The closure of Le Gavroche

In the early 1970s, I was fresh out of catering college in Chichester, West Sussex, and was managing (with a bit of cheffing) a restaurant in Battersea Park Road in London. It was a French restaurant called La Grenouille, famous for introducing Le Cassoulet, Confit of Goose and Duck (proper ‘confit’ – preserve – not boiling things in oil for a couple of minutes!), andouillette and Toulouse Sausages to the London gastronomic elite.

I had heard of a restaurant in Lower Sloane Street getting a Michelin Star, the first in the UK to get such a great culinary accolade. I saved up all my wages, to book a table at Le Gavroche, and see what a Michelin Star menu looks like. I was going to take my then girlfriend but decided that I could not afford it. The risk of her making some inappropriate comment or ordering a lobster or something expensive was too great. As you would expect, the meal and the service were sublime. My thoughts of making La Grenouille a Michelin Stared eatery was, I concluded, unrealistic. However, I was influenced with the way the service was conducted and changed the presentation of the food. We went from paper napkins to linen and started to unfurl the napkins onto the customer’s laps.

My father and stepmother lived in the tiny, idyllic village of Sutton, nestled in the Sussex Downs. One morning, in the 1980s, my father phoned me and asked for help with a fund-raising dinner for the Sutton Village Hall, as, he pointed out, I was the only caterer amongst his four sons. In fact, I was the only caterer he knew. I said I would be delighted, as I was not working at the time, and asked for how many people. He answered, 200 to 250. I was flabbergasted, to say the least. I doubted my skills were up to cooking for 250 guests. He replied, don’t worry, he’d got Albert Roux doing the cooking! Le Gavroche had moved from Lower Sloane Street to Upper Brook Street. To have one of the country’s greatest chefs cook for a tiny village hall in Sussex, seemed to be totally unbelievable. But as it turned out, Sutton was Albert Roux’s country family retreat!

I agreed to help with enthusiasm. I was told to await a call from Monsieur Roux to arrange the service of the dinner. I bubbled over with excitement! I was to organise the service, serving 250 people Michlin Star food in a school hall in the depth of the countryside. I would ask my old catering college for waiting staff, and that ‘Chef’ will also want people to wash up.

I got the phone call: Monsieur Roux’s assistant called to arrange a meeting at Le Gavroche, at 11:00am the following day – if that was convenient. I put on my finest blazer, polished my shoes and put on one of my less flamboyant ties. My heart raced as I walked up the white marble steps, through the heavy dark-oak door of one of the best restaurants in the world, and was received by an elegant lady, with short blond hair. I introduced myself and said I had a meeting with Albert Roux – still not quite believing that I would actually be meeting the great man himself.

I was shown into the restaurant bar which, as far as I remember was down some steps and was decorated lavishly. It was certainly not as the bar is now. There was ‘Chef’, beaming brightly. Beside him was his son Michel Junior. The lady who greeted me produced four glasses of pink Champagne and offered me a glass. I thought they must think I am someone else – someone far more important!

We all sat down, the lady said, “Albert, what do you want to take to Sussex?” The lady turned out to be Albert’s wife, Monique. Chef, Michel and Madam Roux then had a busy conversation about their visit to Sutton the following day. It was not until I was driving home did I realise that the whole domestic conversation, was conducted in English, I believe for my benefit – being English. They could quite easily converse (quite intermate domestic details) in French, but didn’t!

We discussed what was going to happen at the fund-raising dinner. That the menu was to include a daube de boeuf cooked ‘sous vide’. This, I was told by Michel, enthusiastically, was a new way of cooking – cooking in a sealed bag to keep all the flavours in. It was a method of cooking the Rouxs were developing and very excited about. So when I said “It’s a bit like boil-in-a-bag?” there was steely silence. I apologised, thinking the interview was about to come to a close.

However, Chef said that the five dishes they were serving are to be served in a certain way. The salad starter must be on chilled salad bowls, the fish course (can’t remember what the fish dish was) had to be got out, onto the tables very quickly, and that everybody, including the kitchen staff had to help with the serving. And that the daube de boeuf MUST be served on twelve-inch plates. This was the 1980s – twelve-inch plates hardly existed! The meeting at Le Gavroche was absolutely unforgettable. The Rouxs were delightful and so charming. It was a shame I never met Michel Senior. What they thought of a me, I have no idea. I was only in my twenties newly married and inexperienced in the world of haut cuisine. I drove home quite merry with the delicious pink Champagne – would never have happened today! I was armed with lists of crockery and cutlery to hire, and the impressive menu for my father to get printed up for the guests.

A week before the great event at St Michael’s School in Burton Park, near Petworth, I was still unable to find 250 twelve-inch plates. I phone Monsieur Roux, at his house in Sutton, and asked if the daube could be served on ten-inch plates, to which he said it was not possible. If I popped round Le Gavroche, he would ask the restaurant to lend you 250 Gavroche twelve-inch plates, each sporting the little urchin (the Gavroche) logo. I was told, however that each plate cost eight pounds (about forty-five pounds today!), and not to break any.

St. Michael’s School was a beautiful white mansion house, built during William IV’s reign. I and my brother, Silas, were born nearby and were both christened in the tiny chapel beside the house. My son Giles was also christened there thirty years after my brother, with no entries in between. On the day of the Sutton Village Hall fund-raising event, my wife and I drove down, very carefully, with the precious plates in the boot of our Morris Thousand, and arrived at the school with all plates intact. When I started carrying the plates in, I expected to see ‘Chef’ in the thick of the preparations for the evening’s event. There were about four of five chefs busy with prep, doing their – as we say in the business – mis en place. I found monsieur Roux washing lettuce in the larder. Instead of being in full chef’s whites, as I expected, he was in his shirt sleeves and a faded blue apron and looking purposeful gently removing lettuce leaves and plunging them into the water.

The evening went well – it must have done as I cannot remember most of it! I do remember the delight and awe on people’s faces when the daube de boeuf was served on the Gavroche plates. The food was delicious, as you would expect. Chef made an appearance at the end of the meal in his chef’s whites with his characteristic wide beaming smile. The applause was sustained when his sous chefs took the stage for their bow, one of which – I am informed – was a very young Gordon Ramsey.

We – the Brits – were not so sophisticated in our food in those days. It was an evening that opened up my eyes, and I imagine quite a few other people’s eyes about food. I believe it all started with Le Gavroche and the Roux brothers. I never was able to eat in Le Gavroche again, and now that it is closing, sadly I never will.

The remote and pretty village of Sutton, in the Sussex Downs, now has a very, splendid village hall.

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