With new restaurants opening almost daily in London, the British capital’s dining scene moves at a pace that even the best of us struggle to keep up with. Restaurants open and restaurants close in the blink of an eye. New trends sweep fervently across the city and are gone months later. Ever more elaborate, photogenic interiors appear on our social media feeds. And yet, despite all that, there’s a handful of old stagers that endure, and thrive in their permanence. Le Gavroche is one such restaurant. ‘If someone came to eat here in 1981 and hadn’t been since, they would walk in today and they wouldn’t be able to tell the difference,’ says chef patron Michel Roux Jr. ‘The carpet has been changed, banquettes have been changed but the design and decor is the same. It has the same feel to it.’
In London’s breakneck restaurant scene, Le Gavroche is a relic - an antique from a time long past, where white tablecloths, silver service and hushed dining rooms were the norm. Those words - relic, antique - are so often used negatively in food; in the case of Le Gavroche, they’re meant in reverence to an iconic institution that has impacted food in London as much as any, and continues to be one of London’s great restaurants.
‘Produce in this country was pretty dire…’
That said, Le Gavroche has had to move with the times a bit too. We ask Michel how the restaurant has changed over the years and he chimes back with typical cheeriness. ‘Well, we changed addresses in 1981!’ he laughs. ‘No, we’ve definitely evolved of course, we’ve been open for 55 years, so I think if we hadn’t evolved we wouldn’t be here anymore.’
He continues: ‘Back when my father and uncle first came to this country in the 60s, produce in this country was pretty dire. Even pretty basic stuff that we take for granted now - olive oil for example - was practically impossible to find in the 60s. Produce has improved immeasurably in the UK since then, so we’re much less dependent on importing food.’
The menu is a little lighter these days as well, in line with modern eating habits, but people generally don’t come to Le Gavroche to go easy on the calories - this is a restaurant of indulgence and reassurance. As such, signatures like the souffle Suissesse remain, in all their cheese, creamy glory. ‘It’s important to have those markers - dishes people recognise and come back for time and time again,’ says Michel.
Born into a dynastic food family, Michel has been obsessed with food from his earliest days, when his dad would take him to work with him in kitchens. ‘He’d give me scraps of puff pastry to play with instead of plasticine!’ he says. ‘I always wanted to be a chef, ever since I was a child - I wanted to follow in my father's footsteps. Even now I can’t think of anything else I would want to do!’
Le Gavroche’s head chef has been just as permanent and almost as long-tenured as the restaurant itself; Michel took over the kitchen in 1991, and he has been at the tiller of this venerable old ship ever since, helping to keep the restaurant relevant in London’s ephemeral scene and steer it through the myriad challenges that have befallen restaurants in that period. Through terrorist attacks, weather events and more, Le Gavroche always remained open for customers who needed the comfort of a glass of wine and a good cheeseboard.
‘Seeing the next generation keeps me motivated.’
2021, though, presented a challenge that even Michel couldn’t avoid - the COVID-19 pandemic. Le Gavroche was forced to close for the first time in its 50+ year history. In a piece written for the Evening Standard last year, Michel spoke openly about the devastation of having to close the restaurant and see it empty. ‘Usually, I spend more time at Gavroche than I do at home,’ he says, ‘so when I go back to check on the fridges and freezers and turn the taps, it’s horrible. You open the door and it’s eerie: an empty kitchen that’s usually busy, an empty restaurant with dead flowers. It’s soulless. There are so many memories here, so many joyous moments, so to see it like that is awful.’
If anything though, losing something you love, if briefly, just reaffirms how much you love it. Now 60, some may question how long Michel intends to lead the kitchen at Le Gavroche, but with the restaurant open and buzzing again, his passion for food is undimmed - in fact, it may be burning brighter now than ever. ‘I still love the buzz of the restaurant,’ he says. ‘I love seeing all the chefs here, they keep me young!
‘Seeing the next generation keeps me motivated. When I come in in the morning I see them all here, all this beautiful produce they’re working with, and we’re working on new menus together and developing their ideas. That’s important too, it has to be collaborative. That’s why I love this industry.’
What will happen to Le Gavroche when Michel does decide to step away? No-one can really say. But just as Michel grew up in the kitchen with his father, so too, Michel’s daughter Emily has grown up in the kitchen of Le Gavroche. She has since forged a kitchen career of her own, opening Caractere with husband Diego Ferrari in Notting Hill. ‘Emily is a huge influence on me,’ says Michel, smiling. ‘I’m immensely proud of my daughter and son-in-law for what they’ve achieved, that’s amazing stuff.’
There’s no suggestion that she would take over at Le Gavroche, but whatever the future holds, the Roux legacy will certainly live on.
What are your favourite restaurants in the UK?
I’m a huge fan of eating locally, and using local independents, so I’m always going to the independent restaurants and shops in and around Clapham, which is where I’m based. As for eating out, all the local restaurants in and around Clapham and Wandsworth are haunts of mine - Chez Bruce, Trinity, Upstairs at Trinity, and various other smaller ones too.
What was the last great meal you had?
I had an amazing Japanese meal at Endo at the Rotunda, in between lockdowns I think it was. I’m a huge fan of Endo-san, his food is incredible. There’s one particular course, which was a warm oyster on some rice, as a nigiri, with a special spicing that he did, like a poached oyster. It was so good it almost moved me to tears. It’s very rare that I get that emotional about food but that particular one mouthful was absolutely beyond words, and it took me to a place that I rarely experience!
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