After 56 years, legendary Le Gavroche is set to close. Chef-patron Michel Roux Jr reflects on its culinary legacy, how running helped him cope under pressure and why he could never sell the family business
Words: Jonathan Whiley
We meet at the beginning of the end. It's a week since the bombshell announcement that two Michelin-star Le Gavroche is to close (in January) after 56 years and chef patron Michel Roux Jr – dressed in smart jeans and a white t-shirt – is still digesting the reaction.
“It’s been absolutely bonkers,” he says. “I was kind of expecting a big reaction, but not to this level. It’s been incredible. Demand for tables has gone completely crazy and we were already full three months in advance.”
We’re sitting in the Chef’s Library, a semi-private dining room with a bookshelf that spans Brigitte Bardot (his teenage idol) and Sir Alex Ferguson’s autobiography (Michel is a Manchester United fan and Sir Alex has dined several times).
The latter seems fitting. The retirement of Ferguson, much like the closure of Le Gavroche, signals the end of an era in which both helped to redefine their respective landscapes. When Michel’s father and uncle – Albert and Michel Roux Sr – opened Le Gavroche in 1967 they were at the forefront of a culinary revolution in the UK.
Then located in Lower Sloane Street (it would move to its current address in Mayfair’s Upper Brook Street in 1981) the launch party was attended by the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Ava Gardner.
Beyond the starry roll call of guests, this “last bastion of classically rich French haute cuisine” has been a melting pot of talent with alumni that includes the likes of Marco Pierre White, Gordon Ramsay and Monica Galetti.
“The most heartwarming part has been the emails and handwritten letters from ex members of staff,” says Michel. “Some going back 30 or 40 years and from all over the world. It means so much to so many people. Last week we had a lady in her mid-40s with her children and she had a tear in her eye and said, ‘Michel, I remember coming here with my parents for the first time when I was six. Where am I going to go when I come to London?’.”
Michel, who took the helm in 1991, says that the emotions right now are “difficult to describe.” “Very difficult to put in words. My first thought is to the team that work here, some of which we have grown up together. Joao, our kitchen porter, has been with us for 34 years and he’s 60 – we have grown old together.”
Likeable, candid company, the 63-year-old is a man of integrity. He took the decision to close – with the lease running out – “with mixed emotions”, but has been unwavering in the face of numerous offers.
“The offers have been coming since god knows when. It’s not new or because of the decision. Le Gavroche means so much to so many people and I feel if I wasn’t here in charge or if I took a step back, it would not quite be the same. I don’t want it to be rolled out and I don’t want it to be taken out of Roux control. I don’t think there is enough tea in China for me to say yes. It’s more than a business; it’s my life and I don’t want to sell my life.”
He won’t be saying au revoir to the neighbourhood entirely; he’s still involved with The Langham (he oversees the hotel’s food and beverage) and has an office in Green Street.
“Even though the restaurant will be closing, I’m keeping the business and name going. I intend to take Le Gavroche on the road; we may do pop-ups and events. If somebody wants a dinner for eight people then I could do a Souffle Suissesse at somebody’s house.”
The signature cheese souffle has been on the menu since 1967 – “I tried to take it off once and people were up in arms”. “I did have a quick count of how many we’ve sold since 1967 and we’re getting very close to the millionth. I might, before we close, surprise one of our guests and say ‘congratulations, you’re the millionth Souffle Suissesse and it’s on the house!’.”
While the dining room hasn’t changed much since relocating in the early 80s, Michel recalls Mayfair as a very different place.
“Green Street, Park Street, Culross Street were basically red light districts,” he says. “You would have women of the night plying their trade on the corners of the street. The face of Mayfair has changed a lot and for the better. It’s cleaned up, it’s teeming with great restaurants and there is something for everyone.”
The kitchen has changed too. One of Michel’s earliest memories of Le Gavroche is filling in for chefs when they were on holiday in the early 80s. “I remember my father working on the pass and God, he was a brute. He would bellow and have flaming rows with front of house during service. It would always make me laugh. At the end of service, they would crack open a bottle of champagne and all was forgotten, but it was very, very intense.”
Diners have changed too. “Back in the ‘80s the average of the diner here was 60-plus; now I would say it’s in the ‘40s and often younger… one of the few things that I changed very quickly when I came in was to drop the tie rule and very quickly after that, the jacket rule as well. My father was outraged, he said ‘this is terrible! You are going to kill the business. We didn’t, we actually brought in a lot more customers.” Did Albert eventually admit he was right? Michel smiles. “I knew I had got it right when he trundled in without a jacket and tie.”
Despite a stellar reputation, there have been tough times too – often linked to world events beyond the restaurant’s control from the recent Covid-19 pandemic to Brexit and even the Falklands War.
“For several months we lost a lot of business because people were not travelling,” Michel says of the latter. “The same with the invasion of Kuwait, that saw a huge dip in international business. The bombings in London and 9/11 also led to a huge drip in trade because a lot of people were not travelling.”
One of his proudest achievements is maintaining two Michelin star status. “Plate after plate, service after service, it’s incredibly difficult and very wearing. The biggest achievement can only be our guests and what Le Gavroche means to them.”
How has learned to deal with the pressure? “Very, very tough. I’ve had moments where I think my mental health has suffered. I’ve not slept properly, being extremely irate and grumpy, not been able to think straight, you name it. Taking up sport really helped. Long distance running and then marathons really helped with my mental health. I took it to the extreme; I would do the morning shift and lunch and then in my two-hour afternoon break run a half marathon and then come back to work.”
With a work ethic that sees him at the restaurant most days, he is looking forward to reclaiming more of a work/life balance. “It’s obviously going to give me a little more time in the evenings. Maybe I can go out a little more with my wife. I’ll maybe go and watch a bit more rugby down at the [Twickenham] Stoop to watch Harlequins on a Friday night, which was nigh-on impossible before and maybe a bit more football as well.”
Before then, there are celebrations planned and tournedos de boeuf to be served. Four special evenings will take place in November with a menu inspired by “Le Gavroche over the years” and in January, the final week will see a special charity evening and another for hospitality college students.
What of the books, plates, glassware and artwork? Michel says there has been “a lot of interest” from guests. “What we will do, probably the week after we close, is to have a couple of open days – it may be have to be ticketed, but no payment – where people can browse and if they want to buy 12 plates, then they can. The artwork will be up for sale – I’m thinking that probably Christie’s will handle that as some of it is worth a lot of money. Some of the sculptures will no doubt be snapped up. It’s going to be very emotional.”
As for the last supper – who would make the guestlist? “God, that is so difficult. If I mention them, I better bloody invite them!.” Will Sir Alex make an appearance for a swansong souffle? Michel laughs. “Now that would be telling!.”
For details of the special events, visit le-gavroche.co.uk