When my executioner calls and the last meal ordered, the starter will be cheese soufflé cooked with double cream. Maybe not the healthiest choice, but with the gallows looming a diet is redundant.
Indeed this signature dish from Michel Roux Jr – soufflé Suissesse to give it its fine dining moniker – is to die for. Clever pit masters can doubtless create a soufflé on a barbecue, but this comes from the kitchen of Le Gavroche in London’s Mayfair. Follow it up with roasted John Dory glazed with shellfish sauce, or perhaps the venison and black garlic.
A lot of leading chefs appear more on cookery shows or travelogues than in the kitchens that bear their legends. Roux has plenty of media stardust with television programmes and books to his name, but head to Le Gavroche and you’ll invariably see Roux at the heart of the operation in the heat of his kitchen, demanding, seeking and attaining gastronomic excellence – and then doing it again and again and again.
A Covid world has meant Perspex screens between some of the tables and Roux and his staff wearing masks, which singularly failed to hide the exquisite quality of the food and attention to detail.
Le Gavroche was the first restaurant in Britain to be awarded a Michelin Star and now has two. It was opened in 1967 by Roux’s father, Albert Roux, and his uncle, Michel Roux Sr, who died earlier this year, with this extraordinary family’s culinary influence writ large around the world.
Michel Roux Jr’s cousin, Alain Roux, is chef patron of The Waterside Inn in Berkshire, while Michel’s daughter, Emily, runs Caractere in Notting Hill, London.
Imagine the family fight for the tongs when that lot gather for a barbecue. Roux laughs, admitting that, yes, there are a few reasonable cooks to choose from if a relation is asked to fire up the grill.
“My dad (Albert) used to organise staff get-togethers, but he always put someone else on barbecue duty. I don’t think he has the patience if cooking low and slow and you have to have patience to do a proper barbecue.”
Michel Roux Jr loves to barbecue and at his home in the Ardeche – chestnut country in south-east France – there was plenty of grilling last summer. It may sound like a busman’s holiday, but Roux enjoys the escape from the stainless steel and white noise of a commercial kitchen with all its professional pressures.
“I barbecue when I can. But even if you are a professional chef, it is another skill set to learn and play with,” says Roux.
“There is trial and error, getting the right control of heat, knowing how to flash cook a really thin steak, or a rib of beef low and slow. But you can cook more or less anything on a barbecue.”
Roux highlights the importance of fuel too, down to what wood to use and the fuel as an ingredient, not just a fire starter, embracing the enthusiasm that barbecue engenders, from both masters and apprentices.
“I posted a picture on Twitter of a gilthead bream and lots of questions followed about how I cooked it, over what.”
Roux is active on social media, throwing in a picture of a grouse on the barbecue, a red mullet over charcoal or a traditional mixed grill on the live fire, in between more curated restaurant images.
Roux’s feed reveals his love of rugby too as a big Harlequins fan, with former England captain Will Carling reacting to one food post with the message: “Looks good. You should do more of this. I think you have talent.” While a picture of him alongside Joe Marler, at the Harlequins and England prop’s book launch, had ‘celebrity job swap’ written all over it, with Marler big into his BBQ cooking, although Roux’s hands would have to be insured for a fortune should he pack down in a scrum.
“I think it is wonderful that so many people are getting into barbecues in the UK. There are also some awesome pieces of BBQ kit out there these days. But it doesn’t have to be expensive and you can make a simple grill,” says Roux.
Roux likes the elemental in barbecue, the primal lure of live fire and purity of the cooking. “A barbecue is also a great place to congregate. It is the magnet at a party and becomes the heart and soul of the occasion.”
While Covid-19 naturally had a massive impact on his London restaurant business, which as well as Le Gavroche includes Roux at the Landau and Roux at Parliament Square, he remembers the lockdown queues at the local butchers and people asking for barbecue advice as the meat flew off the counters.
Roux may have been born in the garden of England, Kent, but he takes a Frenchman’s amusement in the British obsession with the weather, although pleased to see more braving of the elements, rather than only daring an alfresco cook when the sun is shining.
“I remember a couple of years ago we were having a family Christmas in France. I had some beef ribs to cook for lunch and decided to start them over the wood flame to get that smoky flavour. It was freezing cold and raining so we were wrapped up under an umbrella. To be honest I think we finished them in the oven inside!” says Roux.
“I love the theatre of live fire and you see more chefs now cooking in open kitchens, with the flames part of the experience and the entertainment.”
“A few restaurants are making names for themselves by grilling over coals. That’s helping the rise of barbecuing in this country. It is incredible how it has changed and grown in the last few years as the interest gets bigger and bigger.”
And should the hangman come for Roux, what would he request for his last barbecue? Although to be fair he’d probably ask if he could cook it himself. unless the prison chef happened to have a couple of Michelin stars.
“A whole lobster with lots of garlic butter. Nothing too fancy.”
We tried not to dwell on the hammer blow that the hospitality sector has taken in recent months, but it is unavoidable.
“Of course it is tough, but it is so important to reset and stay positive. It is a challenge to rise up to and excel at and I relish that challenge. My name has been built on great food and great hospitality,” says Roux.
“Yes we have to wear masks, but you can still smile. Guests see that smile because you smile with your eyes and body language. Our message is that it’s business as usual. But even better.”
The fresh air of outdoor cooking must be a welcome escape, swapping the whites for more casual attire. When the question ‘whose turn is it to cook?’ arises in the Roux household, you wouldn’t care which one from three generations volunteered.
If I can have the soufflé followed by lobster on the grill, I’ll be happy. And if we invite the executioner, I’m sure we can persuade him to put down the noose and join us.
Give the hangman a few bottles of Cotes de Roussillon ‘Le Gavroche’ 2017 and we might escape him altogether.
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