Albert Roux, who died at the age of 85, did more than any other chef working in the UK to support British gastronomy. The “Who’s Who” classic of the culinary chef firmament is the list of names that passed through the kitchens of his Mayfair restaurant Le Gavroche, which he opened with his late brother Michel in 1967.
Marco Pierre White, Gordon Ramsay, Pierre Koffmann, Phil Howard, Marcus Wareing and Rowley Leigh are among them, all of whom in turn passed on to so many others what they had learned from Albert. “We knew nothing of British indifference to food,” he once told me of his early years in Britain, “because we had only ever cooked for the rich.” As private chefs for the aristocracy, Michel for the Rothschilds, Albert for the Cazalets, both brothers had come to the country from Paris.
Ava Gardner, Robert Redford and Charlie Chaplin, who were chauffeured back from his Savoy suite every night the following week, were on the guest list for the opening party. He came for classics like Soufflé Suissesse wrapped in Gruyère and a lobster mousse with caviar and champagne butter sauce. “When we opened, you couldn’t get things like poulet de bresse in this country,” Albert recalled later. “So my wife went to France to smuggle it here.” In a nation where some of the ingredients were seemingly illegal, he was attempting to prepare French classics. Le Gavroche became Britain’s first restaurant to win one Michelin star, then two, and eventually, three, in 1982.
With that one achievement, Michel would have been happy, but Albert needed more. Michel was motivated to move to Bray to operate the equally popular Waterside Inn by the often stormy sibling relationship, which finally played out in a hilarious BBC cooking show. Albert remained in London and established an empire that included brasseries, a traiteur, and a first-class butcher shop, expanding once again the culinary skills of the chefs of the region, as a shrewd and irascible businessman as he was a talented chef.
This eye for business at Le Gavroche resulted in a lunch menu, the price of which included half a bottle of very good wine from the extraordinary wine cellar he had tirelessly created.
Though the price increased over the years, the value of lunch was still extremely good and, more importantly, the dining room was guaranteed to be filled from the first seat to the last. Albert passed the restaurant on to his uncle, Michel Roux Jnr, in 1991, at the age of 55, who was wise enough to preserve the establishment’s spirit, if not quite the same amount of heavy cream.
By helping his family launch the Roux Scholarship Competition, Albert helped to cultivate the next generation, and he lived an exceptionally good life. He ate his way through restaurants in London and had a series of mistresses and wives. As a desperate anachronism, the kind of fine, traditional, butter-fried cuisine he first brought to London can be dismissed today.
But his legacy goes far beyond the abundance of his cuisine, to the wealth and rigour of his adopted country’s culinary expertise.