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'I was ready to put the key under the door and close Le Gavroche - but I hate losing'

There is light at the end of the tunnel for the resilient restaurant industry

Michel Roux Jr outside Le Gavroche
Michel Roux Jr outside Le Gavroche

In times of difficulty, people want warmth. They want to feel loved and part of something special. They want proper food and real comfort. They want to eat in a restaurant where they are going to enjoy being in the moment. 

Restaurants, however, aren’t just about food. They’re about a sense of occasion. That doesn’t have to mean a two-Michelin-starred restaurant like Le Gavroche. It could be a family-run restaurant that your own family has been going to for years. There are many places, including Le Gavroche, that today’s diners were introduced to by their parents, who had in turn been introduced by their parents. We often have three generations of the same family eating at Le Gavroche.

This is what makes a classic restaurant. There is an aura that you feel when you walk through the door, something that tells you that you are somewhere special. It is part of the fabric of the place.

Le Gavroche, and restaurants like us, are so much more than just a restaurant. Our customers celebrate the milestones in their lives here: turning 21, getting engaged, a 30th wedding anniversary. Families come to mark the passing of a loved one who spent some of the best moments of their life in our dining room.  

A few years ago, it seemed like that there was a new restaurant opening every day of the week. Some places were soulless. Yes, the food could be great. But it felt like you were just there to be fed. The staff may have been brilliantly trained but the service was mechanical. That, to me, is not hospitality. 

In a family-owned restaurant, the members of the team, whether they are in the kitchen or front of house, are part of the family too, and they know their guests inside out. Emmanuel Landre started as a waiter here 22 years ago and worked his way up to general manager when Silvano Giraldin left after 35 years. Our head chef Rachel Humphrey has worked here for 24 years, assistant managers and twins Sylvia and Ursula Perberschlager for 19 years, Joao Encarcanao Fernandes, our kitchen porter, for 28 years. 

The main dining room of Le Gavroche

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We have a special relationship with our guests because of that, which you don’t get in places that have just opened and where the front of house has been over-trained to be as precise as the military. 

We kept online bookings open throughout the first lockdown and we phoned to cancel the tables as and when we knew that we were going to be closed. We did that so that we could still have a conversation with our guests, who we have built a relationship with over many years. If a restaurant like ours closes, our customers lose part of their lives and their memories. 

When the first lockdown began, I was only a few days away from putting the key under the door and closing Le Gavroche. But I hate losing and I felt a responsibility to the livelihoods of the team. We haven’t had to make anyone redundant. Sadly, not everyone has been so fortunate. 

A lot of restaurants have closed, including some high-profile names. Before the pandemic, there was already a downward trend in hospitality because of the financial burdens we have in London; more and more chefs and restaurateurs are relocating outside the capital. We have lost many restaurants and I think many more will close.  

Even with a vaccine, hospitality is not going to pick up immediately. Will VAT still be at 5%? Will business rates stay at the same level they are now? Will landlords suddenly say, well, you’ve reopened now, you have to pay the full rent? 

On top of all that uncertainty, we have Brexit. Absolutely anything and everything in the restaurant industry will be affected by Brexit and it is going to be painful.

Michel Roux Jr.: "We often have three generations of the same family eating at Le Gavroche"

Goods coming into the UK from the EU, regardless of a deal or no deal, will have to go through customs checks and there will be delays and a cost to this. There will be more forms to fill in and more layers of bureaucracy and a return to the dark days of when Le Gavroche first opened in 1967. The loss of freedom of movement will be a huge negative for the industry and none more so than for British chefs wishing to work in Europe to broaden their skills. Brexit is another nail in the coffin for hospitality.

Moreover, there is nothing out there for staff who lose their jobs. I have been sent CVs from chefs in their 40s and 50s who have been made redundant from high-profile positions. I don’t think they will ever get a job like that again, or not with the financial security they had before. 

It isn’t just a UK problem. I have young Europeans working in my kitchen and front of house and things are the same in France and Italy, Spain and Portugal. There are no jobs anywhere in the hospitality industry. If you listen to our government, they should retrain and do something else. Maybe become a ballet dancer.

Overall, however, the government has been supportive of hospitality. The reduced VAT rate kept a lot of businesses afloat, including mine. Of course, the government could always do more. My colleagues in France, for instance, do not have to pay National Insurance and pensions for furloughed staff.

Business rates is a bad system that is extremely unfair and needs addressing. What’s more, Mayor Khan extending the hours of the congestion charge - and extending it to Saturday and Sunday - is anti-business and killing the centre of London. Mayfair is a ghost town. 

Emily Roux and her husband Diego Ferrari at their restaurant Caractère

We cannot just rely on the government for help, though. We have all got to do our bit. Even if it is just buying a couple of things from a restaurant that has pivoted to being a shop or is doing takeaway, it’s important to spend your money there. Most importantly, make a reservation at your favourite restaurant. We have three weeks of good business until Christmas. It is our only chance now to survive. 

The UK’s food scene is very strong compared to when my father and uncle opened Le Gavroche, but it is under huge threat. Where and when will a talented chef be able to open their own restaurant now? It is very difficult, especially in the big cities. 

Take my daughter Emily, for example. She opened her restaurant Caractère in Notting Hill two years ago. She has £1m of debt. Thankfully, she has a very supportive landlord and the bank has been good, but only because the restaurant proved that it is a viable business in its first year of trading. Emily is doing her damnedest to make it work and fighting her corner. 

Everyone in hospitality has their moments when they cannot see an end to the current crisis and asks themselves, why am I doing this? But there is light at the end of the tunnel. I am forever the optimist. We are a resilient bunch in this industry and things will bounce back. Like Emily, we have all got to fight our corner.

As told to Ben McCormack

Michel Roux Jr is chef patron of Le Gavroche; le-gavroche.co.uk

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