Michel's main course Helen Gregory meets the chef who has achieved supreme status simply by catering to his own tastes Sitting in pristine chef's whites, surrounded by slick waiters in the rarefied atmosphere of his gourmet restaurant, Michel Roux is a formidable figure. Like a king at court, he initially deals with questions perfunctorily, his opinions terse and rapped out in a French accent as rich as some of his creations. But halfway through the main course, Roux warms to the themes of awkward diners and becomes animated, claiming extravagantly: "I cook for myself and it's a bonus if people like it ­ but if not, I don't bloody care!" Judging by the fact that his restaurant, The Waterside Inn in the village of Bray, Berkshire, has the lauded three Michelin stars, the very thought of which causes most diners to salivate Pavlovian-style ­ it's obvious that his apparent lack of interest in their poor opinion is irrelevant. Sitting in the restaurant ­ at the end of a picturesque road on the banks of the River Thames ­ it feels like the rare treat it must be for the customers who travel miles to come here. Life by the river, with office, restaurant and house within yards of each other in a 16th century village, means Roux lives and works in an idyllic setting. His life is one of royalty and celebrities dropping in for lunch, and jaunts round the Caribbean in his consulting role on a cruise ship. This is a confident man, with strong opinions but without a bulging contacts book. People contact him instead. Even Prince Edward called Roux to cook for the Queen's 70th birthday and pop stars and politicians book here for special occasions. But this hasn't swelled his ego. He professes to treat everyone in the same way, talking in a matter-of-fact way about his unusual past that is a world away from the streetwise nous or slick production values of some of today's popular chefs. Along with his brother, Albert, Michel is acknowledged as one of the greatest classically-trained French chefs of the last century. Now 60 and quite grey, his career started at the age of 14 when he was apprenticed at a grand patisserie in his homeland, spending day after day doing nothing but separating whites of egg from the yolks. He later went to work in the British Embassy in Paris where he learned about banquets and receptions and after two years moved a few doors along the Faubourg Saint Honoré to become trainee cook to Cécile de Rothschild of the famous wine family. After that followed a stint in the officers' mess at Versailles, and time in Algeria as part of his military service. Official duties aside, he returned to Paris and worked as a private chef for a number of families and, still at the tender age of 22, Roux was given carte blanche to cook any food he wanted, with no expense spared. Albert had previously left for England and five years later Roux decided to join him. Together they opened Le Gavroche in 1967 ­ an extravagant move in a plain culinary environment ­ but which was an immediate success. "If my brother hadn't lived in England I would probably never have gone there myself," muses Roux. "He was working there and liked it and I went over to pay a visit and have been here ever since." He cites the higher standard of living in England as one of the reasons for taking a chance on opening a French restaurant in the mid-1960s and admits that it was a gamble, but he thinks the English are now following his lead. "The UK has changed beyond recognition. You can now find lots of good places to eat ­ but mainly in London." Roux likes the fact that diners will try more unusual dishes nowadays, but is scornful of many people's knowledge. "The British see the cookery books and programmes on TV and think they know everything. Only 5% of my clients know what they're eating." He says the class difference, once very obvious, is less so now. But you wonder if he thinks this is such a good thing. His comments about "the bloody dotcom types ­ you don't know who you're serving" are revealing and he admits that he doesn't just want people who have money to visit the restaurant, rather those who love food. "Everything has changed," he adds. "Consumers are much more receptive and much more knowledgeable. The supplies situation has evolved a lot, not only in the supermarkets but in the small shops too. Let's say, in terms of basic raw materials you now have a real choice. Not only has there been a shift in supplies, we've put a broom through the catering business as well." His long-established restaurant in Bray is almost 30 years old now and it's obvious most diners are used to the finer things in life; a third of them are regulars and Roux greets some by name. Despite the fact that his dinner menu has main courses priced at up to £45, he insists that his cuisine is affordable for many people ­ if they save up. The restaurant has a lunchtime set menu at £32.50, but add wine and a tip and it's still out of reach of most people's budgets. But Roux is no stranger to more "normal" food. He was the first consultant chef to Marks and Spencer back in the 1970s and although he still shops at the chain, says that standards there have slipped. "They used to be the top but they have been too slow in the last five or 10 years. But I'm sure they'll recover." He also praises Waitrose for its fresh produce, organic food and patisserie sections. However, he criticises supermarkets generally for bringing in produce from around the world. "The food will have been kept for a long time and that can't be good for it. I prefer to wait for food and only have strawberries three months of the year; asparagus should be picked and eaten within 48 hours." And he also questions their motives for stocking local food, musing: "I wonder if they do it as a PR exercise?" He likes fresh organic produce, but cites the example of a whole lamb he bought recently which proved so expensive that, even at his prices, he found it hard to recoup the cost. GM food and intensive farming is given short shrift and Roux despairs at the recent spate of diseases besetting food: "GM is out of the question. People seem only motivated by money and the government doesn't care. There'll probably be another kind of disease found soon." British chefs also get a pasting from Roux, although some are admired and he admits that they now make up the majority of his kitchen. To redress the balance of good chefs, Roux is still heavily involved in the scholarship which he and Albert founded 18 years ago. It aims to find young, homegrown talent and the winner cooks and trains under the supervision of a leading chef at a three-star Michelin restaurant in Europe for three months. When not in the kitchen, Roux enjoys watching Rick Stein's TV programme and Gary Rhodes' Masterchef, but dismisses most of the celebrity chef programmes, such as Ready Steady Cook and Can't Cook, Won't Cook. He believes the plethora of programmes don't encourage people to cook but only to talk about it. "They're a bloody joke a lot of them! But I like Masterchef, which I've judged on a couple of times, as I think the programme helps people to understand about food and to develop their talents." Although it's hard to imagine, Roux enjoys tucking into ethnic food at home and even gets a Chinese takeaway occasionally, although his Australian-born wife cooks most of their food. Predictably, he hates ready meals but says graciously that they're a good way of inspiring people to cook. He loves shooting, walking, and skiing ­ and cruising. In his role as culinary and wine consultant for Celebrity Cruises, Roux creates the ships' menus, helps with staff training and takes three cruises a year to check standards. He's just been to Bermuda and is off to the Mediterranean. When on dry land he arrives in the restaurant at about 8.30 every morning and checks on the deliveries and chefs before going to his office and dealing with the post ­ often full of requests from charities. "I find that sad," he says. "The government should help these people. You commit yourself to helping people, but the more you give, the more they want." He loves writing and is in the process of putting together another cook book, after many successes over the years including New Classic Cuisine, At Home with the Roux Brothers and French Country Cooking. He's also not discounting another stint on TV. He made a series with Albert in the 1980s but says a new one would probably be based in France and involve travel. "There's not a city or town in France where I don't have contacts in the food business." He loves wine, has his own vineyard in the south of France and admits that if he had not been a chef, a career in winemaking would have appealed. But at 60, he's trying to slow down and only cooks for between 15 and 20 hours a week. Before he disappears back to his cottage over the road, Roux has a few words of wisdom for anyone wanting to become a gourmet ­ a label he bestows upon himself, and few others. "Travel to Tuscany or Spain and go to the local markets. You can't just visit London restaurants." {{PROFILE }}