With its traditional décor, Mayfair location and slightly stuffy image, Le Gavroche is one of the eateries of choice for the movers and shakers of the PR industry. Do they come here for the food, the exclusivity, or to rub shoulders with pop stars and royalty?
When Golley Slater CEO Chris Lovell reviewed Le Gavroche for PRWeek’s Let’s Meet At slot, he wrote: ‘What makes this restaurant really special is its sense of occasion and history – it has probably seen more business deals and journalist scoops than all of its upstart rivals put together.’
The man at the helm of this gastronomic ocean liner is Michel Roux junior. He is the son of Albert Roux and nephew of Michel Roux senior. In a 2003 poll of UK chefs carried out by trade magazine Caterer & Hotelkeeper, the pair were voted the most influential people in the industry. Luckily, Roux junior has never been a man to be crushed by the weight of expectation.
Le Gavroche, which has just hit 40, was taken over by Roux in 1990 when he was 30. Maybe the constant traffic of senior PROs has rubbed off on him, but either way Roux’s career has been an object exercise in successful brand management.
Food for thought
Watching him with lunch diners is to see successful reputation handling in a microcosm.
Cooking is a business and any PRO wanting to see how a fine communicator works could do worse than pull up a chair. Roux appears to treat brand equity as carefully as his patrons, and he is undoubtedly Le Gavroche’s top PR man.
He is savvy enough to know that good PR takes a team though. Specialist media and investor relations agency Redleaf Communications has worked for him for a decade.
Its brief is a mixture of representing Le Gavroche and promoting Roux himself, and perhaps – although he does not explicitly say it – continuing to establish him as separate to his famous father and uncle.
‘Our image – how we position ourselves at the forefront of gastronomy – is one of our tools,’ he says of Le Gavroche, which is situated in Upper Brook Street in Mayfair.
What Albert and Michel senior make of today’s culture of reality TV-based celebrity cooking is probably not printable. But it is evident to even the most casual of TV viewers that we are in an era of stellar brand extenders such as Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay. Compared with these, Roux himself seems to fit an altogether more traditional role. Gentlemen diners at Le Gavroche still have to wear a jacket.
He has appeared on Ramsay’s Hell’s Kitchen and Masterchef (which he describes as ‘a joy’) but not much else – and this is not for want of offers. ‘I refuse to go on Ready Steady Cook and such like,’ Roux adds, firmly.
Le Gavroche is Roux’s priority and he reckons that he spend s about 90 per cent of his time here. Doing otherwise is ‘the downfall of top chefs,’ he says, without naming any.
Roux is an attentive and polite interviewee, but retains a restless sense of wanting to be off doing the next thing. Which is fair enough – lunch is coming up and getting the food right for paying guests is not negotiable. That expectation of rigorous standards stretches to Roux’s suppliers. ‘He’s very fair, but if something isn’t quite right you’re going to hear about it,’ says Steve Downey, owner of Chef Direct, which has been supplying fish to Le Gavroche for 16 years.
What journalists say has always been an important part of any restaurant’s route to success.
‘Food critics can fill a restaurant. One good reference in one of the quality papers and my phone doesn’t stop ringing for a week,’ says Roux. ‘They can also make or break a restaurant – not an established one, but one that’s just opened.’
Is Roux talking about people like Michael Winner here? The Sunday Times food writer has been banned for life from Le Gavroche. ‘I had a run-in with him,’ he explains, declining to elaborate further.
The incident did make headlines back in 1998, but it seems an isolated case of Roux behaving like the archetypal angry chef. By the same token, you are unlikely to find Roux indulging in Ramsay-esque bouts of fruity language in public. ‘We all swear in the kitchen, but making a living out of it like Gordon is another thing,’ he says.
Okay then, what about ejecting a few more diners to up his media appeal? ‘If you look back to the Marco Pierre White era, he made an absolute habit of it,’ Roux reckons with a smile. But he insists that just six ‘obnoxious, and rude’ tables have been told to leave Le Gavroche since he took over in 1991. ‘If you complain properly, even if it’s unfounded, it’s not a problem. But if you start doing that’ – he jabs his finger in a scary manner – ‘then out you go. We’re not slaves. I didn’t particularly enjoy doing it.’
Cooking up a storm
He prefers that his culinary reputation does the talking. ‘We’re still very French, and fairly classical. We use wonderful ingredients,’ he says. This can all sound a little pious, but any gastronome who includes a quote from the Muppets’ Miss Piggy –‘never eat more than you can lift’ – on his website cannot be entirely po-faced. ‘If you look after your loyal customers then they will be back,’ he adds.
Maître d’ Silvano Giraldin has worked there since 1971 and does his own one-man PR job for the restaurant by meeting and greeting customers as soon as they arrive. Roux knows his own importance to the brand, and will usually be on hand to say hello too. ‘Le Gavroche is not cheap. I feel the customers appreciate it,’ he says.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the ambitious attempts of other chefs to develop global brand extensions do not interest him. Aware of the importance of nurturing and respecting a famous brand, Roux believes spreading himself too thinly would be a mistake.
With this in mind, the Roux and Le Gavroche brands seem safe in Michel junior’s hands. As long as that remains the case, journalists and PROs will still be cutting deals in the ornate corners of the Le Gavroche for years to come.
'CV' - Michel Roux
Becomes consultant to City fine dining caterer Restaurant Associates
Michael Winner banned for life
Loses one of its three Michelin stars
Takes over as chef de cuisine from father Albert
Le Gavroche is first Michelin-rated restaurant to serve
a set lunch
Elysee Palace, commis de cuisine