Rachel Humphrey says that she wrote to every restaurant in London she’d ever heard of when she was looking for her first chef job. It was a stroke of luck that the restaurant that called her in for an interview and offered her an apprenticeship was Le Gavroche, the Mayfair restaurant where Michel Roux Jr is chef-patron.
Growing up in Dunstable, Bedfordshire, Humphrey had always known that she wanted to be a chef. Her mother had cooked the food at home and Humphrey would help out in the kitchen making cakes although, she says, she made such a mess she probably spent more time clearing up than cooking.
When Humphrey was growing up in the 1990s, food programmes were either fronted by TV cooks such as Delia Smith or serious restaurant chefs such as Michel Roux and his brother Albert, who handed over the running of Le Gavroche to his son Michel Jnr in 1993.
“The Roux brothers really captured my interest in restaurants,” Humphrey says. “My two passions when I was growing up were football and cooking, and I already knew that I wasn’t going to be a footballer. I did food tech at school, but I didn’t want to go to catering college or university. I wanted to go straight to work in a restaurant and do things the old-fashioned way by starting an apprenticeship.”
Le Gavroche offers an all-but-extinct vision of old-fashioned, French-accented luxury
Humphrey admits to being starstruck when she met Michel Jr for her interview at Le Gavroche. Although she had worked in a pub carvery as a Saturday job while she was at school, she knew that fine dining was what she wanted to do. “Fine dining is ingredient led, seasonal and produce led, which is what home cooking is and what I’d grown up with.”
After two years, Humphrey was promoted to commis chef. Her next career move, though, was more unexpected, when Humphrey left Le Gavroche in 2000 to join the RAF.
“The military was something I’d toyed with for a while. I was 22 and I’d been at Le Gavroche for four years. I thought that if I don’t do the RAF now, I never will – there’s an age limit in joining the military. I thought, let’s just try it, see what it’s like, find out if I like it, and if I don’t, I don’t – it’s only three years.”
Going from cooking for 80 diners at Le Gavroche to 400 diners in the airmens’ mess was, Humphrey admits, very different, though she is a firm believer in the value of experiencing different things. She also got to travel, spending four months in the Falkland Islands, which made up her mind that the military was not going to be a long-term career, which meant that she avoided being sent to Afghanistan or Iraq.
Humphrey’s fine-dining apprenticeship at Le Gavroche was good training for VIP dinners in the RAF
Humphrey also stresses that there’s more to the catering corps than cooking in the mess. “I did fine dining within the military as well, cooking for six people in a house in London for one of the VIPs, or at Chequers.”
Still, it was only one dinner party every now and again rather than the rigour of cooking in a restaurant kitchen every day. Humphrey was lucky once again that Le Gavroche had space in its kitchen for her. Her second stint at Le Gavroche started as chef de partie to Monica Galetti’s sous chef. When Galetti went to Mauritius to launch Le Gavroche des Tropiques for Michel Roux Jr, Humphrey was promoted to the role of sous chef – “and that was the catalyst for staying.”
Humphrey became Le Gavroche’s first female head chef in 2008. She admits that the family feel of the restaurant is one reason she has stayed so long. Michel Jr’s daughter Emily, now the owner of Caractère in Notting Hill, worked at the restaurant for a couple of months before going to catering college. Albert would pop in when Humphrey first started in the 1990s, while key members of staff such as assistant managers and twins Ursula and Silvia have been there since 2001.
“Le Gavroche is a famous restaurant but it’s also a family-owned restaurant,” Humphrey explains. “Michel knows everybody’s name. It’s still that Roux family restaurant and it’s a nice environment to work in.”
Humphrey adding a finishing touch of star anise consommé to her dish of roast langoustine
Doesn’t Humphrey find it frustrating though to keep on turning out the Roux family classics – the artichoke Lucullus, omelette Rothschild and soufflé Suissesse? “Those are still good dishes and they’re still good to eat,” she says. “The few dishes that we do keep, we keep religiously. But they evolve, too. When Albert was here, there were two soufflé Suissesses in a bowl – it was a lot to eat. It’s much lighter now.”
The menu changes four times a year, with six new starters and six mains introduced. And the famous set lunch – three courses plus half a bottle of wine, canapés, petit-fours and coffee for £75 – changes every week. But it’s those classic dishes for which Le Gavroche will always be famous; Humphrey’s favourite is the artichoke Lucullus – artichoke mousse studded with black truffle and filled with foie gras and chicken mousse. “It’s very classic French and so extravagant.”
What’s more, apart from The Ritz, Le Gavroche is now alone in London for offering an unashamedly old-fashioned interpretation of luxurious Gallic fine dining. Does she feel like this sort of restaurant is an endangered species?
“People will always appreciate this style of food,” Humphrey says, “but that doesn’t mean you can’t be more relaxed. We’re a very classic restaurant, but you no longer have to wear a jacket and tie or even a jacket. We have to be inclusive. Evolution doesn’t mean shaking everything up, but you have to appreciate that people change and tastes change.”
Rachel Humphrey photographed at Le Gavroche
Still, being inclusive doesn’t mean any relaxing of the standards in the kitchen. “There is a reason we do things the way we do and I like our young chefs to understand why we do something. We teach them, we’ll explain what it is and what the end result is, so that they accept that even when they’re busy, they can still meet that standard and consistency – even if they don’t have someone peering over their shoulder checking they’re doing it correctly. It’s about having self-discipline and not cutting corners.”
Humphrey lives with her sister and her twins in New Malden in south-west London. Has she been teaching her nieces to cook? “One of the little girls said, ‘oh, I want to be a chef.’ I joked to her, ‘ok, we’ll bring you in to work in the kitchen.” Who knows, perhaps the next generation of Gavroche chefs will come from Humphrey’s own family.
Rachel’s perfect match
The dish: Roast langoustine with langoustine consommé flavoured with star anise
The Champagne: Ayala Blanc de Blancs 2012
Shellfish with Champagne is a fabulous match. Nothing in this dish overshadows the Champagne. The lightness of the consommé and the delicate flavour of the langoustines match the lightness of the Blanc de Blancs, while the sweetness of the carrots in the garnish contrast with the Champagne’s natural acidity.
Rachel’s quick bites
Describe your cooking style in three words?
Classical. Seasonal. Ingredient-driven.
Favourite thing to cook at home?
I like to do a Sunday roast. It’s what I grew up with.
Favourite London restaurant?
I like to go to places that are different to Le Gavroche. I especially like the simplicity of Japanese restaurants like Zuma and Roka.
Favourite foodie destination?
France, for the traditional brasseries and bistros rather than the Michelin-starred places.
Guilty food pleasure?
Marmite on toast or beans on toast – very English!
How do you relax?
I like to watch the football on Sunday.
If you weren’t a chef, what would you be?
If I’d have made it, a footballer.
Click here to read the first of our 2019 Female Chef Series interviews, with Anna Haugh of Myrtle, our second interview, with Nieves Barragán Mohacho of Sabor and our third interview with Skye Gyngell of Spring
Portrait photos: Laurie Fletcher