Having held three Michelin stars for 25 years, the now legendary Waterside Inn has achieved what no restaurant outside of France has. Tom Vaughan asks Michel and Alain Roux how they have maintained such exacting standards for so long.
Alain Roux is quietly ensconced in a sofa front of house at the Waterside Inn. To the right, his father Michel is bidding farewell to guests with trademark Gallic charm: "Bye bye! Safe journey! Nice to see you!" He's a hard figure to ignore, gliding imperiously around the morning hubbub. Alain's eyes rise to meet my own when he is out of earshot. "When he is here he remembers he is the big cheese," he says, then bursts into laughter. "When he's back it's like he's never been gone."
Michel has returned from his roving, cookbook-writing retirement to celebrate a remarkable achievement at the Waterside Inn - this year marks the 25th anniversary since the restaurant was awarded three Michelin stars, which it has retained ever since. It's a full 15 years more than the next current-serving three-starred site in the UK, Restaurant Gordon Ramsay in Chelsea.
Meanwhile, among the other UK sites to have held the top accolade over the years (Le Gavroche, La Tante Claire, Chez Nico, the Fat Duck, Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester, Restaurant Marco Pierre White and Marco Pierre White at the Oak Room), only Le Gavroche has so far managed to hold on to the award for more than a decade. It also puts the Waterside Inn among the pantheon of greats on the international stage, with it being the only restaurant outside France to have held the award for a quarter of a century.
First opened in 1972, the Waterside Inn was awarded its first Michelin star in 1974, with the launch of the UK guide, winning its second star in 1977 and the third in 1985. Some might heap all the praise for such a feat squarely at the feet of Michel, who opened the restaurant with his brother Albert. But equally as worthy is Alain, who quietly assumed the mantle of chef-patron when his father completed a gradual retirement eight years ago.
The pair cut very different figures when front of house - Michel is every bit the French patron, oozing that Gallic charm and bold, rounded accent; whereas Alain is softer spoken, more retiring, mixing the French accent of his upbringing with a hatful of Franglais vowels. In the kitchen, however, their styles are far more approximate.
"His cooking is lighter and more accessible, maybe with less spicing," says Michel. "But of course, he is from a new generation and has kept it moving forward."
It has been this ability to keep apace with - maybe even help dictate - the direction French food has taken over the last 25 years that has kept the Waterside Inn on top of the game. Achieving three-star recognition is one thing, but maintaining it as tastes change and chefs age is quite another. The period of transition from Michel to Alain is therefore one of the key milestones in the Waterside Inn's history, comparable even to its first entry at three-star level. It was the moment when the biggest banana skin was swerved and the torch passed on to the younger generation.
At Le Gavroche - run previously by Michel's brother Albert and now his nephew Michel Jr - the generational changeover didn't go as smoothly, and the uncertainty saw the site lose its third star in 1993.
"I am not sure exactly how the transition worked at Le Gavroche," says Michel. "But I hope my brother gave [Michel Jr] enough time. After eight years working as a chef in France, Alain was alongside me for 10 years in the kitchen - as chef de partie, sous chef, commis sous chef and then head chef. It is something to remember - nothing happens overnight."
Time and patience have needed to be at a premium over the 18 years since Alain joined his father in the kitchen, and not just in terms of cooking. "The first three years we needed just to get to know each other," says Alain. "We had never worked together and I didn't really know my dad as a father, as my parents were divorced. He was living and working in England, and my mother and I left when I was 10 to live in France. I spent 15 years there, only seeing my father for a few weeks a year."
When Alain, aged 16, told his father that he wanted to become a chef, they agreed it would be nice for him to do a bit of work at the Waterside Inn one day. Nothing was put down in concrete - no accession plans formalised.
"We both knew it was a possibility," says Alain. "But my only aim was to gain as much experience as possible and work in different places." Looking back, Michel admits he would have been at a loss as to what to do with the restaurant without his son to take over.
