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Champagne Chefs - Michel Roux Jr.

In a new series for the Champagne Academy, we explore the links between Chefs and Champagne. Two worlds that are entwined harmoniously and craft some of life’s finest occasions. The links between the Cave and the Kitchen run deeper than you may think.

Our first Chef has a real fondness for Champagne, as a product and a region, with family friendships at Champagne Taittinger stretching back over 50 years. These ties were strengthened through the international culinary prize-; Le Taittinger Prix Culinaire now in its 54th year.

This year Champagne Taittinger are the Presidential House of the Champagne Academy and I have them to thank for introducing me to one of the world’s most recognised and esteemed chefs.

Michel Roux Jr is best known for the 2 Michelin star “Le Gavroche” – the epitome of fine dining in London’s Mayfair.

With a lifetime in exquisite culinary surroundings, from the Elysée Palace to the Mandarin Hotel Hong Kong; and working with the likes of Alain Chapel at Mionay near Lyon, not to mention his father Albert Roux, his late uncle Michel, Roux can draw on the most incredible experience and influence, even during this unprecedented period.

I had the absolute pleasure of spending some of my quarantine Zoom time finding out more about Michel’s lock-down life, the plans for re-opening and, of course, his relationship with Champagne.

The interview took place a few days before Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that restaurants could re-open from 4th July. But, at that time, there had only been speculation about when it might happen, and a 2-metre social distancing rule was still in place.

“You would think they would be able to rustle up some guidelines…”

Hospitality and an unrivaled experience are the essential ingredients at all of Michel Roux’s restaurants. Since its opening in 1967 by Albert and Michel Sr, Le Gavroche has set standards in attending to the needs of the clients. The more recent introduction of Roux at Parliament Square, with head chef Steve Groves, opened in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis and was quickly followed later in 2010 with Roux at the Landau at the prestigious Langham Hotel.

Having successfully navigated through some of the toughest times in the industry, Michel’s biggest concern now is the uncertainty.

“We, the restaurateurs had 13 or 14 weeks to plan and the government had the same amount of time. You would think they would be able to rustle up some guidelines or something that we can work towards, but they haven't.

“I have thought how we should re-open, so we have things in place, but I haven't invested thousands of pounds in to reopening because we don't know when it's going to happen and how it's going to happen”

According to many establishments, the difference between a 2-metre and 1-metre rule between customers means the difference in opening and remaining closed. And Michel agrees it is a huge difference in any business.

“At 2 -metres, it’s not worth opening. My gut feeling is that if it stays at 2-metres a lot of restaurants, pubs for sure, are not going to open. It’s not workable.

“And how do we serve our guests? We cannot do it from 2-metres away or do we put it on a table 2-metres away and the customer comes to collect it. Sorry, but that is not hospitality and not what I came into this business for.

“Pubs and restaurants already operate under very strict health and hygiene regulations; we are used to that. For me it is just a little step forward to ensure the safety of our staff and the safety of our guests”

“I have started doing yoga with my wife”

Notoriously healthy, a regular runner and sport fan, surely some time at home, not working the long hours associated with running a restaurant, would be welcome.

“Staying fit is important, I have been keeping fit and I have started doing some yoga with my wife, because she loves her yoga and I have been really enjoying it!”

But there is no rest even though the restaurant is closed. Michel has been in the kitchen preparing for the re-opening, planning the menu with head chefs Rachel Humphrey and Gaetano Farucci.

Prior to lock-down the full Le Gavroche à la carte menu was huge and consisted of eight starters, main courses, and desserts plus cheese, not to mention the four different specials every evening and the tasting menu.

On reopening, the menu will be a single use printed card, offering two tasting menus. Guests will also be able to select individual dishes, if they do not want the full degustation. This reduces the options to 6 starters, 4 main courses and 3 desserts, making it much more manageable for front of house and the kitchen.

“The menu is cut back, drastically, but we won’t be cutting back on quality, if anything the quality will be even better because we will be able to focus even more on the dishes.”

“…there is an appetite to go out…”

In Michel’s opinion [and we would agree – Ed.] Champagne will be important as the nation returns to restaurants.

