Michel Roux Jr. has a bone to pick. ‘Too many young chefs have been de-skilled,’ he says, sitting in a plush, dark booth in the corner of his Mayfair restaurant, Le Gavroche, before service on a chilly Friday morning. ‘I took on a new junior chef a few months ago, who was asked to put the potatoes on to cook – he put them in a vacuum pack. We don’t cook ‘boil in the bag’ or sous-vide, we don’t cook by numbers.’
By ‘we,’ he of course means his team of chefs at Le Gavroche, which is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary this year. Thanks to several years of TV appearances hosting Masterchef: The Professionals, Food and Drink and Saturday Kitchen, it’s common knowledge these days that Roux Jr. is one of this country’s most passionate advocates for what he calls ‘real cooking,’ the antithesis of cooking by numbers – or relying on modern technology to simplify the cooking process.
“I’m not knocking all these new gadgets, but they shouldn’t be allowed to take cookery over”
‘Don’t get me wrong,’ he continues, ‘I’m not knocking all the new gadgets and techniques that are creeping into the industry, they’re helpful in many ways, but they shouldn’t be allowed to take over. If you rely on gizmos too much, it takes away from the craft of cooking. Young chefs aren’t taught to use their instincts when they’re asked to “put this in a bag and cook it for five hours at 55 degrees,” anyone can do that.
‘It’s not the same experience as searing some meat in the pan, tending to it, basting it with butter and taking the pan off the heat a touch because you can sense it’s getting too hot. So much “modern”, cooking de-sensitises chefs to their craft.’ This deposition finished, he rests back in the booth and sips his coffee as though to close the matter. There’s usually something quite cold about an out-of-hours restaurant, but Roux, reclining in his chair, lends it a touch of homeliness. He seems at ease in his domain, and with his perspective on the craft of cooking.
Clearly, he sees de-skilling as a real problem. It’s one of the reasons why Roux Jr. founded a cookery school three years ago. Cactus Kitchens is for the public, rather than for prospective chefs, but it’s true to his principles. ‘Again, it’s proper cooking. Stocks and Sauces is one of the most popular courses we offer and there are no shortcuts in it. We run through all the basics, build up the foundations of good cooking and we keep classes very small. Really, it’s an introduction to our metier.’ He pauses for thought, ‘sadly, that’s a word that isn’t used enough in our industry any more.’
This dauntless focus on traditional skills is extending into his latest project too, The Balvenie Craftsman’s Dinner, which Roux Jr. hosts. Far from a single dinner, it’s actually a series of engaging online films produced by The Balvenie, which champion passionate independent food producers, bringing them together to contribute to a special supper prepared by Roux’s own fair hands.
“Sadly, ‘metier’ is a word that’s not used enough in our industry any more”
‘It’s fascinating,’ he continues, his eyes now bright with enthusiasm. ‘I’ve met so many extraordinary producers – take the boys from Wildes Cheese – who’d have thought there’d be anyone making cheese in the back end of Tottenham? Then there’s the Bermondsey Street bee keepers – looking after hives and producing really good honey within spitting distance of The Shard. All the participants at the dinner are engaged with what they’re doing, there’s a story that brings them together. There’s been a huge resurgence in the craft side of foodie culture in the UK – as a chef, it’s heartwarming.’
All of which explains Roux’s latest opening, The Wigmore, which is The Langham’s new restaurant at the top of Regent Street. There’s an air of honesty about the place, it’s comfortable but not dated or chintzy. Rather, to quote Michel, it’s a proper British pub. ‘We’re talking craft beers on draft and excellent pub food – not hotel or restaurant food – kept simple with seasonal ingredients. Friendly, cheerful service too, service that’s attentive but not too fussy.’ Sounds straight forward, but naturally there’s a twist. ‘We’ll be breaking a few moulds too,’ he adds with a knowing smile, ‘we’re serving wine on tap.’
Wine on tap isn’t something you’d expect a Michelin-starred French chef to be enthusiastic about, but then this is the same chef championing cheesemaking in Tottenham and rooftop bee keepers in Bermondsey. Michel Roux Jr. might be a classicist, but he’s all for originality, especially where good ingredients are concerned.