"Maybe I would have given it to another chef to run for me; maybe I would have sold it," he ruminates.the beginning of a career To start his career, Michel steered Alain into pastry, where he, his brother and his nephew Michel Jr all began. With an apprenticeship in patisserie under his belt, the young Alain spent the next seven years touring some of France's most notable kitchens to build up his CV, including stints at three-Michelin-starred restaurants La Côte Saint Jacques in Joigny and Restaurant Pic in Valence. Although a long way away in rural England during this time, the well-connected Michel was still having an influence. "He knew all these people and I only found out later that he'd phone them and ask if they were paying me," says Alain, red-faced with laughter. "When they said they were, he asked how much and told them to pay me less. I used to wonder why my pay packets were so low!" The pair eventually teamed up in 1992, when Michel invited Alain to join the Waterside Inn as a demi-chef de partie and the rest has been slow and steady history. "A lot of what I do now is a continuation of what my father was working towards and what we worked towards together - lighter food with fewer spices," says Alain. "He still comes in and tastes all my dishes to give feedback. Sometimes I listen, sometimes I don't." He pauses and laughs: "Don't tell him that though." What do three Michelin stars actually mean? Are there rules one has to abide by? "From the few three-star restaurants I've visited, I've learned that everything needs to be grand - the food, the service," says Alain. "But what Michelin is looking for changes. Over the past 10 years it has not viewed things the same way it did 20 years ago. "The same counts for everyone. We have three stars, for example, but not top marks in other guidebooks. We've just tried to make our guests happy." Like the gradual transition from father to son, change throughout the restaurant is essential but must not be rushed. Customers like evolution, not revolution. Keeping signature dishes that regulars have grown fond of and introducing new creations to keep other regulars interested is a hard balancing act. The same applies to the upkeep of front of house; swapping crockery, furniture and artwork so it doesn't look dated but maintains the timeless elegance the restaurant is popular for. Still, the Waterside Inn of 2010 is recognisable from the one Michel and his brother opened in 1972, says Michel. The idea, back then, was to find a flagship countryside restaurant to sit alongside their city restaurant, Le Gavroche, which at the time was on Sloane Street in London. In the Waterside Inn, a run-down pub by the Thames in Bray, Berkshire, they found the perfect spot, and started to create a site equal to Le Gavroche. It wasn't all easy though. "It took a long time," says Michel. "In 1972 the public only came for special occasions. We were only full on weekends. In fact, it was very tough. If Le Gavroche had not been there to support it, it would not have survived." It took the restaurant three years to break even, and it was another two years before they started to make a small profit. tough at the top The business plans that back up three-star restaurants are unique in nature, and often poised on a knife edge. "The big problem at the top end of the market is that if you are not immediately successful then you are dead," says Michel. "You have to have lots of staff, the very best ingredients - it is a very, very tough business." By the late 1980s, with three stars under its belt, the Waterside Inn was full every night of the week, and these days does about 32,000 covers a year, supplemented by 13 bedrooms. Last year saw the installation of a new £1.5m kitchen, the first full refurb since the third star was gained. Still, says Alain, any sign of complacency could severely damage the business. "You have to react very quickly to situations. Ash clouds, plane strikes, snowfalls, terrorist attacks - they are all things you can't predict and you have to adapt quickly to. If you don't react in a business like this, it can be terrible." Prices are high at the restaurant, as you might expect, but not exorbitant -£100-£130 per person for a three-course meal and a glass of wine. Currently, the restaurant has a nearly 50/50 split between the kitchen and front of house for the 70 or so covers, with the kitchen brigade comprising 25 and front of house - which has been overseen by Diego Masciaga for more than 20 years - made up of 27 staff. Coupled with the cost of premium ingredients ("Onions that are three times the price of grocery onions, for example," says Alain), this means a well-structured business plan is crucial. "If you are not careful in this business, you can bleed money," Michel adds. What's more, among the four three-Michelin-starred restaurants in the UK today, the Waterside Inn is the only one that exists as a standalone, family-run operation. "You now see two kinds of places at this level - the restaurants that are a viable business and those that are more of a flagship," says Alain. "We only have this restaurant and we run it for our living. The day-to-day concerns are maybe different from those that are run as a flagship, where it doesn't matter as much if the bottom-line takings aren't great." Would that ever change: might he supplement his income with television work, as his cousin Michel Roux Jnr has done on BBC's *Masterchef Professional*, or by opening another restaurant? "If the opportunity comes up and there is a necessity either financially or personally to build on the business, maybe I would. I never say never," he answers. "Would I ever appear on TV? I will see. If you want to make a name for your restaurant and improve your business, there really is nothing better." As far as the next 25 years are concerned, does the thought of losing a star play heavily on Alain's mind? He thinks for a moment and answers with his