Michel Roux Jr has described the moment his two-Michelin-starred London restaurant, Le Gavroche, was caught paying less than the minimum wage to some kitchen staff as embarrassing, but has said he has put a plan in place to ensure that it won't happen again.
An investigation by the Guardian newspaper in November found that some salaried kitchen staff were being paid less than the legal minimum. It had found that some earnings were working out as low as £5.50 an hour, below the £7.20 National Living Wage introduced in April this year, due to the number of hours people were working. Unnamed sources quoted by the paper claimed that they routinely worked between 62 and 68 hours per week for about £375 before tax.
However, Le Gavroche responded immediately by pledging to increase the salaries of those employees working longer hours than anticipated, as well as committing to reduce the maximum working hours for all employees to 50 hours a week.
A year ago, the two-Michelin-starred restaurant announced it was to change to a five-day week, down from six days, with a view to improve the work-life balance of staff, and to help the site offer new pop-ups.
Speaking to The Caterer about the controversy Roux said: "The buck stops with me and I take responsibility for ballsing up on this particular front. I am embarrassed and I am sorry for it but in no way was it done intentionally."
He explained that after the departure of a couple of chefs in August, along with an unfortunate combination of illness and a basketball accident that saw another chef break his leg, the staffing level in the kitchen dropped from 16 to 11 earlier in the year. It left the restaurant in a tricky position, unwilling to call customers to tell them that their bookings could not be fulfilled, nor able to relax standards and send out food that was not up to par. As a result, Roux said, the hours that chefs worked crept up.
"We are not above the law and I am not in any way looking for excuses but there were some mitigating circumstances," he said. "As chefs you get into that routine of working these hours and getting used it, coming in at 8am instead of 9am, and I am to blame. I should have seen but I didn't see it. It wasn't flagged up directly to me. Because it is one restaurant and because I am very hands on and I like to be in control of everything, maybe the managers and head chefs didn't come to report to me because they thought I knew. It is my fault."
Roux said that in addition to a pay review that has seen wages for some staff increase, the restaurant would move to working 50 hours a week by March next year, giving employees Saturday morning, Sunday, Monday and Tuesday morning off.
"Moving forwards there is now a system in place whereby this will not happen again," he said. "I want to give my staff as much time as possible off and I don't want to have more than one team. We used to open six days a week and there was a rota system and I was fed up of hearing ‘I was off yesterday, it's not my fault', or ‘there's no mise-en-place done, when I take my day off I make sure it is full.' The idea is to work all together as one team, everyone takes the same days off.
"It would be all too simple for me to say forget all this, let's open seven days a week, have two full brigades, I will be far more profitable but it will be far more of a headache and it is not what I want. I want consistency and I want one brigade all to work together as a team."
The changes will take effect from March because bookings at Le Gavroche are taken up to three months in advance and consequently the restaurant will need that length of time to adapt to the new system while fulfilling all of its bookings.
Roux said he had also taken to locking the doors of the restaurant in the mornings to ensure that chefs vying to get a head start with prep couldn't come in and begin work early, racking up more hours than they were supposed to in the process.
"It is incredibly difficult because we don't clock in and clock out and it would be such a shame if we went that way. But we have a system now where the executive chef will sign off people on a weekly and we can go back and say ok you did more hours this week, you will do fewer hours next week so we know what we are aiming at."
In reducing the number of days that Le Gavroche is open per week and streamlining chefs' hours, Roux has been part of a movement that has seen several of his counterparts try and offer their staff a greater work-life balance.
Last year, Sat Bains announced that he would move his restaurant to four-day-a-week opening and James Close at the newly two-Michelin-starred Raby Hunt decided to scrap lunch service to give chefs more time off and help boost their creativity.
When asked how many hours Roux himself had worked as a young chef and whether or not he felt that in reducing the number of hours chefs are allowed to work would in some way lose out on an important formative experience, he said: "It's a very pertinent question. I have been formed by my apprenticeship and by my early years as a chef most definitely, and I look back at them with fondness and I would never ever change them.
