Chef Interview: Alain Roux (November 2009)

Posted on: November 27th, 2009 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood

 Alain Roux (above) is one of a rare band of Michelin Three Star chef/patron in Britain. Perhaps uniquely amongst such lofty heights, should you want to meet Alain then simply visit his restaurant – The Waterside Inn, Bray – where he cooks.

Having confidently taken the reins from his legendary father (Michel Roux) several years ago, Alain has taken the institution that is The Waterside Inn forward without a blink: With each season the classics seamlessly blend with new creations for the house, providing beautifully balanced menus.

Everything about the restaurant is impeccable from the greeting as you walk in, through pre-dinner drinks, the service, the food, the setting, the atmosphere and so on – a house run by passionate professional enthusiasts for passionate enthusiasts

Alain Roux kindly found time to sit down and talk to Simon Carter of fine-dining-guide, interview took place Friday 27th November 2009 in one of the terrace summerhouses at The Waterside Inn, Bray.

Tell us some of your fondest early memories of restaurant dining?

As a boy and a young man, I have many fond memories of eating out in restaurants – Le Dôme – a lovely brasserie in Paris, very nice, beautiful decor. Higher on the list perhaps, a couple of outings with my mum and sisters at Le Gavroche; the beautiful, rich food in a sophisticated atmosphere were really special memories: The silver service, the sip of wine, the taste of rich food. It was unusual for children to be in Le Gavroche as the clientele at the time were typically the top end business people from the city, so it was quite a memorable experience for a young boy.

As a teenager I particularly remember visiting Restaurant Boyer, Les Crayères in Reims: Beautiful house and the food was stunning.

What were the stages of your professional career development?

My father gave great advice when starting out in the profession. For the entire eight years that I worked in France, my father (Michel Roux) guided me through the various positions to take that would best teach me the craft.

He (Michel Roux) strongly advised me to start by training in the art of pastry so I entered an apprenticeship for a young pastry chef – a two year course – every four weeks you would spend a week at school and the other in the pastry shop working. With pastry you need to be precise, a gram is a gram, but you need specific skills, mixing in a certain order and so on. The rules are so important in pastry, the discipline you have to learn to get it right.

To those who say you can either be a pastry chef or a cook but not both, it may be rare to find those that have the all round flexibility of skills to excel in both but it is possible. Starting in pastry is a good way to achieve all round skills, as it instils the focus and discipline in a young man that helps in the future.

Today, my knowledge and strengths are more on the savoury cooking, however I have stayed very close to the pastry community, joining an international association in 2000 (Relais Desserts) which include 90 of the most talented and known pastry chefs around the world. The objectives are to share knowledge and practice as well as an understanding of how various businesses are run. I’m proud to maintain a number of relationships and friends in the sector. It’s a big part of our family heritage.

Over eight years I worked in five Relais & Chateaux property kitchens, these were typically father and son businesses (in the kitchen) as this would be the future. I also had the benefit of cooking in restaurants that were in different regions of France and so learned many different styles of cooking. The first was Pic in Valence, a three Michelin Star restaurant. In the middle of my time in France I did my military service – Francois Mitterand was the President of France at that time and I had the privilege of cooking at the Elysee Palace.

After military service, I cooked at Château Arnoux, La Bonne Etape , which at the time was two Michelin star and was father and son in the kitchen before going to Christain Germain’s restaurant at Château de Montreuil which still has a Michelin star.

Finally, I went to La Côte St Jacques in Joigny, which again was still a family run kitchen at the time. Then I came to The Waterside Inn and spent ten years working side by side with my father.

How would you describe The Waterside Inn?

A restaurant with rooms where food is the main focus for me and my brigade, however having top quality front of house to deliver the all round package: From having Diego (Masciaga) lead from the top through to having the best people at the door when you enter.

We have an extensive team, front to back, and having a mix of youth and experience is important. The younger generation bring new blood, enthusiasm and passion and bond well with customers of all ages.

The setting, service, ambiance and atmosphere all go hand in hand to make The Waterside Inn a positive and memorable experience for our guests.

In terms of the food, it is about sourcing the best possible ingredients and making the most out of them by delivering clear, deep natural flavours. We work very hard in the kitchen, still guided by my father who, from time to time, gives invaluable advice.

Describe the creative process at The Waterside Inn?

