At the table of the master, Michel Roux Jr
Nov 26 2010 By Richard McComb
He had shook my hand, firmly, then jostled with Monica, pushing her. “You see, that’s where I get it from,” she says in mock horror. “He insults me. He feeds me bread and water.” And liver.
Roux then changed into his chef whites and prowled the kitchen briefly, his dark – they are almost black – hawk-like eyes scanning all sections.
During service, he assumes a roving position on the pass, opposite Humphrey, on the side the waiters come to for the extravagantly adorned trays of food. It’s an unusual arrangement and it must be a daunting prospect for Humphrey, to have her every move overseen by the grand chef, but she says she is used to it.
But what of Roux? Chefs are notorious control freaks. Roux also has a gilded culinary heritage to protect, Le Gavroche representing a dining dynasty dating back to 1967. Is is difficult for him to step back? “Yes,” he tells me as service peaks around 2pm. “But you have to delegate. I have complete faith in Rachel.”
Sometimes he can’t help himself. “Blimey, put a bit more sauce on there,” he says. It’s a rare intervention. This is undeniably Humphrey’s show.
It is very easy to be dismissive of TV cookery shows and Roux himself is no fan of the genre. MasterChef is about the only show he says he would put his name to.
“It fits me perfectly,” he says. “I don’t want to be on television for pure entertainment. There has to be something for the viewer to take home. It has to be inspirational and aspirational, which I definitely think MasterChef is.”
The standards keep improving, he says: “The young chefs that apply now realise what kudos this competition has. It is not just another one of these little television shows. No, this is for real. You can see it’s for real just by the expressions on their faces. They hang on every word I say.
“Whether they are eliminated in the first couple of rounds or whether they go to the final they feel they have learnt something and they have been enriched by the experience. That is very important for me and I wouldn’t do any television that doesn’t have that element to it.”
They are not empty words. At the end of a preparation area, Steve Groves, the winner of last year’s professional MasterChef, has popped in for a day’s experience. Twelve months ago, his winning menu showcased quail with morels, venison and a mille-feuille. Today, he is picking the leaves off herbs.
Groves says winning the TV cook-off opened so many doors for him. He has done stages, or kitchen shifts, at places such as Noma, recently voted the world’s best restaurant. Groves adds: “I have wanted to come here to Le Gavroche since I won the show.”
Across the narrow passageway is fellow 2009 finalist Dan Graham, an ex-agency cook. Graham has been working at Le Gavroche for a year. He joined two days after the final was broadcast and is now a chef de partie, overseeing the meat. He is searing a whole pheasant in a hot pan before roasting. As the skin gently crackles, Graham ladles in butter, which foams up. The heat is intense. Graham wouldn’t have it any other way. “The whole reason for me doing MasterChef was to slingshot myself into things like this,” he says, his enthusiasm bubbling like the butter in the pan.
I watch the final main orders go out, including Graham’s gorgeous-looking pheasant. It is off the menu, for a regular customer. All of it. And it comes with a truffle risotto.
It’s been a good service. The à la carte lobster mousse – £58 for a starter – sold out just after 1pm.
The prices, like the standards of cooking, are astronomical. But Le Gavroche is a different country – they do things differently here.
* The BBC Good Food Show Winter is at the NEC until November 28. The show features the MasterChef Experience in which contestants can dazzle judges John Torode and Gregg Wallace with their culinary skills. To get £2 off per ticket call 0844 581 1360 or visit www.bbcgoodfoodshow.com and quote LB1.