Michel Roux OBE RIP

Michel Roux Sr

16 March 2020 Ben Howkins, UK wine-trade veteran and author of books on port and, most recently, sherry, adds his own tribute to the late chef and restaurateur, as well as charting the history of Le Piat d'Or.

The very words ‘Michel Roux’ conjure up an icon who really did, with his older brother Albert, create a social dining movement and left a much-admired legacy, in our life-enhancing world of food and wine.

Michel and Albert’s early beginnings before the opening of Le Gavroche in 1967 are well documented, as is Michel’s subsequent glittering career centred around the Waterside Inn in the years that followed.

In tribute to Michel’s untimely death last week, I wanted to share a few early experiences with this extraordinary, humble, vivacious, smiling and thoroughly likeable culinary genius.

In 1969, I was brand manager for a new Beaujolais, Le Piat de Beaujolais, from the IDV stable. As a minority shareholder in Le Gavroche, we decided to launch it at the restaurant. All leading food critics were there, among them were Raymond Postgate, Clement Freud and the inimitable Pamela Vandyke Price.

To impress them, the Roux brothers decided to produce a soufflé for the first course. They had never tried this before for so many guests at once. Perfection was all. Two attempts and as many hours later, the soufflé triumphantly arrived, but not before we were all treated to a wonderful cabaret, on the dining table, by Clement Freud, accompanied by endless magnums of Le Piat.

Not exactly the launch we had planned, but unforgettable…

In the early 1980s, when I was running London wine merchant Morgan Furze, we needed to give the wine's recently launched successor, Le Piat d’Or, a bit of a boost. Michel offered to host a menu at The Waterside with the renowned chef Georges Blanc. The result was that, a few years later, Le Piat d’Or became Britain’s biggest-selling table wine. Such was the power and prestige of Michel Roux. Michel also asked me to a special lunch at which President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing personally awarded him the Ordre National du Mérite in 1987. Heady days.

Also in the 1980s, to celebrate Morgan Furze’s thirtieth anniversary as a leading London wine merchant, we decided to hold a big dinner for our VIP hotel, restaurant and City customers. I asked Michel to be our principal guest. The suits at York Gate [the head office of IDV, precursors of Diageo and owners of Morgan Furze] were perplexed, assuming I would ask some City grandee. ‘But he is a chef’, they exclaimed. ‘He is Michel Roux’, was my riposte.

Michel enjoyed his wines almost as much as he adored his cooking. We took him to Ch Loudenne, IDV’s welcoming pink château in the Medoc, where the unfortunate chauffeur, ironically called Albert, had forgotten his pills on the morning that he drove us back to the airport and our car veered into a ditch. We escaped ‘shaken not stirred’ and still made the flight. On another occasion, at Hennessy Cognac, Michel memorably cooked us all the most delicious onion soup at three in the morning. Perfection took time, as always. It seemed a good idea at the time.

At Croft, in Oporto, we dined in a new restaurant. Michel ordered turbot. We waited and waited. Containing himself no longer, Michel sought out the kitchen to see what was going on. He was apoplectic, rushing back to the table crying, ‘They have murdered the turbot’. We chose another dish.

Our family grew up with Rouxisms such as his catch phrase ''appy cooking', and we are the 'appier for it. Humour was very much part of Michel’s formidable armoury of skills.

During the Roux brothers' first TV series, the producers encouraged them to argue on screen, more than they really wished to, to attract the viewers. I sat between them in a taxi one day while Albert and Michel enjoyed a robust discussion. Whenever one or the other wanted to gain the upper hand, came the immortal words that always ended the argument: ‘but Mother would not like it!’ Their affection for their sainted mother was absolute.

Michel’s lovely, lively late wife Robyn kept his feet on the ground in a wonderfully gentle Australian way. During a meeting at the Waterside Inn, she bounced in, gave Michel a loving peck on the cheek and announced that, at a moment’s notice, she had to go to town as she had ‘places to go to, shops to visit and gentlemen to see’. Then, with a characteristic flourish she was off.