We do try to develop new creations for the house and be as innovative as possible in the context of respect for the tradition of the restaurant. It is a real team effort of thought and preparation; my head chef Fabrice Uhryn has been in that position for over three years and at The Waterside Inn eight years in total. In addition, there are two sous chefs who have some creative input in producing new dishes, so it’s a team effort. It’s good to see the brigade sharing their passion and gaining knowledge as they are learning the trade themselves and developing for the future.

Suppliers are important too, as they may offer the best quality seasonal ingredients of the day, where certain ingredients lend themselves to the very good value set lunch menu. This menu affords the kitchen team the opportunity to be more openly creative, which produces an on-going high quality lunch for our guests. Having said this, it is a balancing act, some of the dishes on the lunch menu are adapted from Waterside classics, perhaps with a slightly different ingredient or interpretation.

We may try a dish ten times or even twenty times before it goes on the menu. On other occasions, just once or twice and then decide it may not be in the style of the house, the family or my cooking.

Cooking in general is an evolutionary process, starting with the basics or fundamentals of classical French cooking then adding a personal twist or interpretation. At the same time, the kitchen must remember that ultimately, the objective is to cook for the guests and when they are brought pleasure, the kitchen is happy too.

The a la carte changes with the seasons four times a year and we have a mix of the classical dishes and the new, more adventurous creations. The restaurant is also sensitive to customer’s dietary needs – be it allergies, or a desire for a choice of lighter dishes through to a full scale vegetarian tasting menu.

Tell us about the kitchen brigade?

The size of the brigade changes as in the summer months we work Tuesday dinner service. The restaurant will also have visitors from around Europe who are learning their trade and will come and work for up to six months. The brigade will range from 15 to 20 chefs with a further 6 in pastry.

It is quite a large pastry section as The Waterside Inn does all pastry from A to Z in house. Perhaps it is rare for a restaurant to deliver 12 different petits fours, however the house is proud of the tradition of its mignardises and that will continue.

In other areas, supplies are brought in whole, on the bone, and we do our own butchery and fish filleting in-house. There is also an area in the kitchen where we make our own doughs and breads.

Tell us about the kitchen re-development

The kitchen re-development has brought the pastry section more into the team space – they are not hidden round a corner. Now there is also a natural clockwise working environment; from the moment supplies enter to the door of the kitchen to the finished dish leaving to the customer everything flows naturally clockwise round the kitchen.

The scale of the redevelopment was very significant, some extraordinary made to measure stainless steel kit was brought on site and we gained a lot of space through some excavation. The kitchen was empty for seven hours at the end of a three month development before the team had just four days to clean, cook, sample and rehearse for our guests. We were so excited to open the doors of the restaurant, we were happy to work long hours for those four days.

Naturally the new space and technology affords us great cooking opportunities and also a more comfortable working space.

You are often seen talking to guests in the dining room?

I learn a great deal from coming round the dining room and talking to guests, it helps to gather information about certain preferences and understand better which dishes are popular and why. For instance, those who prefer lighter choices of dishes and indeed this lead to our delivering a separate vegetarian menu including a tasting menu. These dishes can be labour intensive but most importantly are what some of our guests enjoy.

How has business been over the last few years?

Trade has been good over the last few years, numbers have steadily gone up. When the house is full it’s full! In terms of turnover it becomes a question of the choices of the guests once they are here – yes there have been difficult economic times and perhaps we have seen, for example, the wine choice becoming more conservative. At the same time the accommodation side of the restaurant has developed over the last few years, there is on-going demand for rooms. There were originally six rooms available when I first came to The Waterside Inn and, over time, added more and more suites and rooms.

People like to escape and treat themselves – they may not go out as often, but like to spoil themselves nonetheless and we have experienced on-going demand for both the restaurant and the rooms.

Tell us about The Waterside Inn and Relais & Chateaux

Relais & Chateaux is like a big family – beautiful properties. You also have les Grands Chefs where the food is of a little extra importance. The members of the association are proud to be a part of it and it is a good stamp of quality.

My father retired just last month from his position as first vice president and he has thoroughly enjoyed working with the association.

Tell us about the Roux Scholarship?

The Roux scholarship continues to give a springboard to young people and my father and uncle (Albert Roux) are stillenjoying helping talented youngsters make their way in the trade. My cousin (Michel Roux Jnr) and I participate in the scholarship more and more and are proud to support the development of the next generation.

What are hopes for the future?

Continuity – that customers keep coming to The Waterside Inn and enjoying themselves!