For most of us, the search for perfection is an unremitting one. No matter how well we perform, there’s always a higher standard that’s just outside of our grasp and, even when we do reach the dizziest heights of our careers for a few awe-inspiring moments, there’s an inevitable tumble back down from complete greatness. It’s always with an air of amazement, therefore, that I meet people or clans who have not only been at the very top of their professions for years and years, but actually helped to redefine the very parameters of their craft.
When brothers Michel and Albert Roux, who hail from a family of French pastry makers, arrived in England back in 1971 to open their first restaurant – the now-legendary Le Gavroche in London where Albert held the reigns for a couple of decades – few could have guessed the influence the pair would go on to have over British high-end cuisine. With skills to burn teamed with ample side portions of determination and business savvy, they were soon opening their second restaurant in the small village of Bray, Michel’s The Waterside Inn. To call these two establishments significant is like describing Gordon Ramsay as mildly successful.
With a commitment and flair that few Brits had witnessed before in a restaurant, The Waterside Inn became a Mecca for gastronomes and, in 1987, the restaurant was awarded three Michelin stars – the highest possible decoration. Almost 20 years later, Michel and Albert were named ‘the most influential chefs in Britain’ by Caterer and Hotelkeeper magazine. Small wonder as, at the time The Waterside Inn first opened its doors, British gastronomy was a culinary laughing stock – all chips, black pudding and stodgy cakes – but that little slice of France on the banks of the Thames, where Michel served ‘classic French cuisine with a modern twist’ started a ripple that became a landslide. For the fact that England is now home to some of the best restaurants and chefs anywhere in the world – from Anthony’s to The Fat Duck – the brothers Roux must take plenty of credit. Perhaps even more incredible is the commitment to continual excellence; they haven’t lost a single one of those three Michelin stars in any of the 21 years since.
“Accolades such as Michelin stars are actually really important to me,” says Alain Roux, Michel’s son who is now the Chef Patron at The Waterside Inn. “They are a form of recognition and motivate me towards the best possible work every single day.”
Just as Albert’s son has now taken over his father’s whites at Le Gavroche, Michel has taken a step back here. “It’s in my heart; I will always be involved,” explains the chef with the OBE. “However, for the past six years, I’ve only put my whites on to cook away from The Waterside Inn. I’m enjoying spending every day relaxing!” Just as he’s stepped away from the kitchen, Michel allows Alain to field most of the questions – he’s passed on the spotlight as well as the reigns.
“Being a Roux, I suppose I was always expected to be a chef,” says Alain. “However, strangely, I always wanted to follow my cousin and my uncle – not my father!” He’s inherited quite a charge and, also, a weight of expectation; but these sit easy on the shoulders of the affable Alain. “The key is never to get complacent and always to question what you do. Service after service, each has to be your best, while bringing in ‘new creation dishes’ throughout the year is also extremely important.”
The menu at The Waterside Inn changes four times a year, in order to accommodate seasonal ingredients. If you’ve never had the fortune to visit, then you must book at once. At the end of a picturesque road and right on the banks of the Thames, the location is idyllic. Swans and rowing boats float by, but you’ll be hard pressed to notice. The fare is just too spectacular. Dishes such as the pan-fried lobster medallion with a white port sauce and ginger flavoured vegetable julienne at once soothes and assaults the taste buds; the roasted Challandais dusk with lightly spiced prunes, green ‘Puy’ lentils and a ‘Grande-Chartreuse’ jus literally blows the mind – who knew food could taste this good? – while I defy anyone not to melt after just a spoonful of the warm rhubarb soufflé enhanced with raspberries.
“I suppose inspiration comes from everywhere,” continues Alain. “From visiting countries, food markets, reading books and talking with customers and my family. I also love talking to other chefs who use differing styles. I respect and admire the likes of Ferran Adria and am very interested in molecular gastronomy, but I still have a lot to discover. It’s bringing all these influences together that’s important.”
Almost as impressive as the food, however, is the atmosphere in The Waterside Inn. Every night feels like a command performance, but the staff are more like treasured friends than austere actors. It’s an ambience that Michel and Alain have actively promoted. “Looking after your staff and customers with the highest respect is very important, as is being surrounded by the best team,” says the Chef Patron. “The Waterside Inn is about cooking to an extremely high standard along with the skills of Diego Masciaga – one of the best front of house managers in the industry – and his team.” Not for the first time, the word ‘family’ springs to mind.
In fact, ‘keeping it in the family’ might as well be the Roux motto. When asked to name his favourite restaurant away from The Waterside Inn, Alain responds immediately: “Le Gavroche – my cousin, Michel Roux Jnr’s restaurant.” So, who takes on the daunting task of cooking when the tribe gets together? “Actually, my ‘mum number 2′ [Michel’s second wife] Robyn does it.” A brave lady indeed.
But the Roux have always been keen to widen their embrace and reach out to an extended family. A fine example of this is the Roux Scholarship which, in 2008, celebrates its 25th year. Britain’s biggest and most prestigious competition for young chefs, this year’s judging panel includes such culinary heavyweights as Gary Rhodes, Brian Turner and the Fat Duck’s gastronomic alchemist Heston Blumenthal. The winner receives up to three months’ training at a three Michelin-starred establishment in Europe – all expenses covered – in addition to a whole range of other prizes. Previous winners include Andrew Fairlie and Sat Bains; basically, winning the Roux Scholarship is a short-cut to culinary greatness.
“The scholarship is really important to the whole family – we want to invest in the future of our art because it’s been our lives and always will be.” In fact, on several occasions, the Roux family have organised backers, guaranteed bank loans and prepared contracts for young chefs looking to set up on their own, insisting that shareholders could not refuse to sell shares back to the Chef Patron. Being part of the Roux’s extended family is a great place to be.
When you consider all these parts as a whole, then it’s hard to deny that the Roux family is the most important thing ever to happen to British cuisine and the foundation for its current lofty position. “High-end dining is more popular here than ever before. British food surpasses the standards of most other countries, but also the British have become a very ‘foody’ population,” says Alain. “There are more and more high-end restaurants, as there is real demand, with people interested in and knowledgeable about healthy eating.”
While insiders and gastrophiles appreciate the Roux’s contribution, on the whole, the family has shied away from the media spotlight that so many other chefs have wholeheartedly embraced. “I’ve no problem at all with celebrity chefs. In my opinion, most have really helped the industry by raising standards and interest.”
If the last 25 years have been a lesson in unrelenting perfection from The Waterside Inn, then what does the next quarter century hold? “Well, I’m sure my father will just keep going for as long as possible, purely to annoy everyone,” Alain jokes. “Whereas I’ll retire as soon as possible and leave the hard work to everyone else! Seriously, we’ll just see what the future brings and keeping striving to do the best we can. Hopefully, we’ll all live a long and healthy life.” It’s a fine aspiration and, you can bet, that at the centre of it all will be the importance of family.
By Matt Warnock.