usual careful, soft sentences. "It's something I've never taken for granted; we're in the top league now, but we won't be here forever." Surely, from a business perspective, with the Waterside Inn full every service, it wouldn't affect their way of life? And Michel leans over, his bright blue eyes full of mirth, and says: "It would mean we were not in division one, but division two. At the end of the day, it is fine to be in division two," he pauses for a second, then gives in to the bubbling chortles. "But it is much nicer to be in division one!" 25 years' celebration at the Waterside In Michel and Alain Roux last month played host to a stellar line-up of more than 100 top chefs and industry luminaries who joined the father and son at their restaurant, the Waterside Inn, to celebrate 25 years of three Michelin stars. The event saw almost all of the UK and Ireland's Michelin-starred chefs gather at the iconic restaurant in Bray, Berkshire, with guests including Heston Blumenthal, Raymond Blanc, Gary Rhodes, Marcus Wareing and John Burton Race as well as Michelin director Jean-Luc Naret and the UK and Ireland Michelin guide's editor Derek Bulmer. Guests were served a menu of 25 dishes taken from menus created at the Waterside Inn over the past 25 years. They included flan d'escargot en habit vert from the 1985 menu; turbot en croûte de volaille à la sauge from 1989; canard aux clous de girofle et au mile from 1995; fondant de pigeonneau et caille au citron vert from 2000; and entremets amandine à la pomme verte from 2010. The menu was accompanied by vintage wines courtesy of the Waterside Inn's suppliers ranging from 1999 Cuvée Louise Pommery Champagne to a 1986 Château d'Yquem. Michel Roux told guests that maintaining Michelin standards wasn't just about the food but also about high standards of service. "It is important to recognise Michelin quality isn't just about the food - it's an entire philosophy by which a restaurant is run," he said. "For over 20 years the Waterside's front of house has been led by Diego Masciaga, and it is thanks to his dedication that the service and kitchen teams run so beautifully together." the Michelin vieW Derek Bulmer, editor of the Great Britain & Ireland and London Michelin guides, on the Waterside Inn: "Their timeless classical French food serves as a constant in these fast-changing gastronomic times and the whole industry owes the Waterside Inn a huge debt of gratitude for its enormous contribution to raising culinary standards over the past 40 years. It's a fantastic achievement to sustain that level of consistent excellence for so long." masciaga wins international front-of-house awar Diego Masciaga, director and general manager of the Waterside Inn, has been awarded the Grand Prix de l'Art de la Salle from L'Académie Internationale de Gastronomie. The award was presented to Masciaga during a private lunch held at the Waterside Inn earlier this week. Guests included L'Académie Internationale de Gastronomie presidents Georges Husni (Syria) and Rafael Anson (Spain) as well as Michel and Robyn Roux. L'Académie Internationale de Gastronomie represents 27 countries and rewards maitre d's and sommeliers for outstanding work. Masciaga joins only two other winners of the award - Louis Villeneuve, maitre d' at the three-Michelin-starred Restaurant Hotel De Ville in Switzerland, who won it in 2006, and Juli Soler from El Bulli in Spain, who won it in 2008. Speaking after the presentation, Masciaga said: "I hope that this award will show young people that becoming a waiter is not just a job but a profession. The art of service is lacking not only in hospitality but in all industry. "To be awarded this international recognition is great for me and the industry, and shows how you can make a career of service and front of house." Masciaga previously worked at Le Gavroche before moving to the Waterside Inn in 1987. Michel and Alain RouX Michel Roux, OBE • 1967 Opens Le Gavroche on Sloane Street in London with his brother Albert • 1972 Opens the Waterside Inn in Bray with his brother Albert • 1974 Le Gavroche and the Waterside Inn both earn one star in Michelin's first UK guide • 1977 Both restaurants earn a second star • 1982 Le Gavroche moves to Mayfair and earns a third star • 1983 Albert and Michel divide the business, with Albert assuming sole control of Le Gavroche and Michel sole control of the Waterside Inn • 1985 The Waterside Inn earns its third star • 1992 Opens eight guest bedrooms and three suites at the Waterside • 2002 Is awarded an OBE • 2008 Wins Silver Catey at the 25th Anniversary of the Catey Awards Alain Roux • 1986 Completes an apprenticeship in patisserie in Paris • 1987 Completes a year as a commis chef at the three-star Restaurant Pic in Valence, France • 1988 Completes nine months' work as a commis chef at the one-star Le Domain d'Orvault in Orvault, France • 1989 Completes military service as a commis chef at the Palais de l'Elysée in Paris • 1990 Finishes 10 months' work as a commis chef at the two-star La Bonne Etape in Château Arnoux, France • 1991 Completes a year's work as commis chef at the three-star La Côte Saint Jacques in Joigny, France • 1992 Joins The Waterside Inn as a demi-chef de partie • 1995 Promoted to sous chef • 2001 Promoted to joint chef-patron who has held three stars for 25+ years Paul Bocuse, Lyon45 years Since 1965 L'Auberge de l'Ill, Illhaeusern43 years Since 1967 La Tour d'Argent, Paris42 years From 1953 to 1995 Troisgros, Roanne42 years Since 1968 Oustau de Baumaniere, Provence 35 years From 1954 to 1989 Taillevent, Paris34 years From 1973 to 2007 Les Pres d'Eugenie, Eugénie Les Bains33 years Since 1977 Père Bise, Lac d'Annecy31 years From 1951 to 1982 Le Grand Véfour, Paris30 years From 1953 to 1983 and then from 2000 to 2007 Georges Blanc, Vonnas27 years Since 1983 Comme chez soi, Brussels27 years From 1979 to 2006 Lameloise, Chagny-en-Bourgogne 26 years From 1979 to 2005, and since 2007