux employs Diego Masciaga as restaurant manager and soon regards him as "essential" to the success of the Waterside Inn.
- 1990: Freehold bought by Michel Roux.
- 1992: Alain Roux joins the kitchen brigade.
- 1995: Michel and Albert win the Lifetime Achievement award at the Cateys.
- 2002: Alain joins his father as chef-patron, taking full control of the kitchen.
- 2007: Waterside celebrates its 35th anniversary. Today it has 50 staff, including 20 chefs
Menu Tastings… Then and Now
- Soup des pêcheurs
- Ouefs Cendrillon
- Homard au porto
- Filets de sole Normandie
- Grenadin de veau en feuillété
- Tarte au citron
- Crème Bachique
- Chilled gazpacho soup with tomato mousse, oscietra caviar, mozzarella and fennel ravioli, seaweed crouton
- Poached eggs in pastry with asparagus tips and mousseline sauce
- Pan-fried lobster medallions with white port sauce and ginger flavoured vegetable julienne
- Pan-fried red mullet, crushed potatoes flavoured with sweet garlic, provençal vegetable terrine and warm "barigoule" coulis
- Roasted loin of lamb stuffed with aubergine confit and grilled pine kernels, "gâteau" of moussaka, saffron jus
- Pistachio crème brûlée
- Warm raspberry soufflé
If you're thinking about opening a country restaurant…
- Be ready for the ups and downs - make provision for possible slow weekdays in business plans.
- Choose a site close to a main road - you can't always rely on locals to fill the restaurant.
- Choose a property that has the scope to add bedrooms.
- Make sure your finances are strong because you can't expect immediate profit.
- Be patient. You need at least three to five years to establish a reputation as a destination.
- Be prepared to take calculated risks.