· Features

Interview with Michel Roux Jnr, HR director of Le Gavroche

Michelin-starred chef Michel Roux, Jnr, is also in effect the HRD of the prestigious Le Gavroche. He's a tough man to please but not averse to dispensing hugs to make staff feel valued.

As culinary dynasties go, there are none more celebrated than the Roux family. Headed by Michelin starred Albert Roux (who retired in 1993), and his brother Michel Roux, the line has long been in safe hands thanks to 49-year-old Michel Roux Jnr, the scion who not only took over running his father's (Albert) Le Gavroche restaurant in London's Mayfair, but actually added two Michelin Stars to it to boot. It's a place where behind its discreet side-entrance doorway is a kitchen of such wonder that even the most waspish food critics purr with culinary pleasure.

Later in the autum, the TV chef will reappear on our screens as one of the judges on BBC1's ever-popular MasterChef: The Professionals series. In fact thanks to the likes of Jamie Oliver, Rick Stein, Gary Rhodes, Antony Worrall-Thompson and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall preparing the ground, chefs are the new celebrity. But these same people are also arguably the mild-mannered doyens of cookery, the cuddly tea-time characters that are nothing compared with the fiery, tempestuous side of cooking brought to us by the likes of Gordon Ramsay (of Hell's Kitchen fame), where employee relations consist of continual angry shouts of: 'Chop this, baste that, fillet the other' (expletives deleted). Ramsay is a good friend of Roux, so which is the world that Roux inhabits? And can HR really exist in the heat of the kitchen?

"It is very, very tough," sighs Roux. "Tempers do ignite and there's a lot of swearing. What you see in The F Word (another TV Ramsay vehicle) is dressed up but (in a real kitchen) you don't say 'excuse-me-would-you-pass-me-that-please' - it's 'NOW!' My own view on expletives is you use them only when you really need to use them." He smiles. "Otherwise it dilutes the effect."

But while you might think Roux has no time for traditional HR practice, he is, in effect, the HRD that runs the show. Le Gavroche is a standalone restaurant, not part of a chain, and when it comes to recruitment there is only one person to please - him. "I take a great interest in HR," says Roux. "The head chef can hire and fire; the general manager, who runs front of house, can hire and fire - but I am the ultimate arbiter." And it's not for some great power-trip either. "We're part of the hospitality industry," he says modestly. "We have to do our damnedest to make sure the customer's happy," he says simply.

The consequence of the popularity of the TV chef means there is no shortage of potential recruits; the restaurant business has remained glamorous, despite the reality. He admits this has attracted a lot of starry-eyed applicants. "I see youngsters coming into this business under the false impression that it's a route to stardom," he says. "I tell them you have to work your nuts off. People think they're going to be the next Gordon or the next Jamie - but those two sweated gallons in the kitchen to prove themselves. That little part gets lost."

However, despite the additional burden of sorting the celebrity-seekers from the real grafters, this HR practitioner is assiduous in his hiring duty. "I read every single CV," he says. "I get between three and five per day. But I am now looking to employ people 12 months in advance. We have a waiting list of staff."

So is he Mr Cuddly? The answer is no. Roux's eyes often twinkle but at times his birdlike features set into a mask that borders on the terrifying. He must be a daunting prospect for any junior member of staff who has just screwed things up. He doesn't deny it.

"At the end of a busy evening where somebody's messed up I will always have a word with them in private, maybe put an arm round their shoulder," he says. That sounds okay. But then Roux goes on: "Nine times out of 10, I'll give them an ultimatum. It's tough because we're aiming for perfection. I hate having to lose staff. But if a person can't react and feed off the pressure (of the kitchen) then maybe it would be better if they found a place elsewhere."

Roux recognises catering has not always been an attractive career choice. "In my father's era, it was seen as the last stop before the army," he quips, a comment of significance, given he himself spent two years with the French Army in the early 1980s, undertaking military service at the Elysee Palace, working for both presidents Valery Giscard d'Estaing and Francois Mitterrand. In fact the parallels between a kitchen and the army are very close. In a kitchen there is a highly complex, very structured hierarchy which makes the civil service look airy-fairy - for example: commis, 1st commis, demi-chef de partie, chef de partie, sous-chef and then (in front of house) commis de salle, demi chef de rang, chef de rang, maitre d'hotel ...

