Our columnist chats to the Michelin-starred chef about his famous family and formidable career, plus they create a classic roast rabbit recipe.
Michel Roux Jr is a legendary figure in the world of food – he owns three London restaurants, including the iconic Le Gavroche, is author of six cookbooks, was a judge on MasterChef: The Professionals for six years, is a regular on BBC One's Saturday Kitchen and a guest judge on the latest series of MasterChef. He arrived at my home to eat his famous lapin au thyme – roast rabbit – cooked by me. *Gulp.*
Emma: Jamie Oliver once said that, since he began working in TV, he’s only been asked out to dinner at someone’s house a dozen times.
Michel: I think it’s probably about the same for me. I can’t remember how many times I’ve been invited to a dinner party. Not many.
E: I imagine people are scared because your cooking is so precise. I’ve been much more nervous cooking for you than with any of the other chefs in this series, I think it’s because your cooking is so precise. How’s the coffee? Is it nice or not?
M: No, not for me. Sorry, but I'm honest. It’s not my cup of tea, or coffee.
E: You come from a cooking dynasty [his father and uncle, Albert and Michel, are the Roux brothers, his cousin Alain runs the Waterside Inn at Bray, and his daughter, Emily, opened her first restaurant, Caractère, in Notting Hill last year]. How has that influenced you?
M: My family are all in the same industry and we’ve all got that Roux trait. We’re not afraid of hard work, we put the hours in, we’re sticklers for trying to achieve and we demand the best. Grandma Roux probably had a lot to do with that.
E: What was she like?
M: A formidable lady. Hard-working, she brought up the family on her own and knew how to make everything last, having gone through the war. Her signature dish was a glass of red wine mixed with some stale bread and a spoonful of sugar in a tumbler. She drank this purply sweet paste as a pick-me-up every afternoon.
E: What’s your relationship with your father like?
M: It’s complicated and it’s had many different phases. He was a private chef to the Queen Mother’s horse trainer. I was virtually born in our kitchen and he was always around. But when I was seven, he opened Le Gavroche in London, worked all hours and I didn’t see him anymore. Then I began working for the family group in my twenties, so that was a different dynamic again, because yes, Albert Roux is my father, but he was also my boss. When I was 33, I took over his restaurant and tried to stamp my own identity on his iconic place; trying to change it but not kill it.
E: Is he critical of what you do?
M: He’s a very honest person – like me. He’s 78 now and although he still commands huge respect, I see him in the last years of his life in a different light.
E: I’m making your recipe lapin au thyme, and I’m nervous I’ve got it wrong already.
M: You have – it’s the wrong rabbit. You’ve bought wild rabbit, which is fine, but it can be a little bit tough, dry and chewy, unlike rabbit that’s reared for the table.
E: Do you mean a pet rabbit?
M: Not quite. Although when I was a child growing up, Dad reared rabbits for the table, and I used to stroke them and feed them. More than once it was Fluffy for supper! But at least we knew where the food came from, and I think that’s so important.
E: How does the Michelin star system sit with you? Are they the bane or the pride of your life?
M: They’re both. With my industry hat on, I would say it’s the be-all and end-all. But as a person who enjoys eating out, is it really relevant now? They’re a sort of judgement, but do we need to be judged?
E: Any article I read about you now mentions that you had three stars, but now you ‘only’ have two. How does it feel to work with such a public rating system?
M: It can be very personal. Some chefs take it too personally and it can be really detrimental to their health. You only need a couple of bad articles and you can lose loads of reservations. You can even lose your business if you get panned by a few journalists in a row.
E: Do you see yourself as a chef or a TV presenter now?
M: I am first and foremost a chef and I still go to the kitchens every day. My TV work is a by-product. I don’t have an agent and I’m not consciously chasing TV roles. I’ve done a fair bit in my time and at one stage, I was worried that people would see me as a ‘TV chef’. Television really helps to get your name out there, but I think some chefs have been overexposed.
E: My favourite of your shows was Kitchen Impossible, where you trained a group of young people with various disabilities to work in catering.
M: That was tough. I had sleepless nights. I'd never come face-to-face with many of their special needs, like the girl who had severe Tourette's. I took each and every one of them to heart. I was given no training, but I wanted to get the best out of them, so it was a real learning experience for me too. I’d love to do more.
E: For a man who loves food and wine as much as you do, you’re very healthy.
M: I run nearly every day, and I love bread, but you don’t put on weight eating bread – it’s the stuff that you put with it. I hate cheap confectionery and I see sugar as the enemy. I don’t drink spirits, and I hardly touch a drop all week when I’m working.
E: Don’t you want to knock back a glass after a tough night’s service?
M: No, it’s a slippery slope in this industry. I’ve seen a lot of abuse – it’s there in any pressured industry.
We plate up the rabbit, and eat...
E: So how is the rabbit?
M: It’s delicious, although it is a bit tough – but then, that’s wild rabbit. Next time, try using the right rabbit. (He laughs).
E You’re quite demanding aren’t you?
M No, I just know what I like.
Try the recipe for yourself... Roast rabbit with thyme
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Good Food contributing editor Emma Freud is a journalist and broadcaster, director of Red Nose Day and a co-presenter of Radio Four’s Loose Ends.