When a restaurant has been open more than half a century, closing doesn’t come easily. “Emotionally I’m drained,” says Michel Roux Jr. “I’m knackered.” Last Friday, he announced that 56 years after its first service, Le Gavroche would run its final one in January. An email with the news was sent out just after 5pm. If releasing the news quietly was done with hopes of a peaceful weekend, no such luck.
“I’m still getting messages flooding through,” Roux says. “It’s incredible, all these anecdotes from guests, from people who’ve worked here. It’s been an outpouring of wonderful memories. It’s been immense, really very touching.”
The emotional draining began before the world knew of his decision; first to be told were the staff, who Roux often refers to as “family”. It can’t have been an easy moment — many of the team have worked there decades. “Look at Rachel [Humphrey],” Roux says. “She started in the Nineties as an apprentice and became our first female head chef. Now she’s executive chef. That’s special. And take Joao, our kitchen porter. He’s been here 34 years. We came up together!”
Started by his father Albert and uncle Michel in 1967, Roux has run the restaurant since 1991 — his family sold it to him — though he has been in the kitchens since childhood. He puts his closing of the site down to the desire to improve his work-life balance and, at 63, he is older than his father and uncle were when they moved on. “I’ve been at the helm far longer than my father,” Roux reflects. “And just saying that makes me think, jeez, I’m getting old.” He chuckles.
Roux acknowledges the pressures which accompany Gavroche’s global reputation. “I don’t see it as an albatross, because I’ve enjoyed every moment,” he says, sounding contemplative. “But it is a lot. The way that I work is that I’m there every day. It can’t be open without me being there. I trust the team implicitly, but I think it’s a special moment for the guests that I come out. For me, it would be a nightmare not going in, not being a part of it.”
Gavroche has been, Roux adds, “a life, not a job”. But, he says: “It’s a small, family-run, independent restaurant. We’re not a chain, and yes it’s in Mayfair, but we’ve only got 68 seats.” He says financially they are fine. With therestaurant so closely tied to the Roux legacy he could never sell it. “If somebody came along and offered me a fair old lump of cash to have it — there’s no way I could do that. The name is too precious to me and to the Roux family.”
Of family, though daughter Emily is a successful restaurateur in her own right — running Notting Hill’s Caractère (“they’re serving some absolutely unbelievable food,” says dad) — she and her husband, chef Diego Ferrari, did not want to take on the Brook Street spot. “It wasn’t a difficult conversation,” says Roux. “We’ve spoken about it many times and they’re forging ahead with what they’d like to do. And I’ll be doing a few special events and dinners there as well.”
Ah, yes. Le Gavroche may soon no longer exist as a restaurant, but Roux won’t be idle. The name and the brand will live on, with a series of one-off suppers and small residencies to follow. First up is Gavroche-at-Sea, as Roux takes the restaurant on a Cunard liner for a week, sailing to New York. “Then we’ll do bits around the UK,” Roux says. “It’ll be a couple of nights here and there, but it will be on my time, my decision, when I want to do it.”
A life in kitchens is not an easy one. To outsiders, Gavroche closing seems a seismic shift: the end of a kitchen that changed London’s dining scene forever, and one from which the likes of Marco Pierre White and Gordon Ramsay came. But to Roux, there’s something sweeter and simpler behind it all.
“I’m looking forward to spending more time with my wife, and my grandchildren,” he says, warmly. “To going out to restaurants, seeing things maybe I missed out on when I’ve been here.” Perhaps Gavroche is winding down, then, but it sounds as though Roux may just be getting going.