Interview: Chef Emily Roux on her family's legacy and moving beyond it
Spring sunlight streams through the glass of the conservatory at Greywalls Hotel near Gullane in East Lothian. A keen crowd of foodies sit on seats arranged in a semi-circle in front of a crisp, white clothed table on which a food mixer and bowls of ingredients wait. At one end of the table sits legendary octogenarian French chef Albert Roux OBE, KFO, dressed in pristine chefs whites with his name emblazoned in red on his breast, hands resting on the top of his cane, taking in the audience with a stare that is both bold and benign. Behind the table, also in whites and also a chef, his 25-year-old granddaughter Emily Roux grins at the assembled foodies as she prepares to give us a demonstration.
It’s the second day in a series of events that has seen ardent gastronomes book in for demonstrations, an overnight stay, lunch and dinner and the mood is reverential, expectant, as two generations of the culinary dynasty serve up a Michelin masterclass before leading us through to lunch at the hotel’s Chez Roux restaurant.
Emily is supplying dessert, Gateau de Savoie with Avocado mousse with pineapple. Her grandfather is supplying advice, encouragement, threats, endearments, at volume, from the sidelines.
Emily begins: “This is a classic French cake, very light, aerated…”
“Where is Savoie?” says Albert and before she can answer, says, “It’s on the border of Italy, a beautiful part of France, well known for its cheese. Ok, go on… sorry…”
Emily resumes. “It’s a very light, aerated cake. And I have chosen to be a bit bold, ripping pieces out of it and building a dessert, with avocado mousse and pineapple salad. I know it sounds a bit weird but…”
“What?” says Albert. “I had it served to me once, and I was shocked. And shocked not pleasantly.” Then he melts like butter in a pan and says, “It was OK.”
“It’s very fresh, light, a roulade sponge…” continues Emily.
“Remember the Swiss roll?” Albert asks the audience. “It was everywhere when I first came to Britain. Bloody awful.”
“Shall we get on?” says Emily, smiling pleasantly.
“Are you in a hurry to go?” Her grandfather asks her. “May I remind you, you haven’t had your wages yet.”
He’s joking. The audience chuckles, Albert’s glare turns to a twinkle again and Emily giggles and cracks on. They make a great double act. Her fresh and sharp, him august and doting. It’s a delicious interplay. He approves when she pours in double cream, is scathing when she eschews seasoning. His bulldog chewing on a wasp expression is redeemed by endearments and compliments: “See how careful she is?” and “You did that very well, sweetheart.”
Cooking is in the Roux DNA. Half of the country’s Michelin chefs have shouted “Yes chef!” to either Albert, his brother Michel Sr, or Albert’s son, Michel Jr, from Gordon Ramsay and Marco Pierre White to Marcus Wareing and Andrew Fairlie. It’s no exaggeration to say that over the past 50 years, since they opened that bastion of classic French cuisine Le Gavroche in London in 1967, the first UK restaurant to be awarded three Michelin stars, the Roux clan has changed the way the nation eats.
The son of a charcutier who swapped a career ambition of the priesthood for patisserie, he arrived in Britain in the 1950s and worked for Lady Astor before setting up on his own. Roux has long been a Scotophile with twin loves of the Highlands and fishing and his restaurants north of the Border include Chez Roux establishments at Greywalls, Rocpool Reserve Hotel, Inverness, Inver Lodge Hotel, Lochinver, Cromlix Hotel, Dunblane and The Roxburghe Hotel and Golf Course, near Kelso.
Now he and Michel Jr, who now runs Le Gavroche and does TV (Kitchen Impossible and Hell’s Kitchen), supported by Michel’s daughter Emily, are collaborating for the first time in Scotland. They will oversee two more fine dining restaurants run by award-winning executive head chefs at Inverlochy Castle in Fort William and Crossbasket Castle in High Blantyre, the latter opening tomorrow after a £9 million restoration. The menus will be Le Gavroche style but with a Scottish twist, focusing on local ingredients, and Emily will support menu development.
With her father and grandfather’s cooking being classically French in style, granddaughter Emily is keen to bring a more contemporary dimension to her cooking.
With a mother whom Emily says is also a brilliant cook and who works in Le Gavroche restaurant, and a father and grandfather who are chefs, Emily was always going to cook.
“I never considered doing anything else,” she says. “I love food, I love cooking. It’s my life. When I was little I used to make pasta with my dad and we had spaghetti hanging up everywhere to dry. The first meal I made myself was for my parents on Valentine’s Day. I did salmon with greens and potatoes. I don’t think the potatoes were cooked enough, but they didn’t say anything. And when I was about seven I went into Gavroche at night and loved it. I would be in the kitchen and they would put me in a corner with ten kilos of tomatoes to peel, deseed and chop. And that was great fun.”
The family fame and Michelin stars were not something she was aware of at that age.
“I didn’t realise about the publicity when I was young and they weren’t that involved in the media then, which was a good thing. I didn’t follow all that. My dad started doing MasterChef in 2009, the year I left for college and I didn’t get the whole thing.”
Emily went to Lyon to study at the Institut Paul Bocuse, focusing on culinary arts and restaurant management. “I chose to do kitchen for three years and did a year of pastry,” she says. “I learned the basics, and when I had to do two internships, my grandfather and father both said ‘do pastry!’ I didn’t have a choice!” She’s joking, because it’s clear that the youngest Roux to join the family firm is no pushover, however she does appreciate that her antecedents know how many loaves are in a baker’s dozen and has utmost respect and appreciation for their cooking. “They are sure it’s the foundation of any chef and you must go through pastry to be precise. I’m not a scales freak and it’s your best friend if you’re a pastry chef. I didn’t agree at first, but I do now.”
