Wednesday, 27 June 2012

The Lost Interviews, No. 3: Michel Roux

Another lost interview from 2008...

Michel Roux is one of the godfathers of the modern British food scene. Along with his older brother, Albert Roux, the Frenchman is credited with transforming the culinary landscape in London, first with Le Gavroche and later with The Waterside Inn, in Bray. On the eve of his appearance at the Jumeirah Festival of Taste, he spoke to James Brennan about Dubai’s restaurants, Britain’s knife culture and the cult of the celebrity chef. 

You became the first restaurant owner in Britain to gain three Michelin stars, how important is Michelin to chefs?

Well the Michelin is not only a guide but the most well established, and longest established guide in the world. It used to be just Europe, but now it’s covering America in two parts, Japan and Hong Kong soon. The three-star Michelin winners are a bunch of a few people who are the creatives, the leaders and the best places to eat in the world - without any doubt. So it is important because it’s wonderful to be recognised as one of the best. The best? Certainly not, but amongst the best. 

Do you think Michelin will come to Dubai?

I don’t know. I can’t speak on behalf of Michelin. I will say one thing, and I know this by experience, that each time I come to Dubai - and I’ve been at least three or four times - I see a tremendous evolution. Certainly it is one of the cities in the world now where there is no fear of not standing up on what I cal excellencies. There is a choice of every kind of food, from ethnic food to classic French and Italian. You have the top name chefs cooking there. The front of house, the service, is immaculate in most of the places. And they certainly have reached the top cities of the world. Would Michelin go to Dubai? I don’t know, I’m not Michelin, but if Dubai can carry on the way they have been progressing over the last five years, I would say there is a great possibility that this can happen.

How does it compare to London or Paris at the moment?

I wouldn’t make any comparison of that, because it is still newly established. You’ve got places in London and Paris who have been at the top for thirty years or more. It’s not a fair comparison. I’ll just say I’ve got no problem with eating very good or excellent food in Dubai, and I know quite a few places - I’m not saying hundreds - but tens and tens of places where you can have superb food. 

You helped to revolutionise the food scene in England, but you recently announced that you were leaving London for Switzerland, why is that?

Simply because I’m 67, and I decided three years ago. The press were late to pick that up. I bought a place in Switzerland which I love because it’s in the mountains. I love the peacefulness, the calmness and the safety of Switzerland. I’m not attracted anymore by a big city - especially in the UK - where you’ve got dodgy young people, hooligans and dangerous people. When you see that 20 young people have been killed in London by knives in one year, it’s frightening. I can’t take the train at night after 11 o’clock or midnight to go to the country from London. So what is the pleasure of living in a country like that? I prefer to go to the mountains, I prefer to go to Geneva and enjoy my life peacefully. When I came to the UK 40 years ago, it was a country I respected and loved. Now I’ve got to look over my shoulder, and I don’t feel like I should have to do that - not at my age.   

Dubai is safe, you could always move there and start another food revolution...

(Laughs) I know that, but I’ve come to the point as well that I like to give my service to prestigious places in the world, I do like as well to give demonstrations, master classes and give lectures in colleges to help young people to develop further. But I don’t want too much heavy burdens. I’ve got no wish of starting and building a restaurant. Doing a consultancy, guiding people, providing my advice - yes, I will. 

Tell me about the Roux Scholarship.

It was started 26 years ago to help people to further their education, and be able - if they win the scholarship - to have an open door in any three-star Michelin (restaurant) of their choice in Europe. And that is unique - all paid for, for three months, by the Roux Scholarship. We give them a crash course in language. So the current one is with Santamaria - who is at the Atlantis, at the moment - he learnt Spanish and a bit of Catalan as well, to be able to grasp and understand the language. 

Who is the best chef that you ever trained?

Very difficult to say, I’d say, most probably Pierre Koffman (of La Tante Claire, now Koffmann's London). He was certainly one of the best chefs we ever trained. There have been quite a few others, but if I’m going to single out one then it would be Pierre Koffman. 

What is the best advice you can give to a young chef?

To learn as much as they can. Not to look at what they earn today, because what they earn today is not what matters. What’s important is what you learn - what you acquire, knowledge and experience, which will give you the possibility of reaching the highest position later on in your life. And not to try to be someone else but be yourself, because there is nothing worse than people trying to do something when they don’t feel at ease in their own skin. You must learn at least a good ten years before you can say you’re a sous chef, a good fifteen years before you say you’re a chef - a proper chef.    

What do you think about today’s cult of the celebrity chef?

Not very much. But it is the media who have created that, and they are very thirsty, those kind of guys. They make cheap programmes, if you look at it. And the BBC, who used to be one of the best television (stations) in the world forty years ago up to at least twenty years ago, giving some very good programmes, entertaining, educational shows, drama, was an example for the world. It’s garbage now. Twenty or thirty percent of programmes on the BBC, I switch on then switch off immediately. And quite a few of them are on food matters - at seven, eight or nine in the evening. Who wants that? You should be cooking or eating with your family. Not eating packets of food, and garbage, watching the television. I’m not against celebrity I would just say it’s gone too far. Too far means there is too many of those young kids, or people or chefs on television who are doing things they either don’t know or they are asked to do to entertain the public. We are not in the business of entertaining. Cooking is for enjoying food, eating, and it’s for the palate. 

