Memories of Michel Roux OBE

Guild member Sudi Pigott shares her memories of chef, restaurateur and author Michel Roux OBE:

I admit, without a modicum of embarrassment, that I kept a telephone message Michel Roux OBE, who very sadly died on Wednesday 11 March, left for me on my answerphone for more than six months. And, yes, whenever I needed a bit of cheering up I would press replay. He had the most sonorous gravelly, French accent I’ve ever heard. Serge Gainsbourg was nothing on Michel. The reason Michel left a message was to explain he would be happy to write a short dedication in my ‘How to be a Better Foodie’ book. I was amazed and honoured, and I imagine it contributed to its huge success. Kindness and generosity were second nature to Michel, besides a sometimes naughty sense of humour. But most of all he loved to cook, eat, teach and listen to his beloved Edith Piaf.

Setting up The Roux Scholarship with his older brother Albert in 1984 has truly immortalised the Roux Brothers’ contribution to the elevation of British gastronomy. As Michel himself has said: ‘it is magical, it is like turning the key into an elite club, a family.’ The reality is that it is absolutely life-changing for the chefs who’ve won. I am quite sure that without the Roux Scholarship, fellow global French gastronome Alain Ducasse would never have tipped London as the most exciting culinary capital in the world.

It is through the Roux Scholarship that I first got to know Michel Roux properly and saw at close hand his kindness, his generosity with his knowledge and the respect he inspires. I was lucky enough to be invited to the celebration of the first 10 years of the scholarship at Gleneagles, home to Restaurant Andrew Fairley, the first recipient of the award, who sadly died earlier this year. I joined all the past Roux Scholars for two days of boisterous fun, a lot of leg pulling, sublime wood-roasted lobster and my first and only experience of clay pigeon shooting, which Michel insisted I joined in. He wagged his finger and, grinning mischievously, joked: ‘otherwise, there’s no lunch for you!’

I was also fortunate to travel with Michel to see one of the Roux scholars, Simon Hulstone of The Elephant whilst he was doing his stage at Martin Berasategui. It was lovely to see up close how paternally Michel regarded his scholars and quite how giving he was with advice and more. Somehow our return flight from Bilbao was cancelled and we had to take a flight the next day from Barcelona. Seamlessly, whilst reassuring me I would be home soon to see my son, Michel organised everything including a way-past-midnight table at Cal Pep, which Michel just described as a little place I know that I think will be open late. My first visit to the legendary restaurant that inspired Barrafina was magical. We were treated like the culinary royalty that Michel was, with plate after plate of superb seafood until we had to beg them to stop. Despite only getting a couple of hours sleep before an early flight, Michel worked on some forthcoming menus all the way back, apologising graciously for not being the sparkling company he’d been the night before.

The last time I saw the Frenchman was nearly two years ago at a daring one-off: the only occasion when 3 Michelin star The Waterside Inn at Bray invited in a guest chef: the renowned Thai chef David Thompson. David was a close personal friend of Michel’s Australia-born late wife Robyn and she’d apparently been promising this would happen for years. ‘Robyn was always telling me to be a little bit less precious,’ he joked. It was an incredibly touching and delicious tribute to Robyn whom Michel credited with ‘softening his edges,’ with his customary twinkle. Yes, Michel was a towering figure in gastronomy who once told me the key to their restaurant success was ‘discipline and having eyes everywhere.’ Ever the flirty Frenchman, at the pre-dinner reception over vintage Laurent-Perrier, Michel said as he always did: ‘I just love your curly hair’ and gave it an affectionate ruffle. I like to think Michel would be happy for his epitaph to be, as his favourite chanteuse immortalised: ‘Je ne regrette rien.’