This article was also published in the Financial Times.
Michel Roux Jr, long the chef/proprietor of Mayfair's renowned Le Gavroche and, more recently, the face of BBC TV's MasterChef: The Professionals and Food & Drink, was in a very relaxed mood when we met for dinner recently with our wives.
He had just returned from a week in the sun, although the holiday had been somewhat spoilt by the over-zealous attentions of one fellow guest at his hotel - a consequence, he has come to realise, of his new fame.
He is not due to start filming a one-hour documentary on chocolate until late February. And, most unusually for a weekday evening, he had no professional kitchen to cook in. Le Gavroche was closed not just for its annual redecoration but for six weeks for the first major overhaul of its kitchen in 18 years.
Our conversation was initially personal. We dissected the reasons for the current lack of form of Manchester United, whom we have both supported for years, and then we cheered ourselves up by agreeing quite how proud we are that our children have followed in our professional footsteps. Our son is a restaurateur; their daughter Emily is a chef currently cooking at Akrame, the highly regarded restaurant in Paris.
I then made the mistake of asking Roux just what was being undertaken while his restaurant was closed before it opens fully to the public this Monday, 17 February. His reply was so wide ranging, touching on so many aspects of how we use restaurants today and how even the most established restaurants need to adapt to changing tastes, that we agreed to meet again at his restaurant the following week.
Le Gavroche was initially unrecognisable. The ground floor bar resembled a furniture store; the normally tranquil cashier's office at the bottom of the stairs was full of bodies; and the scene in the dining room bordered on the chaotic.
Sylvia and Ursula Perberschlager, the Austrian identical twin sisters who between them speak seven languages and share a passion for Japanese rock bands when not assiduously looking after their customers, were lugging tables under the watchful eye of maître d' Emmanuel Landré, who was, most uncharacteristically, wearing jeans.
There were builders everywhere; a huge sign warned 'Wet Paint'; and a number of former cooks were walking in and out of the kitchen to see what all the new equipment looked like and whether anything old was surplus to requirements. Roux, not in whites but in very smart casual clothes, was sitting at a corner table completely devoid of any restaurant accoutrements. Even the proffered glass of water, to mitigate the building dust, never materialised.
But strangely enough the biggest change in the new Gavroche, Roux expounded, will not be physical but temporal. From now on, and in response to customer demand, the restaurant will open for dinner from 6 pm. 'We changed it from 7 to 6.30 pm about four years ago when we found that customers were arriving at 6.30 anyway. Now they are arriving at 6 so we have to be ready for them', he explained.
Although this is part of the shift in the working day that for many starts earlier than ever before, Roux smiled when I asked him what the consequences of this change will be for the restaurant. 'I am not quite sure, Nick. We are going to have to juggle shifts; to bring the evening staff meal forward; and we are going to have to hoover and reset the tables even faster. It's going to be really fun on Thursdays and Fridays when some lunch guests don't leave much before 4.30 or even 5.'
The trademark smile returned to Roux's face when he pointed across the room at what is the most obvious physical change. Instead of tables 10 and 11, which were the two tables closest to the kitchen entrance and therefore the least appreciated by many customers (other than by his father, Albert Roux, who liked them so that he could keep a beady eye on proceedings), three workmen were putting the finishing touches to what is now the most sought after and profitable element in any restaurant: what is known in the trade as a PDR, a Private Dining Room.
The demand for these spaces, where good food and wine come with intimacy and discretion, may not yet be part of any official collection of economic statistics but it ought to be. They are hugely popular at the moment, a sign of central London's financial strength, and Roux intends to take this interest to a new level by creating a room for six, which he refers to as the 'Chef's Library', that will be lined with his extensive collection of antique cookbooks.
'I'll write a specific menu, no more than seven or eight dishes, because I can't eat more than that, and when the guests come in there will be nothing on the table other than the relevant page of the original cookbook. When a 'poulet de Bresse en vessie', a Bresse chicken slowly cooked in a pig's bladder, is on the menu there will be my copy of Escoffier's Guide Culinaire 1903 on the side. This is going to be my personal little corner', he added with proud anticipation. The picture below shows him enjoying it.
Somewhat less appetising was the discussion, before we headed off to see his new kitchen, about the cost. The initial budget of £500,000 for the kitchen, dining room and new ventilation, was blown when it was discovered that the kitchen drains needed replacing. Another £200,000 had to be found ('the bank were very nice', Roux commented) and there is the loss of sales for the period plus the staff wages on top. Roux brought this topic to an end by saying firmly, 'I don't really want to think about this', before we headed off to the kitchen.
Here the biggest change is that the massive brand new range now runs on induction rather than gas, although the gas salamander that cooks their famous soufflé suissesse has been retained. While this is not an issue for the younger chefs, who now train on induction stoves at cookery schools, Roux joked that taming its power - 'it's amazing how quickly it can burn butter' - could be more of a challenge for himself, head chef Rachel Humphrey and sous chef Monica Galetti, who have long been at his side.
Although no changes to the menu are planned immediately, one other significant change is the addition of more capacity for grilling, a style of cooking increasingly in demand, to extract the maximum, and most natural, flavours from lamb, wild boar and scallops in particular.
If the dining room was chaotic, the scene in the kitchen was frantic as both shifts of cooks were there with a gaggle of waiters polishing glasses in a corner. Builders were coming in and out; kitchen designer James Lee was being badgered about the lack of phones and, temporarily it proved, gas; while in the quiet of the pastry section four cooks stood by a brand new convection oven as its first batch of macaroons began to rise.
Back in the dining room, Landré assured me that within 24 hours they would be ready for a few days of soft openings and then service would return to normal. After what has been in essence an extensive and protracted heart transplant for Le Gavroche, even his most regular customers (one of whom they refer to as Mr Petrus for his devotion to this, one of the world's most expensive, wines) will notice only the sliding door of the private dining room as the major difference to this restaurant now in its 47th year.
43 Upper Brook Street, London W1K 7QR; tel +44 (0)20 7408 0881