Robyn Roux gives her first interview – 2003
Robyn Roux, the Australian-born wife of Michel Roux whose restaurant, the Waterside Inn at Bray, has held the coveted maximum three Michelin stars since 1985, responded to my initial request for an interview with peals of her infectious laughter.
My second call prompted her to say that she would have to ask ‘the Frenchman’ before she finally agreed to meet me in the lounge of Le Gavroche, Mayfair run by her nephew, Michel Jr.
‘I just don’t do interviews.’ she explained. ‘It’s very, very important when you work together in a business that deals with the public that one partner sits back and the other goes forward and Michel has always been our public face. And it is just as important for our staff. If I walk the floor as Madame La Patronne, what do customers and staff think of Diego who has been our maître d’ for 16 years? I must not allow his authority to be undermined.’
Sense and sensibility are obviously characteristics which have allowed Robyn to keep this potentially explosive marital and business partnership on an even keel. But Robyn believes that before a blind date brought them together over dinner in Sydney in 1983 she had anyway had the ideal training for running such a prestigious restaurant.
‘My mother was a wonderful cook and my father a successful businessman who worked late, so several evenings a week we would meet him in his office straight from school, do our homework and then go out to dinner at Sydney’s then finest restaurants, Prunier, Claude’s or Chiswick Park. It was very glamorous.’
The glamour continued during a stage management course at the National Institute of Dramatic Arts which in her opinion allowed her a seamless transition to the world of restaurants. ‘The menu is the script, the chefs are the back of house and the waiting staff the actors. And the emotional build up is similar. No matter how awful you feel, no matter what psychodramas are being played out, the curtain goes up twice a day, the customers walk in and you have to be out there smiling.’
The blind date was followed by dinner the next evening and a fortnight later Robyn was on a plane to England, arriving on a very cold February morning in 1983. And no job.
‘In those days, Michel and his brother Albert (who opened Le Gavroche) had a strict rule that wives could not work in the business. This lasted a year until an assistant manager resigned and I stepped into the breach. Officially, after 20 years I still have the same job title, assistant to the assistant manager,’ she said, before adding, seemingly making a mental note to raise this at home, ‘and I don’t think my salary has gone up that much either.’
A year later the Waterside Inn achieved its third Michelin star and Robyn believes her iconoclastic Australian influence played a significant part. ‘I loosened Michel and the whole place up. When I started working in the restaurant there was a rule that the white jacketed waiters, the lowest rank, were not allowed to speak to the customers even if they were spoken to first. I quickly changed that.’
‘And also you have to remember that the French in the 1980’s were very parochial when it came to food and wine knowledge. They knew their own regions intimately but that has now changed for the better for them and for the customer.’
Robyn is remarkably precise about just how her many, rather imprecise skills fit in. ‘This is a business where everyone else is a specialist but that leaves a multitude of grey areas which have to be dealt with, invariably immediately. I am a fixer, I suppose, and most recently this has encompassed redesigning our bedrooms, designing the new wine list, finding second-hand bicycles for the customers to ride along the river bank, and continually ensuring that our staff’s job specifications are a bit softer at the edges!’
So far she had belied her reputation as a neophyte interviewee but when I asked her whether in business she agreed with Michel more often than she disagreed there was quite a long silence followed by more laughter. ‘I feel I have to go into battle every so often, to bring someone who is highly creative back to reality. But then afterwards I always ask myself why I need another battle scar!’