'The mean winemaker can never make the best bottles,' Michel Roux Snr OBE tells Jane Anson, who has been lucky enough to dine next to the celebrated chef twice in 2015.
For the past six months, I have been cooking peas with a precision that had, until now, entirely passed me by.
I can date back my awakening to March 2015, when I was seated next to Michel Roux Snr OBE at dinners held during the Bordeaux 2014 en primeur campaign.
‘Never use water to cook your peas’
Never, never use water to cook your peas, Roux told me in his astonishingly deep and dulcet tones. Simply stir continually with plenty of the best quality butter – ‘always more than you think’ – until they are just softened but retain their juicy texture, flavour and colour.
That they be freshly shelled hardly needs saying. And when presented, if at all possible, take the time to cut each pea into perfectly even halves. Ok, that last bit I am yet to perfect.
This is just a fraction of an insight into how you get and keep three Michelin stars for 30 years.
Know your ingredients
Talking with Roux makes it abundantly clear that it’s not just how the ingredients are cooked and displayed, but how they are sourced, who has grown, caught or reared them, and in what conditions.
The climate, soils and even food used during rearing, for example, will have an impact on the taste of eggs, butter and milk, let alone the meat or fish itself.
Roux will taste all his ingredients on their own, without salt, pepper or other seasonings, to understand their authenticity and intrinsic qualities before beginning to envisage how they will sit within a dish.
‘I know what my wine producers like to eat’
So it’s no surprise that his approach to wine is similarly about getting to know the producers, just as he does with the farmers, fishermen and gardeners who supply to him.
‘I know what my wine producers like to eat, I know their laugh,’ he says. ‘I can’t imagine doing something like this without knowing the people behind the products I work with. That is success for me. I have to know who makes the things that I am cooking.
‘And invariably I like the producers. Because the best wines come from generous people. The mean chef and the mean winemaker can never make the best food or the best bottles.’
How Roux Snr discovered wine
Roux’s first steps in wine came with his apprenticeship, aged 14, at Camille Loyal’s pâtisserie in Belleville, northern Paris. ‘At the pastry shop, as an occasional treat after many long hours on a Sunday, the boss cracked open a bottle of wine with our meal and treated us each to a glass.
From here, Roux became chef at the British Embassy in Paris, where he discovered matching vintage Port and Stilton.
The ‘Rothschild University’
‘But my real education in wines began as head chef at the age of 22 with the Rothschild
family, where I deepened my knowledge of wine and food pairings,’ he says.
‘At the “Rothschild University”, I tasted and worked with the greatest wines of Bordeaux including Château d’Yquem, Château Mouton Rothschild and Lafite Rothschild. I would be able to enjoy the occasional glass of wine and as we wound down after some of Cecile de
Rothschild’s grand dinners, we were allowed to finish the decanters.
‘The bonus here was that they were always great wines so this was an amazing way to begin my education.’
An entirely French wine cellar
Today at the Waterside Inn, Roux famously oversees an entirely French cellar, the only Michelin-starred restaurant in England to do so.
And his loyalty to his suppliers is legendary – he has been stocking Drouhin Burgundies for 50 years, Leon Beyer’s Alsace for 40 years, supported Hospices de Beaune by buying a barrel annually for 30 years.
He still heads to Bordeaux each year for tasting the fledgling vintage during en primeur week – and he has little time for those who say the process has lost its purpose.
‘It’s not a crime to drink a young wine,’ he says. ‘In fact it’s essential to see the raw qualities and to understand them as they age, to try to uncover what the wines are hiding in their youth and to travel forward with them in time. It’s no different to me from trying to get to know any ingredient – you have to understand where you are starting from.’
This interview first appeared in Decanter magazine. Subscribe to Decanter here.
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