Mentoring talent is something that obviously matters to you and the Roux family. It must take up a huge amount of your time.
Absolutely. But it’s extremely important, not just for myself. For my father [Albert Roux], my uncle [Michel Sr.] and my cousin Alain. Young chefs and front of house are the future of our industry. To keep our industry alive and successful we have to nurture and mentor. We have to encourage youngsters to come into our industry and show them that you can be successful. Not everyone can be as successful as, say, the Roux family, but you can be successful in your own way. That’s important. We do it for the love of it. We love what we do and we want to share that passion with as many people as possible.
Do you pride yourself in being able to spot particular areas of potential in young chefs quickly?
Yes. You can see it in their style and the desire and passion. You can teach a certain amount of techniques, knife skills, recipes and suchlike, but there’s more to it than that. To be exceptional it has to be from within.
Do you like young chefs who have opinions and push back or should they just be sponges, soaking it all up?
There are times when you should be quiet, soak it up and learn and there are other times when, as a young chef, you think “let me just bite back a bit”. I like it when a young chef asks a question, if it’s asked in the right manner and it’s for the right reason, then, I’ll think “Good question, well done.” Asking questions is good, but not incessantly! I don’t like that.
Learning is the reason that I love this profession and what I do. It’s the same with my father. Waking before the alarm clock ready for the day. Every day is different and every day has a different challenge and we’re learning something. My father says that he’s still learning things at his old age. That’s marvellous. Youngsters can teach us something new. It’s really great.
How pleased were you that your daughter Emily also decided to become a chef?
She’s always said that she wanted to be a chef, which is great. We advised her to go to a hotel catering school in France. We went to a couple to see what they were like and we chose the Paul Bocuse School [L’Institut Paul Bocuse] in Lyon, which she really enjoyed. She thought it was amazing.
After that I thought it would be good if she did a bit of pastry [training], like I did, like my uncle and my father did. So she started a full time job in pastry, doing that for six months in Monaco. She didn’t particularly enjoy it, but she recognised that doing pastry early on in your career is great experience.
How hands-on have you been with her career?
At every step I’ve purposefully taken a background role. I’ve let her come up with the direction that she feels she has to go and then advised by saying which I think is the best route. Then, rather my picking up the phone and getting her the job, I’ve said “you do it, on your own two feet”. Which is what she’s done. She’s very headstrong, very focused and knows where she wants to go. She knows that Dad’s here, if needed, and I always will be, in the same way my father has always been there if I needed advice.
It can be a gruelling job. Did you have reservations about her becoming a chef?
Yes. I still do think: “My God, what is she doing in this industry?!” It’s a bloody tough one. But she absolutely loves it. My wife tried to dissuade her and said “if you still want to be involved with food what about food photography?” But no, she still wants to be chef and is doing really well, I must say.
Who have you learnt the most from in your career?
For my first chef role at the age of 16, I did a pastry apprenticeship [with Maître Patissier, Hellegouarche in Paris] and he was very demanding, a hard taskmaster but very, very fair. He led by example. He was the first one in and the last one out of the workplace. He very rarely raised his voice and commanded respect because he was very good at everything. No task was too menial or small. If the toilets were blocked he’d go and unblock them. If something needed cleaning or chopping he would do it and do it better than anybody else. All through my career I’ve had bosses like that. I’ve learnt so much more [than just kitchen craft]: life skills and management skills.
• The forthcoming print edition of Foodservice Consultant features an in-depth interview with star chef Michel Roux Jr.