NOW and then, I dream of a lobster mousse I once had at Le Gavroche in London’s Mayfair. Rich, imaginative, sublime: it has stayed with me not only as the finest meal I’ve had, but as a broader illustration of what excellence is. Today, lunchtime at Michel Roux Jnr’s great two-Michelin-starred restaurant is a different affair. Recent events have seen to that. Although your temperature isn’t taken at the door—as at post-Covid-19 Scott’s—the staff wear protective gear and must smile their welcome through visors. All the menus are disposable and single-use.
There is, however, welcome continuity in the cheerful and infectious presence of Mr Roux. Every lunchtime, he circles among his guests; you wouldn’t guess from his demeanour how much 2020 has upended his life. ‘We’ll have the virus for quite a while and have to mitigate the risks,’ he reflects. ‘It’s a very difficult thing to get your head round. Normally, you look at the future with an amount of certainty.’
In practice, what’s changed? As the 60 year old makes his lunchtime rounds, he weaves between four fewer tables. He also notes a decrease in larger parties—‘we have a lot of tables for two’—which further eats into his margins. Is he pessimistic? ‘Thankfully, we’ve been around a long time and have a loyal following,’ he explains. ‘But we’re on reduced covers because of social distancing, so it’s very difficult.’
At times such as these, pedigree matters. The chef’s father, Albert, and his uncle, Michel Snr (who died this year), opened Le Gavroche in 1967. Mr Roux has not only taken on the family mantle, but has already passed it on: his daughter, Emily, now runs La Caractère in London’s Notting Hill with her husband, Diego Ferrari.
Despite all the headwinds, Mr Roux’s manner, kindly and respectful, suggests a resilience likely to put him in good stead—but is the term ‘gentleman’ the right label for someone with such French roots? ‘It is a very British concept,’ he admits, ‘but, if you look at the origins of the word, it’s French: gentil homme.’
I enjoy briefly the way the bilingual effortlessly reshape their mouth to accommodate another language. ‘In France, we do look at certain people and say, “He’s a real gentleman”,’ he continues. ‘It’s to do with being respectful—and being respected because of your values— but politeness, good manners and respect are sadly missing now.’
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