Le Gavroche: the end of an era

Le Gavroche, arguably the most important restaurant in Britain of modern times, is to close down next January after 56 years. The announcement was made by Michel Roux Jr (pictured in 1989 with his father, Albert), who took over as chef-patron in 1991 (coinciding almost exactly with the launch of our first edition, Harden’s London Restaurants 1992).

The restaurant was founded in 1967 by his late father Albert and uncle Michel in Chelsea, before moving to its current address in Mayfair. Named after a street urchin in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, Le Gavroche championed classical Fench haute cuisine, and generations of leading chefs passed through its kitchen, from Pierre Koffmann to Monica Galetti.

Michel said he had discussed passing the restaurant on to his daughter Emily, a chef who runs her own restaurant, Caractère, in Notting Hill with her husband Diego Ferrari. Apparently, she turned the idea down.

In fact, it’s tempting to muse that perhaps the writing was already on the wall for the Mayfair site in 2019, when Michel became supportive of setting Emily and Diego up in Notting Hill, rather than to look to a future succession in Mayfair (which had previously seemed to be on the cards). The end date of Le Gavroche’s current lease would already have been known then.

And, in any case, it’s clear from our soon-to-be-published 2024 annual diners poll, the pressure currently faced by top tier restaurants, caught between finding and paying staff and customers baulking at new cost-of-living-crisis price points.

There’s also the fact that – at 63, seemingly very happily married and with many lucrative media opportunities – Michel is finding like many TV chefs that there are more congenial ways of spending one’s time.

Explaining his decision in an interview with The Times, Michel said: “I’m genuinely tired. Being in the restaurant almost every day has taken its toll and I have got to the stage where I’m not enjoying it as much as I used to. It is a very high-pressure job and I want a better work-life balance.

I have very complicated feelings about it. I’ve been at the helm for 34 years, which is longer even than my dad. It’s not been my job, it’s been my life, [but] the pressure to be able to deliver the high quality that everyone dining at Le Gavroche expects is just so wearing. It is not just every day and every service, but every plate.

“I’ve had many, many sleepless nights worrying about the business, and then tossing and turning thinking about the ramifications of my decision. It’s going to be a huge, huge wrench and I don’t know how I’m going to face the last service. I will probably be a gibbering wreck but I won’t be the only one, that’s for sure.

Michel is of course named for his late Uncle, who ceased his co-ownership of Le Gavroche in 1986 to focus on the Waterside Inn: nowadays run by Michel Jr’s cousin, Alain Roux – who is younger than Michel Jr by eight years. After the closure of Le Gavroche, the Waterside Inn, launched in 1972, will be the dynasty’s main flagship; and one of the few remaining bastions of first class, classic Gallic gastronomy.

Michel is keeping the Le Gavroche name, and is looking forward to a less stressful working life, which will include television work as well as his role as culinary director of the Langham Hotel. He aims to find jobs for any of the restaurants 43 staff who want them.

He is keen to end the Le Gavroche era on a high, posting on the restaurant website: “We will be hosting a series of dinners celebrating the menus over the decades since the restaurant opened, which will start this November and go through until the restaurant’s closure in January next year. Family members and familiar faces who have worked at Le Gavroche in the past will be making appearances at these events.

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