French-born chef Michel is often heralded as a godfather of fine dining in the UK. Together with his brother Albert, he opened Le Gavroche and The Waterside Inn which hold five Michelin stars between them. He recently opened Le Miedzor, a chic bar/bistro in Crans-Montana, Switzerland and is currently working on a new cookery book, due for release next year. Bolder interviewed Michel on location on the Côte d’Azur.
“I first came to England to visit my brother Albert, who was already working there as a chef de cuisine. We loved the country but very quickly realised that the food was in the dark ages. There was nowhere to eat fine food, except maybe The Savoy or The Connaught where it was acceptable, but no real love and care went into it. In a nutshell, the food was shit, so we decided to do something different! I was 28 and working as head chef for the Rothschild Family at the time but we’d always dreamt of opening a restaurant together – so instead of doing it in France, we decided to do it in England.
Perfect happiness is simply doing what you want to do in life and being able to speak your mind.
Our goal was to have the best restaurant in London and with Le Gavroche we achieved it. In 1974, it became the first restaurant in the UK to receive a Michelin star, then three years later it got two stars, which it retains to this day. We didn’t want to rest on our laurels so next we opened the Waterside Inn, which has now held three Michelin stars for more than three decades, longer than any other restaurant in the world outside France. I am not chasing stars anymore, but I have just opened a new restaurant in Switzerland. It’s a bistro and a place I love eating but I no longer spend ten hours working on dishes, my head chef, Stephane Colliet does this. The aim is to create food people can afford, using good ingredients.
I spend about four months a year in Switzerland, two in the UK and two at my house in Gassin [near St Tropez], where I write my books; I’ve sold over 2.5 million. I travel worldwide the rest of the year giving presentations and master classes to young people to help them develop and to tell them the truth about the industry. I tell them ‘if it’s not for you, you better know about it now.’ It’s like having a marriage!
I met my wife Robyn on a blind date in Australia. After 35 years, I am still in love with her. We spend eight or nine months of the year together which is the beauty of our relationship. Living permanently with your partner can be a strain but this way, Robyn is very happy when she sees me – and also when I leave! I am also completely potty about my dog, Henri! He is a rescue dog and sometimes when I Skype Robyn, he talks to me, I promise you!
I had colon cancer almost 13 years ago and it definitely changed me – life is tough when you go through that, you just think about getting to the next day. But after my last treatment of chemo, I thought – ‘I must move on and leave this behind.’ Of course it is there at the back of my mind, but I came out stronger. When the oncologist that looked after me approached me to help with a book [Recipes for Life], I was more than happy to – and I recruited more chefs to join me.
Perfect happiness is simply doing what you want to do in life and being able to speak your mind. Stick two fingers up! You can be anyone or do anything! I never believe in any particular party or association. I am just Michel. I am free. My only regret is that I will never know how it feels to sing on stage. When I was a teenager I won a lot of competitions for my singing. I am a baritone and in my twenties I was asked if I would consider joining the opera. I could have been a success but you can’t do everything and I had to make a choice. I still sing in the kitchen though!
My life motto is to be yourself. Never try to be anybody else.
My eldest daughter is a gymnastics teacher and she recently suggested I do a bit of exercise to make up for everything I eat and drink. So I do some stretching every morning and I walk my dog when I can. I also play golf once or twice a month but I started playing very late in life. Diet-wise, I’ll usually have a salad or soup for lunch and something more indulgent for dinner. I’ve cut down on bread recently and I try not to drink anything one or two days a week which is very difficult. I don’t smoke, except the odd cigar if I am in total open air and I’ve had a big lunch.
I don’t think I am 75 – seriously! In my mind, I am about 30 or 40. My body is as active as when I was 40. If I start doing 18 holes of golf, I might start puffing on the 14th hole – but puffing is not such a bad thing! As I grow older, I still commit to far too much. I sometimes wake up and think, ‘maybe you could have done without that!’ so I am trying hard to restrain myself a bit.
I suppose strangers may treat me differently because of my age, but when they get to know me they realise I am just one of them. My life motto is to be yourself. Never try to be anybody else.