Alain Roux, part of a dynasty of French chefs in charge of some of the UK's most well-regarded restaurants, still considers himself the new boy in the kitchen at the Waterside Inn. Emma Lake talks to him about classic cooking and learning from ‘the chief'.
Alain Roux jokes that he "likes old things". While the chef is somewhat scornful of those who dismiss classical teachings, he insists he is not averse to change – something he and the entire industry have had to embrace in 2020.
As chef-patron of the Waterside Inn, not to mention being part of one of hospitality's greatest culinary dynasties, he oversees the only UK restaurant to have retained three Michelin stars for more than 30 years – 36 years for the Waterside.
The restaurant in Bray, Berkshire, was founded by his father Michel and uncle Albert in 1972. Fourteen years later the brothers separated their business interests, with Albert taking the helm of Le Gavroche in London, while Michel opted for the Waterside Inn.
Alain was named joint chef-patron in 2000, becoming the sole chef-patron in 2002, while the restaurant was awarded three stars in the 1985 guide. He jokes: "The three stars were here before I arrived. I'm the newcomer here and I've been here 29 years. It's a great achievement and I think the Michelin Guide is still one of the very few guides that is at the top – it is recognised by the general public as well as people in the trade."
Asked how such an achievement is maintained over more than three decades, he says: "It's teamwork. I think that's what the reward is all about. It gives us great satisfaction, but we don't take it for granted. We don't think about Michelin, we just operate in the way we operate.
"We have so much history and legacy around the people who have worked here and who have moved on, but we always know and see that we can change things. There's always something to learn, something different, something new. We try to follow the trends, the fashion, but in a smooth way. We have a mixed, international team with a lot of young people. We like to learn and share things together; they learn from the Waterside Inn, but we learn with them."
The chef's father, Michel, known as the big chief among the team at the restaurant, passed away earlier this year. The outpouring of tributes in acknowledgement of his achievements stretched around the world. There are far too many to list, but Brian Turner, friend and president of the Royal Academy of Culinary Arts, described him as the "greatest modern champion" of gastronomy and cooking in the UK.
Asked if the history of the restaurant is a daunting mantle to carry and, possibly, one that curtails his freedom, Alain says: "I think if you're a true professional you have to respect the people who have built the legacy in our profession, because without them we would not be here and we would not be at this level.
"But, the freedom – everybody has freedom. I could do things very, very differently. There are some people who take a different aspect on restaurants and think we're in the past, that we're old-fashioned and boring and bland in everything we do; stiff in this, stiff in that. I don't think those people have much background knowledge about service and food."
The chef does not disdain those restaurants that follow a different path to the Waterside Inn, but he believes people should know what to expect when they visit his establishment. He explains: "You can go somewhere where you can get a ‘wow factor', but you won't get that here – we only give pleasure here.
"I think the experience is really a blend of the service, the food and the location. It's fine dining, based on the classics of French cooking, but with a personal touch; an up-to-date freshness and a balance of flavours. There's nothing crazy – there's no need to put too much on a plate. We are sensible when blending ingredients together. I would say almost everything has already been done in cooking; nobody is inventing anything these days. We use things that have been done in the past. We try to source the best ingredients we can, the best quality and respect that."
Back in business
The Waterside Inn has become a byword for luxury and attentive service, and while Alain says things are as good as they could be following its reopening, changes have had to be made.
The restaurant's website informs guests that the number of chefs in the kitchen is limited, so only an à la carte menu and tasting menu – ‘le menu exceptionnel' – are offered at both lunch and dinner. Kitchen tours are off, as is valet parking. Customers are asked, weather permitting, to leave their coats in their vehicles to limit cloakroom use and, as in every restaurant across the country, hand sanitiser is readily available.
Alain says: "The way we work has changed a fair bit. We looked at ways of keeping the team safe and making sure our customers felt safe without them feeling like they are in a hospital. After that, it was really about avoiding changing the experience of visiting the Waterside Inn.
"The most important thing is trying to keep social distance, making sure there's a flow of people moving around, avoiding trips for nothing. We are also making sure that people are sanitising their hands and avoiding spending time around the tables."
While overseas guests are only just beginning to return, and in very small numbers, the restaurant is welcoming many people looking to celebrate missed occasions or treat themselves following lockdown, and Alain is pleased to have the doors open.
"Not knowing when to reopen or how we would operate and what to do was nerve-racking. The worst was waiting to know the date of when we could reopen, because like everyone we were listening and waiting and we could hear people saying it will be a few weeks, a few months, the end of the year, next year. It was very unnerving because we were very limited in what we could do. Our industry is with the customer and if you haven't got any customers, you are basically at a standstill."
The Roux Scholarship
This year's Roux Scholarship has also been brought to a standstill, delayed until March 2021. The competition was created by Michel and Albert to provide up-and-coming chefs with the opportunity to train in some of the world's best kitchens, with each year's scholar able to select a three-Michelin-starred kitchen anywhere in the world to complete a stage. Past winners include Mark Birchall, Hrishikesh Desai, Sat Bains, Simon Hulstone and the competition's first recipient, Andrew Fairlie.
