SO passionate about pastry is the Michelin-starred chef Michel Roux that he invited Alice Wyllie round for a lesson. Would she perfect the puff, or prove to be totally flaky?
MICHEL Roux is speaking about flour so passionately as he sifts it between his fingers I almost expect him to tell me that making pastry is like making love to a beautiful woman. He doesn't, but by the end of our afternoon together – in the kitchen of the chef's three Michelin-starred restaurant, the Waterside Inn at Bray in Berkshire – he's managed to persuade me that flour is every bit as "saun-shoo-aahl" as he insists.
"I take so much pleasure from making pastry," he says, in his rich French accent, massaging flour and butter between his fingertips. "There is a great pleasure about just running your fingers through flour. The smell of it, mmm. When you finish making it you always find a little patch of flour somewhere on your skin, and you just taste it," he says, licking a smudge of flour on his forearm. "Wonderful."
The 67-year-old Roux has been making pastry since he was 14, when he followed in the footsteps of his older brother, Albert, and got a job as an apprentice at Camille Loyal's patisserie in Belleville. His background is in food – he grew up in France where his family ran a delicatessen – and today his brother, son and nephew (Michel Roux Jr, most recently seen co-presenting Masterchef on BBC2) are all acclaimed chefs.
For nearly 50 years – during which he moved to the UK, opening the three Michelin-starred Le Gavroche in London with his brother in 1967, then the Waterside Inn in 1972, which has held three Michelin stars for the past two decades – he's enjoyed a passionate love affair with pastry. His latest book, simply titled Pastry, is a collection of some of his favourite flour-based recipes.
One of the most acclaimed chefs in the world, he is famed for his pastry-making and I'm here for a masterclass. He greets me warmly and takes me into his kitchen, spotless and surprisingly quiet as his team prepare for evening service. As he hands me an apron and lays out ingredients, I comment on the relaxed, even peaceful air – a world away from the kitchens of high-end restaurants I've seen on TV. He arches an eyebrow.
"Using the naughty words in the kitchen is not going to help anyone," he says, referring to the potty-mouthed Gordon Ramsay, who learned his trade at Le Gavroche. Did Ramsay swear in Roux's kitchen? "No, no, no!" he says, laughing. "He wouldn't dare! It's just television. Gordon is not a bad animal. He's not the most docile person, but he's never been a bully."
He waves a hand dismissively, hinting he'd far rather talk about food than "celebrity" chefs and turns back to crafting delicate puff pastry for the first of our two dishes: feuillets of poached egg and mushrooms.
He likes to talk about cooking and he likes that more and more people in Britain are talking about cooking. "When I came to this country 40 years ago, there were two things no-one talked about: cooking and sex. Now they're all anyone ever talks about," he says with a happy shrug.
He speaks animatedly as we begin to cook. He is distracted by the smell of cherry tomatoes, excited on inspecting a perfectly risen piece of puff pastry. He closes his eyes when he tastes or sniffs and smiles constantly, a wide, mischievous grin that's at its widest when he's nibbling at something particularly tasty. He explains his passion thus: "I fell in love at 14; cooking was my first love and once you fall in love, you're in love for ever."
He makes it all look easy, working quickly and settling for nothing less than perfection (of the eight little puff pastry cases we make, he selects three, discarding the rest). Perfection starts, he explains, with the finest ingredients. He likens cooking with poor ingredients to attempting to hit a golf ball with a walking stick: "The ball will go up I suppose, but it won't get very far."
As we rub the ingredients for the puff pastry between our fingertips ("two pairs of hands are better than one, no?") he chats on – passionate, flirtatious, occasionally incensed, particularly on the subject of undercooked carrots: "I hate that. If you want to upset me, serve me crunchy carrots. It puts me in a very bad mood. That is the worst anyone can do to me. Why do they do this with carrots? Because they think it's fashionable? Pah!"
He is very particular in the way he works, eyeballing my fingernails before we begin, instructing me, when my fingers are caked in butter and flour, to clean them by rubbing them in more flour rather than running them under the tap and constantly, methodically cleaning his work surface. He scolds me lightheartedly when he finds me rubbing the mixture too vigorously: "No, no, people can over-do it with puff pastry," he says. "We want the flour to get into the butter, but we want some flake. Be sensual about it – you can't be an animal with pastry."
Before long we are peering through the oven door, watching the little pastries rise. Roux examines them carefully, as if, even after 50 years, he's keeping his fingers crossed that they will turn out all right. They do, of course, and while they're cooking we start on the next dish, a semi-confit cherry tomato tart, made with pte brise, a slightly simpler pastry that can be made using an electric mixer. Roux, however, prefers to use his hands.