Michel sat back and smiled his infectious smile, recognising that he was a very fortunate and happy man, as well as being a very successful one.

13 March 2020 Britain has lost one of its most important culinary influences.

Michel Roux, brother of Albert and uncle of the TV star Michel Roux Jr, died yesterday at the age of 79 at his home in Bray, Berkshire, the small Thames-side village his Waterside Inn restaurant put on the culinary map when he and Albert opened it in 1972. Jancis and I knew him quite well.

Food and wine were the obvious conduits. As a French chef, Michel knew the value of a good cellar, particularly one filled with tip-top red bordeaux and red and white burgundy, and he would always make a point of speaking to Jancis after her annual trips to Bordeaux to taste en primeur, just to make sure that he was not missing anything obvious. And in latter years she would often bump into him on the Bordeaux circuit. He kept some of his wine collection in the southern French holiday house he called his bergerie.

I can still recall the time he came for lunch at my former restaurant, L’Escargot. The kitchen brigade was in a complete tizz at the prospect of having to cook for a three-star Michelin chef and I can still remember the disappointment on everybody’s faces when I told them after he had left how much he had enjoyed the vegetarian main course that was on our menu. ‘A dish that he simply would not be offered in his restaurants', I was quick to point out. It obviously pleased him.

Michel was five years younger than Albert. They first came to London together, initially working as private chefs, and In April 1967 opened Le Gavroche in its original location on Lower Sloane Street, before it moved to its current Mayfair location in 1982. Shortly afterwards, in 1986, the brothers decided to go their own separate ways: Albert kept hold of Le Gavroche while Michel kept the Waterside Inn.

This split was probably the making of Michel. The Waterside Inn has always had the most commanding views of the Thames as well as the potential to build what have become 11 elegant bedrooms. This was a project that he oversaw. At the same time he became part of the British Airways culinary team (on which Jancis and I proudly served at one stage) in an era when BA seriously cared about and invested in its hospitality.

Acting independently, and occasionally together, the Roux brothers transformed British cooking. Among the many chefs they trained and pioneered was Pierre Koffmann, the first chef at the Waterside Inn, before he moved to open La Tante Claire in London, and Marco Pierre White and Gordon Ramsay. Their timing was impeccable. The British in the 1980s and 1990s would accept whatever the French had to say about food, cooking, and wine to a lesser extent. By the 2000s we had the confidence to look further afield.

Traveling, spreading the Roux gospel was an important source of inspiration for Michel, but no trip was to prove more beneficial for him, his customers or his staff than his visit to Sydney, Australia, in 1982, where he was asked to go on a blind date with Robyn Joyce. They fell in love and two weeks later Robyn moved to the UK, where sadly she died in November 2017.

In 2003 I was the first person to interview Robyn Roux and the interview explains not only her deference – it is important in a public-facing business that there is one public-facing figure and that has always been Michel, she claimed – but also that she was allowed to be interviewed only after she had cleared it with ‘the Frenchman’.

Robyn’s arrival was to have diverse long-term effects. It was to encourage a whole host of young Australian chefs to the UK from the 1990s onwards. It was to lead to a slightly looser but still highly professional form of service at The Waterside Inn that was to see this restaurant keep its three Michelin stars for over 30 years. And it was to keep Michel on his toes.

Michel’s two other claims to professional fame will live on. The first, the creation of the annual Roux Scholarships for the most talented young chefs in the UK, has already been extremely productive, with recipients including the late Andrew Fairlie and Sat Bains. The second were Michel’s cookbooks, which he wrote regularly. They sold extremely well – over 2.5 million copies in total, a fact that he was always quick to pass on.

Charm and a twinkling eye are two of the characteristics that I will always associate with Michel Roux. He was an exceptionally talented chef – with a charming sense of humour, and knew better than to lose his strong French accent.