Gary Tucker / October 2005
Food Arts presents the October 2005 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Michel Roux, who, with his older brother Albert, initiated Anglo-Saxons into the joys and mysteries of contemporary French haute cuisine, first with the innovative Le Gavroche in London, then by striking out on his own with The Waterside Inn in Bray, and thirdly for pioneering the celebrity-chef-as-cruise-ship-guru trend as consultant to Celebrity Cruises.
From the age of 14, when Michel began an apprenticeship under a grand pâtissier in Paris, following the same path Albert had chosen, his love for pastry arts has been "an affair of the heart." A year as a pastry cook for the British ambassador to France would introduce him to both the splendors (roasting phalanxes of pheasants for formal presentation in their reassembled plumage) and rigors (the mindless minutiae of shelling thousands of peas, etc.) of state dinners attended by upwards of 140 guests. While serving as private chef to Cécile de Rothschild, of the prestigious banking family, he mastered the arts of discretion and diplomacy and learned to appreciate great wines. "This was the school of perfection," he reflects.
In 1967 Michel joined Albert in England. Though the country had the highest standard of living in Europe, in their view it remained in the culinary Stone Age. Though neither he nor Albert had any restaurant experience and Michel did not yet speak English, they opened Le Gavroche to great fanfare. With its uncompromising French style, it was an overnight success, eventually becoming, in 1982, the first British restaurant to garner three Michelin stars.
In 1973, he opened The Waterside Inn on his own, in a quaint 16th century cottagey retreat in the village of Bray, on the banks of the Thames. The refined and leisurely paced multicourse dinners, paired with noble French wines, gained him three Michelin stars in 1985, once and for all altering the English idea of inn dining.
A masterfully catered "family wedding" for more than 750 people in 1989 led ship owner John Chandris to hire Michel as a consultant for his fleet that became Celebrity Cruises, for which he designed the line's seminal shipboard "mirror kitchens," two identical galleys facing each other, one on port and the other on starboard side, which allow one kitchen to produce one meal while the other works on the next.
Though Michel's son Alain, who has worked alongside him since 1993, has taken over the executive chef duties in Bray, Michel, who lives just down the lane, remains a seignorial presence.
"A chef can never rest on his laurels, however many Michelin stars he may have," he stresses. "You must face the challenge of wanting to do something as good if not better than the day before."
Author of 11 cookbooks, he has been laden with prestigious medals: Meilleur Ouvrier de France en Pâtisserie in 1976, Chevalier de l'Ordre National du Merite in 1987, the Order of the British Empire in 2002, and, this year, both the Madrid Fusión award and the top French government recognition—Chevalier de la Legion d'Honneur. If this continues, he'll have to pin some to the back of his jacket too.