Alain and his cousin Michel Roux Jr are now co-chairmen of the scholarship, and the former says he finds the standards of entries each year extremely encouraging.
"It's incredible how those youngsters are just getting better and better. There's no secret, it's because there are more good restaurants and more good chefs running their kitchens or their businesses. They're enthusiastic, they're passionate and the level has really gone up. Every year we see progress in the skills. There are not enough women entering, but if you look at the number of men in the kitchen as an average, it's kind of normal."
The underrepresentation of women in both the country's top professional kitchens and culinary competitions continues to endure, despite the industry's efforts to ditch its hyper-masculine image and encourage change. Indeed, research by The Caterer carried out last year showed that between 2004 and 2018, 314 finalist spots were available in the industry's most elite culinary competitions: the Craft Guild's National Chef of the Year and Young National Chef of the Year; the Royal Academy of Culinary Arts' Master of Culinary Arts certification; and the Roux Scholarship. Just 28 of those places were taken by women, with 22 reaching the final stage in the last 14 years.
Alain has eight women working across his kitchen at the Waterside Inn and has seen positive steps in recent years, although he acknowledges it's a persistent issue for the industry, for which he does not have a solution.
"The attitude of men has not always been the best when you leave them together. If you want to build a family and have children it breaks your career a little, and a lot of people take that as a reason to stop or have a long break. I'm not sure how to change things, but there is progress, and it is a much better environment these days in the kitchen," he says.
The Roux Scholarship is known for testing competitors on their understanding of classical techniques, and well-thumbed copies of Auguste Escoffier's Le Guide Culinaire, Larousse Gastronomique and Michel Roux's Pastry are mined by the finalists each year.
For Alain, this grounding in the classics is essential and something his father instilled in him. He says: "Being self-taught, I'm not saying it's not good, or it's not possible, but if you have the chance and realise that's what you want to do in life, it's best to start at a school. In school you learn the classics and the basics, things you will not learn in a kitchen or a dining room. It's always the same problem with the young generation: they are always in a rush, they always want to go too fast. Not a lot of people like school, but it's important.
"I was recommended by my dad to start with pastry. I was 14, school was not for me, and I could only see myself in a kitchen cooking. I didn't need much convincing – who doesn't like pastry and desserts? I did a classic apprenticeship in France, which was two years with four weeks in a work premises and a week in school. I did that for two years with an exam at the end.
If you have a dessert that's no good, you've basically screwed up everything you've done
"I still see good chefs who struggle to make a decent pudding and I think it's a shame. We all know you finish a meal with a dessert, and you normally remember the first thing and the last thing you eat, so if you have a dessert that's no good, you've basically screwed up everything you've done."
On completing his apprenticeship Alain didn't immediately return to take his place within the Roux portfolio, but spent seven years working in kitchens in France, including at La Côte Saint-Jacques in Joigny and Restaurant Pic in Valence. Asked why, he laughs and says he "wanted to work with the best".
Eventually, Michel told him, ‘son, I'm not getting any younger', and Alain returned to Bray to take his position… at the bottom of the ladder in the Waterside Inn's kitchen.
He says: "I was at the stage where I felt happy and comfortable to come and work with dad. My dad was like a lot of chefs of that era – old school and very tough with his employees – and he was the same with me.
"It was not about coming in and taking over; it was about starting at the bottom and learning, because every kitchen is different, every chef is different. However, I was very lucky because my dad was in the kitchen every day and his head chef, Mark Dobson, was exceptional. I learned through the two of them.
"You never stop learning in this business. I had to prove myself just like every other chef that comes here, and it's still the same today. After a few years I became chef de partie, then sous chef and then joint chef-patron. But, until dad left us, he'd always been for the team, and for me, the big chief."
Looking forward, with the cloud of Covid-19 still over the industry, Alain says his focus, like the majority of the industry, will be on survival. He adds: "I think a restaurant like the Waterside Inn is as much a challenge as any other. We just want to keep the level and quality of what we do the same and also look at where we can change and progress. Hopefully, next year will be a better year for me."
About the Waterside Inn
The Waterside Inn, Ferry Road, Bray, Berkshire SL6 2AT
Dress code ‘Elegantly smart'
Chef-patron Alain Roux
Head chef Fabrice Uhryn
General manager Frederic Poulette
Assistant manager Dean Bonwick
- Pan-fried lobster medallions with a white port sauce and ginger-flavoured vegetable julienne
- Poached fillet of Isle of Gigha halibut, crab meat and fennel slice, lemon verbena scented bisque
- Roasted Merrifield farm duck breast, stuffed onion with giblets, caramelised pear and mead sauce
- Roasted loin of venison in a pastry crust with wild mushrooms, Hermitage wine sauce with blackcurrant vinegar
- Smoked Jivara chocolate mousse and whiskey cream, pearl barley ice-cream
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