Michel Roux Senior

A legendary cookery competition comes to television for the first time. TV Choice meets iconic chef Michel Roux to find out more…

Can you take us back to 1984, and the first scholarship? Where did the idea come from?
It came out from a third party, a gentleman whose name is Nick Rowe. He was in fact the MD of a credit card company, and a great food lover. He was spending quite a bit of time at my restaurant, the Waterside Inn, and one day, after a meal, we sat together and he just said, ‘Why don’t we get more places like Le Gavroche [run by Michel’s brother Albert] and the Waterside Inn?’ He immediately added, ‘We deal with finance, we can help you in starting a scholarship. You’ve already done it by teaching young chefs, but let’s do it on a bigger scale. Let’s start a scholarship’.

I looked at him and I said, ‘Nick, it’s a fabulous idea’. I spoke to Albert the day after, and he said, ‘Michel, you take care of it’. I started rolling the ball, and that’s what we did. It was simply turning the key in the door.

Back then, nobody on the continent would employ British chefs. But 30 years on, I’ve got French colleagues calling me and saying, ‘Have you got one of your young chefs, your scholars? We’re missing some good staff here’. There’s been a revolution in the UK.

When you first announced you were going to do the scholarship, did chefs flock to you?
The first year we had about 30 to 35 people from the UK. We had to work extremely hard, you know, banging the drum — boom, boom, boom! — to hotels, to restaurants. We made many phone calls, saying, ‘Please, send us your best young chefs’. It was very hard work. The national press was certainly not interested in giving us even a little article, or anything like that. Now we get around 70 entrants a year, which is phenomenal.

Do you have a lot of chefs who apply every year before they get to 30 (the cut-off age)?
We do have quite a few who have done the competition two or three times. One of them won after the third time. It’s tenacity, it’s discipline. It is the most prestigious competition without any doubt.

Has the quality of entrants varied over the years?
It’s like anything in life — there are some very good years and there are some good years. There is no such thing, anymore, as a weak year. The standard has really held beautifully well, and there are definitely many years when we judges look at each other and think, ‘Gee, this is not an easy task!’ Because very often there are people who are too good to be true. We would like all of them to win, but they can’t.

How’s 2012 been?
A very good year. Excellent year — numbers and quality.

Is the winner always the best chef, or the most promising?
It’s very often the most promising.

We hear your nephew Michel Jr’s daughter is a promising cook. Are you confident there’s a new Roux generation on its way?
I am confident — but it’s a very early stage. Michel’s daughter Emily is exceptional. She’s got character, and she’s learnt beautifully well. She’s a promising young chef. She was in the kitchen from the age of eight, helping at the weekend for Michel. Now, I don’t know what will happen to Paul, my grandson [to Michel’s son Alain] who is only a year-and-a-half! But Alain was with me in my kitchen when he was 10 years old, helping out. That was his choice. It’s a good sign when the kids want to be around the parents.

Good Food, Sunday

Graham Kibble-White