Emily launched her career in Paris, before going on to train at Alain Ducasse’s restaurant, La Trattoria, in Monaco, and back in Paris at Le Louis XV. She moved on to more Michelin-starred restaurants, Le 39V and Akrame and now back in the UK, she works with both her father and grandfather. There are pop-ups with her dad at Le Gavroche, and with the Roux catering arm, Restaurant Associates, she will be making the food at Wimbledon and the Derby this summer. A signature dish of lobster, which she prefers not to smother with heavy cream sauces, and a mean roasted octopus salad with chilli mayonnaise are typical of her style.
But is there an expectation that she will make classic Roux recipes too?
“Not from me, anyway,” she says. “People have understood that I don’t do the stuff that my family do. I’m very strong minded so I do things the way I like and want them to be, but obviously if there’s a seal of approval, I like that. I would go to my father, and grandfather for that.
“My three years spent at Akrame in Paris were hugely influential; it is dazzlingly inventive, eclectic, wacky, Algerian, French, very modern, very out there. It made me very health conscious, lots of fruit and veg. My cooking is freshly modern, less butter, less richness,” she says.
“I love beef Wellington and French classics, they’re great family meals, but I don’t particularly love cooking them. I prefer working on a product, seeing where I can go with it. It’s more challenging. But you need a classic training to be able to cook with ingredients properly before you play with them. It’s a good foundation.”
Along the way Emily met Diego Ferrari, now head chef at Le Gavroche and her fiance. Born in Milan, he moved to France and trained with Alain Ducasse, becoming sous chef at The Plaza Athenee and Le Meurice in Paris.
“He’s an amazing cook,” says Emily, “and he’s very handsome.” She laughs. “We’d like our own restaurant in London some time.”
Would they like a Michelin star too, keep up the family tradition?
“I would be very happy, because Michelin has its importance, but I’m not going to chase it. I’m going to do cooking that I enjoy, things that people enjoy eating.”
As for her grandfather, he’s delighted that she’s working as a chef and has trained in some of the world’s finest kitchens, but for him, too, there are more important things than Michelin stars.
“I’m extremely happy she’s a chef,” he says, “But it’s her own decision, not mine. The most important part for me as a grandad is that she is happy. The rest is up to her.”
Back at Greywalls, Emily’s modern take is being demonstrated before our eyes as she creates her sponge, avocado and pineapple dessert that will round off the lunch of pheasant mousse, sprout leaves, glazed chestnuts, caramelised apple, pancetta, cepe bouillon, madeira and créme fraîche for starter, followed by pan fried sea bass, celeriac purée, braised leeks, arancini and Genevoise sauce made using roasted fish bones, from Greywalls’ chef Mark Saddler.
Introducing him to the gathering, Roux is full of compliments for Saddler, who is about to be replaced by a new head chef at Greywalls, Lee Lawrie.
“Mark is leaving to work on a cruise ship and will then come back to set up on his own. He will come back to Scotland and will be someone you will see in the limelight in years to come. I encourage all my young people to try it, to set up on their own. You owe it to yourself to try,” he says as Saddler rushes back to the kitchen to get on with lunch.
At this point a piece of avocado escapes from Emily’s chopping board and Albert shouts “Cannelle!”, French for cinnamon, and the name of his beloved chocolate labrador who has been banished from the proximity of food and was last seen swaying happily through chintzy comfort of Greywalls, past leather-bound Waverley novels and the Steinway grand. “Pity,” says Roux. “She would have had that. She eats everything.”
It is no surprise that Roux has just launched a menu for furry friends at several of his restaurants – Inverlochy Castle, Roxburghe Hotel, Greywalls and Andy Murray’s Cromlix. Including mackerel, salmon, turkey, sweet potato stew, risotto and meatloaf with chicken jelly, it’s Michelin for mutts and Cannelle is one contented canine.
Apart from the long hours in the kitchen, Emily is busy writing a book with her mother Giselle, which is due to be published in autumn 2017.
“It’s a lovely story, about her growing up in the south of France and about our intertwining lives, with pictures and then recipes. My mother’s childhood home had a river at the bottom of the garden with so many different fruit and veg, rabbits and hens. She was brought up on light, fresh ingredients, no butter, only oil. Different to the cooking in northern France.
“They were a self-sufficient, really healthy, eating provincial family food. Then she came to London and was a bit lost, foodwise. There was only white bread, which she didn’t consider as bread, so she started baking. She brought me up on soups and fresh food and we talk about that. Then at the end of the book it’s about me as a professional chef, talking about travel and trends. It’s fun working together.”
Appetites piqued, Emily has our undivided attention as she takes what is a perfect springy sponge and under the owl gaze of her grandfather proceeds to set about ripping it up. She spoons on the vivid green avocado mousse and diced pineapple and as she tops it off with a little cream, you can almost hear the audience drool like Cannelle. Foodies and Emily might call this “a deconstructed pudding”.
Albert calls it: “The Battle of Waterloo at 3pm in the afternoon. When the battle had not been won.”
“It’s not his kind of dessert,” says Emily. “But it’s a modern twist on a sponge cake, and I love it.”
Albert eyes it, then melts. “It looks lovely, my sweetheart,” he says.
“Is that a compliment?” says Emily, mock shocked.
“Take it as such,” says Albert. “But it’s not an increase in your wages. Emily, you still have a job.”
And with that, there’s a very polite, Greywalls-style stampede to the dining room.