This is the first of a series of articles I have been commissioned to write for The Caterer, in which I trace a successful chef’s career path to the top: Three-Michelin-starred Alain Roux, son of Michel and chef patron of the Waterside Inn, talks about his route to join his family’s culinary dynasty.
I made the decision to become a chef when I was 14. My parents were divorced and I lived with my mother in France, so I didn’t spend a lot of time with my dad when I was growing up. I only saw him during the school holidays when I would come to the UK and follow him around everywhere. He was all about work and I remember, during one of my holidays, spending a few days in the kitchen at Le Gavroche when it was on Lower Sloane Street. I wasn’t really working, but more observing the action, watching my father and uncle work.
Seeing them in the heat of the kitchen definitely inspired me to want to become a chef. In some ways it was probably also a subconscious decision to get closer to my father but, more than anything, I got the feeling of the team spirit that exists not just in the kitchen but front of house, too. It’s like a family.
MY FIRST MENTOR
The first real turning point for me came after dad arranged for me to begin my training in pastry in France. I started at Pâtisserie Millet in Paris under Denis Ruffel, who was my tutor when I was just 16. When I think about my career now, I realise that what shaped me more than anything else was this beginning and training under Denis – he was truly exceptional. His capability as a pastry chef as well as a cook and a mentor had a huge impact on me.
He taught me everything there was to know. It wasn’t just about pastry but also about cooking savoury dishes. From him I learned all the basics of French cooking. I discovered all the ingredients and different techniques through trying different recipes. It was very hard work, being locked up in a small, hot basement in front of the three-decker oven cooking a few hundred trays of bread or viennoiserie. But he somehow gave me my love for the job.
He also really pushed me with my studies. I was training at a specialised pastry college at the same time as working for him and he helped me not only to pass my exam – which was the first exam I ever passed in my life – but also get a very good mark for it. Denis
Ruffel made me progress and gave me my love of the whole business of cooking. But he also built up my confidence by making me aware of what to expect, and helping me understand that it’s all about hard work and the relationships between people.
From there, I went on to work at five Relais & Châteaux restaurants: Maison Pic, Le Domaine d’Orvault, La Bonne Etape, Château de Montreuil and La Côte Saint-Jacques, and I did my military service at the Élysée Palace. All the places I worked at during my eight years in France were very different but also similar in many ways as they were all family-run. Some were one-star Michelin, others were three-star, and the brigades varied from five to 50 or 60 chefs. I really loved working at all these places and meeting all these wonderful people who were so in love with their trade; each chef I worked under was so different from the next and I learned so much from all of them.
JOINING THE WATERSIDE INN
Then dad told me that it was time for me to get ready to come and work with him. I was happy that he hadn’t forgotten about me and was keen for me to come back. It made me feel privileged and proud. This was to be the second biggest turning point in my life.
I joined the Waterside Inn in 1992. Mark Dodson was the head chef at the time and I started at the bottom of the ladder. I had never worked with dad before then, so it was a strange experience and very daunting at first. We didn’t know each other all that well, having spent so much time apart when I was younger. I knew I had to prove myself because ultimately one of two things would happen: either I would learn, work my way up the ranks and open my own restaurant with dad’s support; or I would take over the business.
There were some really tough moments during the first few years. The Waterside Inn is unique – it is small but very busy and when you have to do things to the standard of three Michelin stars for so many people, it is very challenging both mentally and physically. I could hardly speak English and I had so much to learn, but at the same time I had eight years in France under my belt, so starting again at the bottom was tough for me even though I was only 23. It felt like I was taking three steps back. Some of the chefs felt threatened by me because my name was Roux, but dad was very old-fashioned in his way of working and he was treating me like everyone else. Of course, that was fair enough – but as a son it probably wasn’t the best environment to get to know my dad.
At the end of 2001, Mark Dodson left and I became joint chef-patron. We decided then that it was time for dad to pull out and for me to take over. It was very scary; it was a big new start and a huge challenge that was intimidating, but also exciting. I knew I would either make it or fail.