Michel Roux, the French chef and restaurateur who has died at the age of 78, changed the way the world felt about British food. Le Gavroche – opened by Michel and his brother Albert in London in 1967 – was the first restaurant in the UK to be awarded three Michelin stars in 1982; three years later, he achieved the same at The Waterside Inn in Bray. At a time when food in the UK was considered by many to be an international joke, these restaurants bucked the stereotype, albeit with French cuisine.
I first met Michel Roux 25 years ago, when the Roux brothers were already legends and I was a (very lowly) chef in the West Country. It was my wedding night, and my new husband and I had blown our budget to stay at The Waterside Inn, his restaurant with rooms in Berkshire.
We had been given a wedding present of half a bottle of expensive sauternes – the famed Chateau D’Yquem – and naively asked if we could drink it with our pudding. I don’t recommend this: asking to BYO at an establishment of The Waterside Inn’s calibre, I now know, is a faux pas equivalent to requesting ketchup to slosh over Dover Sole Meuniere, and likely to provoke rage in restaurateurs (especially when it is a wine which, it turned out, is also on their list). But it’s an example of Michel’s generosity that this was agreed without a pause, and our bottle was whisked away to be lightly chilled.
This was long before the days when it was commonplace for chefs to parade around the restaurant dining room. But, regardless of the fact we were one of countless honeymooning couples who have dined at The Waterside Inn, M. Roux appeared at our table to tell us what an honour it was to host us on our wedding day, before discreetly slipping away, leaving us to our canard aux clous de girofle et au miel. It was the dusting of gold to end a magical day.
All this was typical of Michel Roux. In person, he was always perfectly mannered, with an easy Gallic charm and that magic ability to make everyone he spoke to feel like a film star and royalty rolled into one. When, years later, I interviewed him in one of the cottages attached to The Waterside Inn, he fussed over pouring tea and pressed exquisite tiny cakes on me while we chatted, in front of a roaring fire, about the Queen’s visits to the restaurant and his love of Asia.
And it wasn’t just a show to butter up the interviewer: I once travelled to Vietnam with him and a group of Telegraph readers. He showed us round the local markets, his eyes lighting up as explained the ingredients, encouraging us to bury our noses in bunches of fragrant herbs, and patiently, thoroughly answering all of our questions. Later, he showed us how to roll vegetables in rice paper wrappers and together we slurped syrupy sweet, condensed milk laced coffee. He lavished attention on each of our party, with the grace of someone who genuinely loves people.
He had a wicked sense of humour, too. At a lavish lunch party to celebrate the 25 years of three Michelin stars at The Waterside Inn he presented me with a glass of – yes – Chateau D’Yquem, declaring: “Drink this. It is like ten orgasms.” “Maybe nine,” I demurred, at which he roared with laughter and hailed the waiter to refill my glass, saying, “in that case you need some more!” Ah, Michel, I’ll miss you.
Michel Roux's life in the kitchen
- 1941 - Born in the small town of Charolles in eastern France.
- 1955 - Starts a three-year apprenticeship, aged 14, at a grand pâtissier north of Paris. Later, moved to work at the British Embassy in Paris, and eventually became the youngest private head chef to Cécile de Rothschild’s household.
- 1960-62 - Joins the French National Service, stationed first in Versailles and later Algeria, receiving medals for his time in the latter.
- 1967 - Opens Le Gavroche in London with his brother, Albert.
- 1972 - Opens The Waterside Inn in Bray.
- 1974 - The Roux brothers receive their first Michelin star for both La Gavroche and The Waterside Inn.
- 1976 - Awarded the prestigious Meilleur Ouvrier de France en Pâtisserie.
- 1982 - Le Gavroche becomes the first restaurant in the UK to be awarded three Michelin stars. The Waterside Inn followed suit in 1985, and to this day has retained its stars.
- 1984 - Founds The Roux Brothers Scholarship, singling out one talented chef per year to become an apprentice for three months in a three-star Michelin restaurant. Past winners have been the late Andrew Fairlie, Sat Bains, and Simon Hulstone.
- 1986 - The brothers split their restaurant business, with Albert taking over at Le Gavroche and Michel The Waterside Inn.
- 2002 - Awarded an OBE, the same year that his son, Alain, takes over in the kitchen of The Waterside Inn, where he remains chef patron.
- Later life - Michel went on to many awards for his contribution to the culinary arts, including the AA Chef’s Chef (alongside his brother, in 2004), Tatler’s Lifetime Achievement Awards (2008) and The Observer Food Monthly Lifetime Achievement Awards (2011).