A pared down menu will be available to help manage the time at the table as much as the time taken in the kitchen. But all restaurants under Roux’s charge will have full wine lists available;

“These are being uploaded on to iPads and we will have a couple of clean paper copies for those who prefer. I have seen extensive wine lists on digital platforms, and I think they work quite well.

“We have a massive stock of wines – let’s open it up and make it accessible to everyone. I read recently about the importance of half bottles and we are fortunate that we have a good choice of half bottles.”

And after months of staying at home, people will be looking for an experience that was worth waiting for.

“There is an element of trust, guests are likely to choose somewhere special, where they can be blown away and they can trust them to do it right.”

The signs are that people are looking forward to enjoying a meal out again.

“There is an appetite to go out. I did not close the bookings and Fridays and Saturdays in July are fully booked.”

“Every time you open a bottle of Champagne it becomes a celebration”

A glass of Champagne was offered to all guests the evening the restaurants closed, and Michel includes Champagne as an important way to make the best experience for the customers and expects to have some celebratory moments as the doors reopen.

“On the Friday night before the lock-down I greeted them all with a glass of Champagne and it was really well appreciated. And maybe we will do the same for the first back when re-opening, because Champagne has its place.”

“There has been some lost business for Champagne. I myself had a pretty big birthday party planned and there would have been a lot of Champagne consumed.”

Collaboration is key to quickly getting back on track and ensuring guests have the best experience and reopening is a success for everyone.

“It is important to work together with Champagne Houses. We have a great relationship at The Langham Hotel with Taittinger, for example. They are our pouring Champagne and Taittinger have been very supportive there. Because, ultimately, we have to work together for the good of both parties. And this kind of thing, getting the message out there is important, that the restaurants are keen to open and keen to pour Champagne.”

And, while Michel appreciates that sometimes a glass of Champagne can be required just because you are thirsty, he is clear of the importance it has at each occasion;

“Every time you open a bottle of Champagne it becomes a celebration”

“Family Values…”

There is a very common theme that Michel picks up on when we discuss his links with Champagne Taittinger.

“My father and uncle go back a long, long way with Pierre-Emmanuel and the family business and I know Clovis and Vitalie really well. It’s a really nice connection. And the connection has been even more solid with the Le Taittinger Prix Culinaire competition, which is renowned Internationally. It is a great competition and a great Champagne House to be associated with.

“It has family values, which is important. The Roux family is a family business and the Taittinger business is a family business, so it ties in well. A lot of Champagne Houses are still family businesses, which is their forte and strength.”

The synergy goes further; Michel was born in Kent, where Taittinger chose to plant their first vines in England at Domaine Evremond in 2017 with wines expected to be ready by 2023. And Jean Taittinger twinned Reims with Canterbury when he was Mayor of Reims.

Michel Roux’s own daughter, Emily, has now opened her own restaurant, Caractére in Notting Hill in partnership with Le Gavroche former head chef, Diego Ferrari and he recognises the change in management at Champagne Taittinger;

“Vitalie is a formidable young lady and she works very well with Clovis. The Taittinger Champagne House has a very strong future.”

Following the interview, the government confirmed restaurants could reopen from 4th July with social distancing reduced to 1-metre, making it viable for many more restaurants.

Michel announced that Le Gavroche will re-open on 7th July and they are now taking bookings…but be quick, it is filling up fast! Roux at the Landau will open on 4th July and Roux at Parliament Square is opening in September.

It seems that every day we are hearing devastating news of more restaurants and establishments that will not reopen. Some iconic destinations like Le Caprice and new favorites like Adam Handling’s The Frog, which hosted the launch of Taittinger Comtes de Champagne 2007. But speaking with Michel Roux Jr instills a confidence and positivity that customers will return, the hospitality industry will do what it does best in putting the guest first and Champagne will always be there to ensure the experience is the finest you could expect.

Special thanks to Kevin McKee, Director of Champagne Taittinger in the UK, for arranging the interview and the support for the new series of articles.

The Champagne Academy is a charitable educational organisation run in partnership with 16 Grandes Marques Champagne Houses to support the UK hospitality trade with one of the most exceptional wine education courses available and promoting Champagne through tasting events and dinners throughout the UK and Ireland.

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