Michel Roux obituary

Chef and restaurateur who, with his brother, Albert, transformed the British dining experience
Michel Roux at the Waterside Inn, 2002.
Michel Roux at the Waterside Inn, 2002. Photograph: Mike Lawn/Rex/Shutterstock
Michel Roux at the Waterside Inn, 2002. Photograph: Mike Lawn/Rex/Shutterstock

Last modified on Thu 12 Mar 2020 14.20 EDT

The chef Michel Roux, who has died aged 78, was the younger half of the formidable partnership with his brother, Albert, that transformed the British restaurant scene in the late 1960s with their Michelin-starred restaurant Le Gavroche. Later, as sole director of the Waterside Inn, situated by an idyllic stretch of the Thames at Bray, Michel proved he was a chef’s chef. His menu was a statement of the most classic form of French cooking – nouvelle cuisine had no part to play. Luxury ingredients, many mousses and forcemeats, the finest of pâtisserie, were integral. Michelin soon recognised the quality and this restaurant gained three stars, perhaps the highest professional accolade available, in 1985, which it has retained for longer than any outside France.

From the outset, the Roux brothers’ style of cooking embraced wholeheartedly the standards and practices of classic haute cuisine while offering a refined interpretation of a more homely cuisine bourgeoise. The rapid success of Le Gavroche from its star-studded opening on Lower Sloane Street, London, in 1967, attended by Ava Gardner, Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks Jr and a brace of marquesses, enabled the construction of a veritable empire, largely driven by the entrepreneurial spirit of Albert. The pair took in more restaurants, retail outlets, a restaurant supply business distributing produce shipped in from Paris markets, contract and outside catering, and production of vacuum-packed restaurant dishes. Michel was an integral part of this furious activity, while concentrating to an ever greater degree on the kitchen at the Waterside.

Born in the small French town of Charolles, in southern Burgundy, Michel was the second son, and third child, of Henri Roux, a third-generation charcutier, and his wife, Germaine (nee Triger). After the second world war, the family moved to Saint-Mandé, a suburb to the east of Paris, and a charcuterie in Vincennes. However, Henri’s enthusiasms for horse racing and leftwing politics (the children breakfasted beneath a large portrait of Stalin) were stronger than his love of the domestic hearth or making money, and his legacy to Michel was a lifelong aversion to socialism.

Leaving school as soon as he was able, at the age of 14 Michel was apprenticed to a pâtissier in Belleville, Paris. This was a career path already followed by Albert, by this time a sous-chef at the British embassy in Paris. He suggested that Michel join him. After some months in the embassy pâtisserie, Michel was offered the post of commis chef a few doors down the rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré in the kitchens of Cécile de Rothschild, a member of the banking dynasty that owned the Château Lafite-Rothschild wine estate. With a break for military service in Algeria, Michel would stay as her chef for the next seven years.

Albert had been working principally in London before and since leaving the embassy. It was his connections, through his employer, the racing trainer Major Peter Cazalet, that would provide the backing for the brothers’ London venture, and Michel joined his brother there in the closing months of 1966. Sampling the capital’s fanciest dining rooms, the pair saw room for root and branch improvement. In their view, British diners had faced a choice between a cynical simulacrum of international haute cuisine, available in grand hotels and long-established “French” restaurants, or the smoke-blackened kitchens of French peasant cooking, by enthusiastic amateurs who had abandoned their former profession in favour of chefs’ whites. The Roux brothers proposed a return to first principles.

Neither had spent time in a commercial kitchen prior to opening Le Gavroche: profit and loss, or indeed cost, came second to quality, correctness and doing a proper job. Michel spoke barely a word of English, and as he and his brother spent alternate weeks in the kitchen or front of house, it must have been a baptism of fire. Nevertheless, their endeavours were rewarded by a single star in Michelin’s first British edition in 1974, then three in 1982, the year after the restaurant moved to Upper Brook Street, Mayfair.

The first menu contained many of the signature dishes of later years, not least soufflés suissesses (twice-baked cheese soufflés with an immoderate quantity of cream), roast duck in two servings, and a wide choice of elaborate desserts (omelette soufflé Rothschild first among them) to reflect Michel’s expertise in pâtisserie. The restaurant also laid down from the get-go its aversion to diners in casual dress. One of the great sports of dining there was to watch the very rich and very loud be forced to don a spare old-school tie by an implacable receptionist.

The early days, too, saw a resolute insistence on the use of French ingredients, some initially smuggled through customs by Albert’s wife, Monique. The policy would give rise to regular shipments of vegetables and produce from the Paris market at Rungis, and eventually to a wholesale supply business serving London restaurants.

While there was a certain reluctance on the part of the value-seeking British middle classes to take the restaurant to its heart, whether because of the prices, the apparent exclusivity or the style of waiting at table (at the Waterside Inn lowly commis waiters were forbidden to speak to customers), the sheer quality of cooking would soon convert them. It was then the springboard to an expansion of the brand, with a restaurant in the City, Le Poulbot, in 1969; by the law courts in the Old Bailey (the Brasserie Benoît, later Le Gamin, 1971); and the Waterside Inn the following year, where the brothers cooked turn and turn about until 1986, when they separated their business interests and Michel took sole charge.

The Waterside has always been a seedbed of cooking talent and many of Michel’s disciples went on to have distinguished careers of their own – Pierre Koffman, Christian Delteil and Mark Dodson among them. A new generation of Roux chefs also entered the kitchens. Michel ceded control of the restaurant to his son, Alain, in 2002 and took on the role of roving ambassador; by then Albert’s son, Michel Jr, had taken over at Le Gavroche.

Beyond the kitchen, Michel wrote more than a dozen books, sometimes in partnership with his brother, but it was always Michel who did the writing. These included New Classic Cuisine (1983) and At Home with the Roux Brothers (1988), which accompanied the television series of the same name. This last endeared them to countless British households who might have been too poor to afford their restaurants but who were willing to expend hours of effort, and gallons of cream, to achieve a domestic lookalike. The onscreen banter between the two chefs, and their almost comedic sense of double-act, earned them unexpected celebrity.

In 2008 Michel moved to the Swiss resort of Crans-Montana, while keeping his house and vineyard near Saint-Tropez. True to form, he soon bought a restaurant near the ski slopes and installed a chef from the Waterside.

Michel had been made a Meilleur Ouvrier de France in 1976, the gold medal for all working chefs. In 2002 he was made an honorary OBE and in 2004 a chevalier of the Légion d’honneur.

His first marriage, to Françoise Becquet in 1962, ended in divorce in 1979. He married Robyn Joyce in 1984. She died in 2017. He is survived by Christine, Francine and Alain, his children from his first marriage, and by his brother.

• Michel André Roux, chef and restaurateur, born 19 April 1941; died 11 March 2020

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