We rustle up the dough and his son Alain – who runs the Waterside Inn now his father is semi-retired – enters the kitchen, just as Roux is lining the flan ring. "It's too short," Alain says mischievously, pointing to a portion of the ring where the dough is a few millimetres shorter than the rest. Roux shoots him a mock-angry glare, before leaning over and whispering to me: "He is right, you know, always right." Father and son then erupt with laughter as Alain grabs his father's shoulder and gives him an affectionate kiss on the head before Roux shoos him out of the kitchen.
The tart goes into the oven and the puff pastry comes out. The masterpiece is completed with warm mushrooms, a plump poached egg and rich Hollandaise sauce. "And now, we eat," says Roux, handing me a fork. As I shovel a piece of the lightest, flakiest pastry imaginable into my mouth, I make various incomprehensible noises, quickly clearing the plate. He smiles approvingly, he clearly never tires of seeing people enjoy his food. "I made this for the Queen recently," he says matter-of-factly as he watches me eat the last forkful, "and she liked it too."
With his brother, Roux was among the first to champion the culinary revolution in the UK, arriving in the country at a time when prawn cocktail and Black Forest gateau were the height of sophistication and TV chefs were more Fanny Cradock than Marco Pierre White. The British diet has improved immensely since those days. He once watched in horror through the window of a restaurant as customers tucked into "fluorescent" peas served with "bleached white" bread, an experience he describes in his autobiography, Life is a Menu, as "one of the most chilling" of his life. "Like a witness of an atrocity."
We may be out of the culinary dark ages, but Roux insists there's still a long way to go. We may be talking about good food but, apparently, we're not all eating it. "In other countries, in France, Spain, Italy, you will never see as many chefs on the television as in the UK," he says. "In these countries they sit around the table together and eat good food. In Britain people sit in front of the television, watching other people cook good food, while they eat meals from a packet."
Clearly we've got a bit of catching up to do – and the Scottish diet doesn't escape his criticism, either. "You are very lucky to have one of the best natural larders in the world, but I think Scots don't spend enough time or money on food. "
When it comes time to dig into the cherry tomato tart, Roux looks at his watch before telling me he has to dash – he's catching a flight to Paris to spend a few days with his children. He's looking forward to visiting the local market with his grandchildren, then cooking for the family. "When I'm there I visit the market each morning and cook every night," he says. "I couldn't imagine waking up in the morning without that smell of food in my nostrils. Like I said, you never forget your first love. It is for life."
• Michel Roux's Pastry is out now in Quadrille, 14.99.
Semi-confit cherry tomato tart
For the pte brise:
250g plain flour
150g butter, cut into small pieces
1 tsp fine salt
pinch of caster sugar
1tbsp cold milk
Heap the flour on a work surface and make a well. Put in the butter, salt, sugar and egg. Using your fingertips, cream them together. Little by little, draw in the flour, working until it has a grainy texture. Using the palm of your hand, work the dough by pushing it away from you 4 or 5 times until it is smooth. Roll it into a ball, wrap in cling film and refrigerate until ready to use. Add the milk and incorporate gently with your fingertips until the dough begins to hold together.
For the semi-confit tomatoes:
1 litre light olive oil
1kg ripe cherry or medium-sized tomatoes
2 thyme sprigs
1 bay leaf
2 garlic cloves (unpeeled), halved
15g white peppercorns, coarsely crushed
Heat the olive oil in a saucepan and add the whole tomatoes, thyme, bay leaf, garlic and crushed peppercorns. Cook gently at about 70C for 5–10 minutes. Leave to cool in the pan, then transfer to a jar or bowl and pour over the oil. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use. Season before using.
For the filling:
4 tbsp white rice
salt and freshly ground pepper
6 tbsp strong Dijon mustard
2 tbsp double cream, lightly whipped
500g semi-confit cherry tomatoes
6 basil leaves, snipped
Roll out the pastry to a round, 3mm thick, and use to line a 20cm diameter flan ring. Chill for 20 minutes. Preheat the oven to 190C/Gas 5. Prick the base of the pastry case. Bake the case blind for 40 minutes, removing the baking beans and paper and lowering the oven to 170C/Gas 3 for the last 15 minutes. Lift off the flan ring, transfer the pastry to a wire rack and leave to cool. In the meantime, cook the rice in boiling salted water for 18 minutes. Refresh under cold running water and drain. Tip the cooked rice into a bowl and mix with the mustard and then the cream. Season and spread the rice mixture in the pastry case. Arrange the cherry tomatoes on the rice, placing those still with stalks in the centre. Scatter over the snipped basil and serve warm with Gurande or Maldon salt and black pepper.