Update: Michel Roux has now left Maison 1888, but replaced by another French culinary legend, Pierre Gagnaire
A kitchen god, a culinary legend, a gastronomic missionary – Michel Roux senior has been called them all – and with good reason, not least because he has held three Michelin stars for a mind-bending thirty years.
He also found time to change the face of domestic cooking and the restaurant business in the UK, to cook regularly for the Queen both at his Waterside Inn restaurant and at Windsor Castle and to write some of the most influential cookbooks in print.
I was extraordinarily lucky to take part in a cooking class with him at the jaw-dropping Intercontinental Hotel in Da Nang, Vietnam. He taught us how to make pipearade and red mullet, followed by a classic crème patissiere Charlotte. I then interviewed him, which will become a fuller feature in due course. In the meantime here’s a short Q&A, the first in a new feature called ‘3 minutes, chef’, where he reveals a surprising guilty food pleasure. I’ve included some pictures of a genuine master at work, an old-school gentleman and the ultimate lunch guest.
Were you always destined to be a chef?
Yes, I was, I couldn’t see it any other way because my father and grandfather were charcutiers. I couldn’t see my life without food around me.
What’s the first dish you cooked for a paying customer?
It was pot-au-feu, boiled beef with carrots, marrowbone, mustard sauce served next to it. It was a success – but a bit of a gamble in London in the 60’s!
You’ve said that your brother was your main mentor in life, is that still true today?
Not so much today, but when you’re a kid you look up to your brother and when I saw him in chef’s uniform as an apprentice when I was still at school, I thought ‘Wow, he looks good’. Someone I’ve admired for many years, a friend of mine now, is Michel Guérard. He’s still today, in my book, one of the best chefs in the world.
Which cookery writers do you like to read?
I’d say Jean-Michel Lorain, books from his restaurant Le Côte Saint Jacques. It’s a real book about real cooking, not selling hot air.
Which one utensil do you use most?
The small paring knife – you can do anything and everything with it. Very difficult to live without it in the kitchen.
What’s your guilty food pleasure?
A Magnum ice cream. Each time I stop for petrol, if nobody recognizes me, I buy not one but two. The first I gobble, the second I enjoy. Has to be dark chocolate and vanilla!
Desert Island Dishes – if you had just one ingredient to cook with for eternity, what would it be?
Chicken – without doubt. If there’s a supporting ingredient I can’t do without, it’s either lemon or olive oil – two ingredients I use automatically and instinctively in my kitchen.
Who would you dine with at your last supper?
Not my brother! It’s a very interesting question. I’d like to eat with Margaret Thatcher. A woman I admire, I met her many times. I’d have chosen Churchill but I never met him. I like people like that, Mandela, Churchill, De Gaulle, all people who cared for their country, who had a mission. Right or wrong, they were doing it for their country.
And what’s on the menu?
Roast chicken and a bottle of Château d’Yquem
What’s your favorite vegetable to cook with?
It’s got to be potatoes. Versatile and I love them, can eat them in so many ways.
Any particular childhood food memories – good or bad?
Very good memories – main one was wild rabbit casserole with mustard, cooked by mum. She knew her stuff, never too much liquid, every part of the rabbit was moist.
Any memorable kitchen disasters?
Oh yes! I did a competition when I was 23, sole soufflé with seafood. My fish was filleted then put back together with fish mousse, a little egg white, palette knife to finish the top. I took a step back to look at it, lovely, good timing and put in the oven. I turned around and what did I see? All the little pieces of seafood, the salpicóns, I’d forgotten to put them with the sole. Now I always check every time I serve something if there’s not one element I’m missing.
Where did you have your most memorable meal?
What did you have for dinner last night?
I had lobster in my restaurant Maison 1888.
What’s the next big trend in food or ingredient?
People talked about Spanish, now it’s Peruvian, it’s the hype of the moment, ceviche. We’re also going towards more and more vegetables.
What’s your favorite restaurant?
What’s your kitchen management style?
My staff have got to look at what I’m doing and follow what I’m saying, it’s not really open to discussion. Standards can only be obtained and kept if there is one boss.
Have you ever felt intimidated cooking for someone?
The first time cooking for The Queen was certainly special, because I knew she didn’t like to wait as well. When I was the chef for the Rothschild I had to cook for Greta Garbo, Pompidou, the Rothschild family. When I was 22 or 23 years old, it was quite intimidating!
Tell me something we didn’t know about you?
I can’t stand Kiwi fuit!