Some chefs, like conductors, have long careers. Few, however, could match the record of Albert Roux, who died on Monday. Starting his apprenticeship as a pâtissier in 1950, aged 14, he was still in harness when the pandemic started last March.
He didn’t know what else to do but work. When he was persuaded to go on a brief family holiday to Portugal, he phoned me after one day asking for the book of delivery notes for the butchery we ran together so he could get on with some invoices.
Cher Albert did not read much, had no taste for music, as his Desert Island Discs performance will attest and was not, despite his trade and his charm, especially sociable. He cooked, he ran his businesses and, most importantly, he taught a generation how to cook.
Born in 1935 in a village in the French region of Saône-et-Loire, Roux cooked for 17 years — at the pâtisserie, in the army, in embassies and private houses — before he ever worked in a restaurant.
Le Gavroche, which he opened with his brother Michel in 1967 and with the backing of some of those private patrons, was his first. The brothers ate in London’s top restaurants before they started and with every visit they rejoiced to discover their mediocrity. When I joined them 10 years later, there was still no real competition, Le Gavroche being of an order of excellence beyond the aspiration of most other establishments.
Coming from private service, where only the best was good enough, the brothers were sometimes naive in their approach but they were uncompromising. Their cuisine had none of the tricks and short-cuts that enabled restaurateurs to sport absurdly long menus and to compromise with quality. There was never any pragmatism in the performance. “We thrive on difficulty,” was Albert’s watchword: every dish was cooked to order, ingredients had to be perfect, even if that meant smuggling them in from France, and every chef had to be on top of his game.
Those who ask what the food was like or what were the “signature dishes”, might be disappointed. Dishes such as soufflé Suissesse, an incredibly light concoction floating on half a litre of double cream, or Caneton Gavroche, a rich and liver-y version of two-stage duck, were not groundbreaking. Nor would they find much favour with a modern, more health-conscious audience. It was the excellence of their rendition that was so superlative.
It was that excellence that was recognised by Michelin in 1982, which awarded Le Gavroche three stars, making it the first UK restaurant to receive this accolade.
Those stars might be considered his highest achievement — others might cite his Légion d’Honneur, in 2004 or even the miserly OBE awards conferred on both brothers in 2002. But it is his broader legacy that will endure. Any family tree of British chefs of the last 50 years would find the Roux brothers at the root. The roster of chefs he trained is very long indeed: it would be hard to imagine what a renaissance in British cooking would have looked like without his training and influence.
If Roux gave so much to the UK, it was because he loved it so much. He loved the atmosphere of tolerance and freedom he perceived to be uniquely British; he loved the landscape, the language, the sense of humour and even the food (one of his many less successful ventures was Bertie’s, an attempt to convert the Parisians to British food). He loved the language, frequently mangling English phrases, with coinages such as “wouldn’t write to Mother” to indicate disappointment or “let’s have a butcher” when he wanted to examine something more closely. He even loved British food with an especial fondness fried plaice and chips (that must be heard to rustle when given a shake).
A hard taskmaster, he modified the approach with kindness and humour. When a manager borrowed his car and forgot to put on the handbrake as he parked it at the top of a ramp, Roux burst out laughing at the subsequent wreckage. When he discovered that the first of his three wives, Monique, had been using the first-growth claret for cooking that was also cause for merriment. Less cause for merriment was Roux’s self-confessed philandering which broke up his first marriage and a second one to Cheryl Smith. He wed Maria Rodrigues in 2018.
Imbued with fierce charisma and intelligence, he had almost none of the public profile that is common to contemporary chefs. Instead he had an extended grouping of family, friends and those of us who had worked for him, all of whom mourn him now.