"The first six months of my apprenticeship I was living with my grandmother in Paris and I slept on her couch, she didn't have a bathroom, I had to wash in the kitchen sink and boil a kettle. We are only talking about 1976. It is not the 1950s or 1940s. Did I ever look at my payslip? Not once. What did I do at night? I'd write notes and write my diary and read books. I absolutely loved it, and I didn't get any subs from my parents whatsoever. I never asked them for a penny. I lived with my auntie as well - I was fortunate yes, because I had family in Paris, but I didn't ever ask for any money. I wanted to do it on my own and loved every moment of it.
"But times have moved on. You do still hear stories of chefs now, still working these incredibly tough hours but not in a bad way. Since this has blown up I have had so many chefs phone me up, ex-employees, saying 'my God chef, you are one of the good ones'. The work conditions are unbelievable and the benefits of working at Le Gavroche and working for the Roux family are incredible. But they are intangible. You can't put a worth on it. You can't put it on your payslip. I am not using that as an excuse and I never would. I have messed up on [the legislative aspects] and it is a genuine mistake which I want to remedy and have in part already and will continue to remedy. The Roux family does an incredible amount of promoting, helping and following up on their staff. The amount of staff I have placed and found jobs for all over the world and gone over and above what a boss would normally do."
And Roux did recognise that moving to a five-day week had already improved conditions for his staff. "That has been well received - everyone has been working as one team. Staff retention since then has been far better and everyone has been coming in with a spring in their step. So that has been very good and I think the consistency of the food as well has gone up," he said.
Nonetheless, he also appeared to suggest that the strictures of minimum wage regulations did make it harder to offer some of the indefinable benefits that young chefs have previously enjoyed at Le Gavroche and other restaurants like it.
"If someone comes here and is over the age of 24, has got zero experience, got to a stage in their life where they have been working and decided they want to do something else and want to be a chef, they come knocking on my door and they say they want a change of career and would love to work here. That person - because he or she is over the age of 24 - needs to be paid at a higher rate. Is it fair that that person should get paid at a higher rate than a college leaver that has got a qualification, is 20 for example, and ok, has got limited experience, but has got a qualification? It doesn't seem very fair but that is one thing we are facing in our industry."
Meanwhile, a lack in traditional skills among today's chefs has also made him look carefully at whether he can take on apprentices. "I look at the structure of the kitchen and I really question myself now. Should I, as a two-Michelin-starred restaurant, be taking on apprentices and taking on college leavers and spend time teaching them, expecting them to be up to full speed and taking a hit when they open 50 scallops and screw them up completely? Admittedly, they would be on a lower wage if they are college leavers and under 24 or 21, but then would it be not better for me actually to pay a chef de partie who I know is less likely to mess up and will be far more productive?
"It is very sad that I am thinking this way, especially because it flies in the face of what Roux stands for which is encouraging youth and getting them on that ladder. If I do go that way it means there will no longer be any chances of climbing up the ladder like chef Rachel [Humphrey] who started here as an apprentice and is the first female head chef of Le Gavroche. It annoys me I am actually even thinking of doing that but there is an issue in the industry and especially in the high end that I deal with here. So they are the things I have to look at.
"Should I now be buying butchered meat, as in racks of lamb instead of best ends of lamb, canons of lamb instead of the saddles, doing far less butchery, saving time there? Likewise, should I be buying in filleted fish? Should I be buying in my stocks? Not spending hours and hours making them.
"When I was doing MasterChef: The Professionals. people were always surprised and shocked at some of the skill level that these professional chefs had or lack of. Call yourself a professional chef? You can't even open an oyster. You can't even truss a chicken. But I am afraid that is the way it has gone because more and more kitchens are going that way to save time and money on staff. But I still love my industry and there is something for everyone in this industry. It is not just the high-end dining and it is not all like restaurants like this where yes the pressure is intense and yes we demand a lot from our staff and there are absolutely amazing places that you can work at in contract catering, for example. I consult to Compass and the quality of the food there is Michelin-star standard but the hours are completely different and the pressure is different."
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