Do you think many young people have ambitions to become celebrity chefs instead of good cooks?

They go into it for the wrong reasons surely. They’ve got the example of the young stars, so-called stars, who obviously make millions from their products, and they’re 25-35. So they want to be a cook - and the parents do. They say “be a chef, be a Jamie!” Well, well! And big supermarkets take those people on board because they’ve got the right image. But I think we’ll come back to basics, with what’s happening in the world, by the way. I think people will have to can the beans, and go back to what we called sanity. We’ve gone too far in many, many ways. And that’s one of them, by the way. Enough mockery of our profession. Let’s be serious, let’s think about our clients in our restaurants. Let’s think about what we buy, the products, how we prepared them the best way and how we serve it to our clients. Then we can be proud of our profession again. 

Friday, 1 June 2012

The Lost Interviews, No.2: Ainsley Harriott

Another 'forgotten interview' from 2008...

Ainsley Harriott

The television personality and chef Ainsley Harriott has made a career out of the lighter side of food. As well as helping people to learn how to cook, his shows are all about relaxing and having fun. But his participation in a recent BBC documentary about genealogy forced him to face up to some uncomfortable truths about his family’s past. He spoke to James Brennan about the experience, his career and his critics.  

Tell us about your involvement with the festival of Taste.

I’m coming down there to do several food demonstrations, hang out with the chefs, and get people involved with food a little bit more. I think that’s what food festivals are all about. Just remind them that there are lots of dishes that are accessible. Sometimes these things can be a little bit far-fetched - people think “oh my god, unless I’ve got a certain type of stove, unless I’m making a reduction here and doing this there...” They feel like they can’t do it. My philosophy has always been accessible food - food that people want to cook. And at the same time trying to incorporate a bit of fun into the show. People can relax and have a go. They don’t go into their kitchens feeling tense.

Do you see yourself more as a performer or as a chef?

I think both. I’ve just done the programme Who Do You Think You Are, which traces your family history. On my mother’s side, my grandfather cooked at the White House, he was a fabulous chef. My mum always cooked and always encouraged us to cook, hence me being a chef and my brother being the main cook at home, and my sister is a cookery teacher in her school, so we all felt very comfortable in the kitchen. And yet my dad ended up as this incredible international performer, a pianist that performed all over the world. So I think I combine the two. I like to see myself as a cook with an entertaining slant, which is slightly different from the other guys. 

You uncovered some uncomfortable truths about your family history. How did that experience affect your life?

I think it grounded me more than I was before, and I’m a pretty solid guy. If you look at a tree, it grows and becomes more grand when the roots are embedded. And with a programme like that you discover all about your roots, and what your make up is. Why am I like this caring person? There were teachers, a policeman... My grandfather went out and started the first school in Sierra Leone. There were seven kids and now the same school has 700 kids.

That’s very positive, but there was also the negative side with links to the slave trade...

I don’t think that’s too negative. That’s part of our history. There was something like 300 years of slavery in the Caribbean, so it’s inevitable that when you start researching it you’re going to come up against it. What I didn’t expect was - even though I’d seen pictures of my great grandfather Ebeneezer, he looked like my children - the mixed race look. But I discovered that his father James Gordon Harriott was white. And there was an another generation of Harriotts that came from Scotland in the early 1700s - so I’m Scottish, but I’m not going to be wearing a kilt! And I don’t think you’ve got a sporran big enough for me out there in Dubai (laughs)!

People like Gordon Ramsay are less than complimentary about celebrity chefs like you. What would you say to people like that?

Well, it takes everybody. A lot of people go for the serious angle because, ultimately, that’s what it’s all about. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that’s the only way of cooking. When you look at people cooking in Britain - and Dubai too - they’re not that adventurous, they need to be encouraged somehow. And not everybody needs to be shouted at. I went through my training at Westminster College, I worked in some nice hotels and restaurants. I didn’t get those breaks because in those days as a black chef because even though I was really well qualified they didn’t want a black guy fronting their restaurant. And I can understand that. It wasn’t a major thing with me because it wasn’t done in a disgraceful way. But that’s the way it was then. Things have changed because I’ve propelled myself into the media world and I’ve been able to get my style of cooking across with my personality. Not with Gordon’s personality or Jamie’s - all of them great chefs in their own right. In terms of what Gordon does, he just likes to do that. I remember him having a go at Gino D’Acampo about something and Gino got very upset. Gordon said he only did it for the cameras. He was aggressive in his tone and it was refreshing at first, but after a while people become uncomfortable with it. But I’m a warm person and I like people to feel comfortable - if they’re comfortable they’re going to relax and cook and feel good.       

Do you think there will be a time when the public has had enough of celebrity chefs?

No, I don’t ever think that will happen. Unlike DIY or gardening - which are other lifestyle things - food is something that we deal with all of our lives. Two or three meals a day for a lot of people. I don’t think we’re ever going to tire of it.