The list of job titles is comprehensive and mystifying. Staff development is quite rigorously pursued along these lines - you are expected to work for so long and demonstrate certain skills at one level before you go up a grade.

"It's absolutely right it has to be run like that, almost in military fashion," agrees Roux. "To an extent you very definitely need discipline and you need military order inasmuch as orders are distributed. You must react immediately and deliver the goods."

For a business where individuals are often highlighted (flamboyant chefs and so on), teamwork is important. "Esprit de corps," he laughs. "I don't like to talk especially about chefs because front of house is an integral part of the business and the dining experience."

His line is that kitchen porter - the lowest job in the kitchen - is vital. "You should see what happens when a regular kitchen porter doesn't turn up: the kitchen grinds to a halt," he says. "Everyone's in a bad mood because they can't find anything." Yet there is no real way up the career ladder for kitchen porters, he goes on: "They get the lowest wages but I look after them." Interestingly, while staff turnover at Le Gavroche - and across the catering industry as a whole - is high, one of Roux's four kitchen porters has been with him for 10 years and another for 17. "I respect him for his lowly job," says Roux of the latter. I won't tolerate anybody not respecting him."

Although critics might say Roux's own career could hardly be more different - he was born into a family business and his career took off after he took over the day-to-day running of Le Gavroche from Albert Roux in 1991 - he did serve a number of impeccable apprenticeship at various French establishments. And, in his own training, Roux largely avoided contact with his famous father and uncle: "I wanted to form my own opinions outside the family business," he says.

But while Roux does his best to nurture staff, you sense he thinks nature plays a huge part in how they react to his pressure-cooker environment. "The best ones are born with that little extra, a natural desire, a natural eye," he observes. "In the kitchen, that's an eye for quality and an artistic eye; in the room, it can tell you that the customer wants something before he knows he wants it."

Does that mean he could take someone off the street and make them a chef, or not? "I'd like to think I could," he muses. "But that person would need to work hard."

Quality of service is something that Roux comes back to again and again. Yet from an outsider's perspective the very thing that top chefs want - quality - is in direct contrast to the way restaurants (with their high turnover of staff) actually run. In other words, quality seems to happen despite, rather than because of, the way recruitment works in this environment. "Team leaders: that's where the continuity comes," he says. These are the head chefs and general managers, whose tenure is generally longer, giving them time to impart the quality ethos to the underlings who come and go.

But catering is not a world of benefit packages and sky-high pay deals, and staff engagement levels might be thought of as on the low side - so cash surely cannot be the main motivating factor when it comes to good HR management. "To a certain extent it's money," Roux says slowly. "But it's also the little things: a hug and a bottle of wine, taking them out to dinner, remembering a birthday, that little bit of the personal that says: 'I love you, I really do'. You're employed by me, yes, but I really want you to be here because you're vital. It's something you can't get in chain restaurants."

A hug from someone of Roux's standing probably goes a long way towards making a member of staff forget the long hours and hard work, but it is a reminder that you need to adore the restaurant business to want to be in it. "You've got to have a passion, a real wish to succeed, whether you're in a gastropub, a bistro or a busy brasserie," he says.

All of which means what while TV crews have come knocking at his door, he says he chooses not to flaunt himself like some of his contemporaries. "TV is not my career," he insists. "MastercChef fits exactly my profile and what I want to do: I'm encouraging and teaching youngsters to achieve their goals. My father and uncle championed helping youngsters in our industry," he explains. He clearly wants this to continue and, as one of the gold-standard bearers of the sector, training with Roux is widely seen as top-quality experience.

This may well create some of the UK's next best chefs, but what about his own, more immediate talent management plans? Roux has one daughter, Emily, who is currently at catering college in France. Will she inherit the business too? "Possibly," smiles Roux. "At the moment she says 'I want nothing to do with it', which is fine. But hey, watch this space. Whether she takes over Le Gavroche or not, the family values will still be there."