Albert Roux, 75, walks slowly, with the aid of a stick, and you might think he’s scowling unless you look closely and spot the sparkle in his eye.
We meet at the Greywalls Hotel, next to the Muirfield golf course, 30 minutes east of Edinburgh, where the French-born chef oversees the Chez Roux restaurant, whose menu features classics such as the cheese souffle from Le Gavroche in London.
Roux, who was born at Semur-en-Brionnais in 1935, talks happily about traveling to England at the age of 18 to work for Lady Nancy Astor and of how he came to open Le Gavroche in 1967 with his brother Michel. The restaurant was the first in the country to win three Michelin stars and the brothers picked up another three at the Waterside Inn, outside London.
Albert Roux these days travels the world as a consultant to restaurants, including the Chez Roux at La Torretta Lake Resort, in Montgomery, Texas. It’s a business model that he says works, and Roux sighs when he considers two of his most famous proteges: Gordon Ramsay, who is doing battle with his father-in-law and former business partner, Chris Hutcheson; and Marco Pierre White, the youngest chef to win three Michelin stars.
“This is a very sad story, actually,” he says. “I’m very sorry for Marco Pierre White. A chef of that caliber advertising (stock) cubes, turkey?” (Roux says he hasn’t spoken to White for a decade, but in the kitchen he was a star, a genius.)
“Gordon the same. I remember telling his father-in-law that you should not pay the hotel to go in, you should go there as a consultant, charge them a large sum of money. He chose the other route. I remember his phrase: ‘Maybe you should be Gordon’s adviser.’ Well, as it turned around when things went sour, he converted his contract and became a consultant.
‘Expanded Too Fast’
“He expanded much too fast. New York is the last place on earth where I would open a restaurant. If you want your laundry to be delivered, if you want your dustbin to be emptied, and on and on, you’d better go to bed with the union. He didn’t. Enormous cost. They lost a fortune and then there was Los Angeles and Prague and Paris. Versailles was doing good business but every time somebody sat on a chair, that was costing him. South Africa? Signed a contract that lasted a year. The people threw the contract in a dustbin and told him to buzz off.”
Roux’s personal style these days contrasts with Ramsay’s television persona. During a cookery demonstration at Greywalls with his protege, Derek Johnstone, he jokes and advises with gentle humor, telling the young chef he should be paying for his tips on cooking roasted North Berwick lobster with garlic butter, confit potatoes and Bearnaise sauce.
(It’s a dish I’d enjoyed at dinner with Roux the night before after a starter of Albert Roux’s Souffle Suissesse.)
Roux says the main danger for Ramsay now is if he loses more key lieutenants, particular Clare Smyth, the chef at his flagship restaurant in Chelsea. Several chefs, including Marcus Wareing, Mark Sargeant and Jason Atherton have gone. Angela Hartnett has also announced her departure.
“She’s a brilliant woman,” he says of Smyth. “Will she go? That would spell catastrophe. The television in America brings in millions, yes, but how long for? That’s the question. You know how the media is, they put you up there today. Suddenly the viewing starts to drop a bit and you go back into the dustbin of history.
“I hope it doesn’t happen. I don’t wish him that because I’m extremely fond of Gordon. He’s very, very close to my heart. Very, very close.
Name on Plate
“He is extremely gifted -- that cannot be denied -- and has a very soft heart, contrary to what people think. He’s a softie. The image, the swearing and all that: That was all made by the media again. Yes, in the old days, he entered the kitchen, it’s his name on the plate and the people who work with him better do what they’re told. I was the same. I’m afraid I never suffered fools gladly. Can’t blame him for that.
“He needs somebody of stature to be able to take him and talk to him. You know, somebody whose judgment he trusts. It must be somebody like that.” What if he came to Roux?
“If he wanted advice, I would give him advice free of charge. He’s my dear friend and I’m very sorry for him. So, yes, I would say: ‘My advice to you: retreat.’ He might say, ‘Well, I can’t because television brings me x million dollars.’ I would say, ‘Well, try to sell the whole bloody lot and concentrate on television and start saving because very few people last, as you know. In the U.K., if you’re below 2 million (viewers), they’re not interested.”
The average viewing figure for “Ramsay’s Best Restaurant,” which ended this month on Channel 4, was 1.9 million.
Greywalls Hotel & Chez Roux Restaurant, Muirfield, Gullane, East Lothian, EH31 2EG. Tel. +44-1620-842144 or click on http://greywalls.co.uk/.
(Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)