The Fork in the Road: Alain Roux

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.

7715598I 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.

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.

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.

2014 Roux Scholarship opens for entries

Roux Scholarship 2013Britain’s most prestigious professional cookery competition, the Roux Scholarship, is now open for entries.

The contest, run by the Roux family, is open to chefs aged between 22 and 30, who are in full-time employment in the UK.

Chefs wishing to take part in the competition have until midnight on 27 January 2014 to submit a recipe for saddle of venison ‘fallow buck’, served plated and accompanied by two garnishes, one of which must include Jerusalem artichoke, as well as a sauce.

Commenting on the recipe, Michel Roux Jr said: “You have to be a talented and experienced chef to get the best out of venison, I am looking forward to tasting some classic and some not so classic combinations to go with this beautiful meat.”

The Roux family will be joined on the judging panel by a line up of top chefs including the inaugural Roux Scholar Andrew Fairlie, Saturday Kitchen host James Martin, Angela Hartnett, David Nicholls, Gary Rhodes and Brian Turner.

The judges will select the best 18 recipes and invite the entrants to cook them at regional finals held in Birmingham and London on 20 March 2014. Six chefs will then go through to the final, which will take place in London on 14 April, with the winner announced at an awards ceremony at the Mandarin Oriental hotel on the same day.

Established in 1984, the Roux Scholarship has celebrated and nourished young cooking talent in the UK for more than three decades, with former winners including Michelin-starred chefs Sat Bains, Simon Hulstone and Steve Drake.

The winner receives a host of prizes, including a three-month fully paid stage at a three-Michelin-starred restaurant anywhere in the world.

Full details of the competition and the entry process are available on the Roux Scholarship website.


Beneath the Whites – Michel Roux

Michel RouxMichel Roux is the godfather of modern restaurant food in Britain, who together with his brother Albert, has changed the face of UK dining over the past 40 years. His restaurant, the Waterside Inn, now run by his son Alain, has held three Michelin stars for 28 years, while the Roux family’s Roux Scholarship has helped to launch the careers of some of Britain’s top chefs

What is your earliest food memory?
The smell of pâté, hams, black pudding, sausages and delicious foods permeating our family apartment from the charcuterie below which was owned and run by my father and grandfather.

What is your favourite smell?
The vibrant, briny smell of the sea when the tide has just gone out.

What is your idea of comfort food?
It would be a light but full flavoured lamb stew.

Who has had the biggest influence on your cooking?
My mother, who was not a great cook but put love into everything she prepared, even boiled potatoes. It was a good lesson learned: to cook with passion.

Which is your favourite cookbook?
Antonin Carême – I have the whole series of books he wrote in the 1800s. He was a great pastry chef.

What is the worst thing that’s ever gone wrong during service?
A power cut, which happened in the middle of dinner service with 80 diners. It was a nightmare, we had to locate torches and candles and it was very uncomfortable in the kitchen since, although we could cook with gas, we had no extractors working.

Have you ever kicked someone out of your restaurant?
On one occasion, a customer complained and was particularly rude to my waiters and manager. The other customers were becoming uncomfortable and for the sake of establishing order, we had no alternative but to physically remove him from the restaurant.

When are you happiest?
At the close of a busy, smooth and successful service. I sit and relax with a glass of Champagne.

What makes you sad?
The lack of freedom in Europe. I object to the pervading powers of Brussels and despair at the speed that nations seem to be losing their identity.

What do you most dislike about yourself?
I often take too much on and put myself under needless stress.

What is your guiltiest pleasure?
Ice cream and desserts in general.  I have a sweet tooth and no matter how satisfied I feel at the end of a meal, I cannot resist indulging in a dessert.

What is the most disgusting or weirdest thing you’ve ever eaten?
In Vietnam, I sampled a peculiar delicacy which is sold on the streets and popular as an aid to fertility: a hard boiled duck egg but with the chick inside so it is eaten, beak and all.

Would you eat it again.

What’s on your perfect sandwich? 
My favourite filling is good ham cut on the bone, watercress, mustard and lemon juice. It must be a thick filling on thin slices of brown bread.

Who would you most like to be stuck in a lift with?
My dog, Henry.

Where did you have your best meal this year?
The Ledbury.

If there was one restaurant you wish you’d opened, which would it be?

If you could travel in time, where would you go?
Ancient Rome. I would love to see the gladiators in action.

Follow Michel Roux on Twitter @MichelRouxOBE