Michel Roux and former winner Paul O'Neill on the Roux Scholarship 2014

The Staff Canteen

There are only a few more days left to apply for the Roux Scholarship 2014, the Roux family's culinary competition.

With last year’s 30th anniversary Scholarship televised the competition is at an all-time high and with alumni like Andrew Fairlie, Sat Bains and Simon Hulstone and prizes like a stage in any three-Michelin star restaurant in the world, why wouldn’t it be? The Staff Canteen spoke to competition co-founder, Michel Roux, and last year’s winner, Paul O’Neill, to find out what makes it so special…  

Michel Roux
Michel Roux

Inception: fighting the corner for British chefs

The first Roux Scholarship took place back in 1984 but the inception of the competition dates back to a couple of years before. Michel Roux had called a few of his three-star friends on the continent – as you do – asking if they would take some of the young and upcoming British chefs from The Waterside Inn and Le Gavroche to do stages at their restaurants. The response he got shocked him. “I was mortified,” said Michel. “The response I had was: what? British? And they can cook? Sorry Michel we really can’t take British stagiaires.”

Michel was infuriated by the snub but, in typical chef fashion, rather than stew, he decided to do something about it. His chance came when Nick Rowe, then-managing director of Diners Club, was eating at The Waterside Inn. The two got chatting about the situation and Nick offered to sponsor a competition that would prove that British chefs could match up to anything the continent could ask of them. The Roux Scholarship was born, a competition based on pure cooking knowledge and talent, judged blind and purely for the industry.

The first winner, at the tender age of 20, was Andrew Fairlie now of two-Michelin star fame. The tone was set from there with numerous scholars going on to be leading lights of the industry, figures such as Sat Bains, Simon Hulstone, Matthew Tomkinson, André Garrett, Mark Birchall and Daniel Cox. “After that I never had a chef on the continent refusing me a stagiaire,” said Michel. “The funny thing is that over the last ten years not a month or two has gone by that I’m not getting a phone call from one of my colleagues on the continent asking me if I’ve got a young British chef.” Roux brothers 1, the continent 0.  

Thirty years of cooking and competingRoux Scholarship

Thirty years later and the competition is still going strong with winners getting to choose a three month stage at any three-star restaurant in the world. There have of course been highs and lows – Michel picks out one of the highlights as going to visit 1999 Roux Scholar, Sat Bains, at his stage in French three-star restaurant, Le Jardin des Sens. Entering the kitchen, Michel saw him standing at the pass checking the plates before they went out.

“At first I thought, what the hell is he doing?” said Michel. “Then I realised. It was a job you would never have expected from a stagiaire after six weeks.”  Low points include one scholar, who shall remain nameless, quitting their stage after just two weeks, claiming they knew more about cooking than their hosts. Another came during a two-year hiatus in sponsorship when the Roux brothers faced having to close the competition altogether. Instead they stumped up the money themselves, paying out around £40,000 from their own pockets over two years.

To celebrate the 30th Roux Scholarship last year, the competition was televised for the first time. It was a momentous occasion for many reasons. It was a time for justified back-slapping, with a host of big name judges and some master classes by the likes of James Martin and Angela Hartnett, but also it was a dangerous moment for the credibility of arguably the industry’s most respected competition – would it all descend into a reality TV circus?

It was a trap the Roux family were keen not to fall into. “There were pros and cons to doing TV,” said Michel, “but more 
positives than negatives. There could have been more negatives than positives if we’d gone on for a couple of years because you put your finger in the mechanism of TV and they take your hand, then they take your arm. We haven’t done all that we’ve done over 30 years to have it end up as just a TV show.”

In the end the decision was taken by the family and the Roux Scholars not to continue to televise the competition until, possibly, another landmark year is reached.  

Paul O’Neill: the 30th Roux scholarRoux Scholarship

The winner of that 30th anniversary scholarship was, fittingly, a chef who stands for everything that is good about the competition. Paul O’Neill is a senior sous chef from a two-AA rosette country house hotel. Going up against chefs from two- Michelin-star restaurants in the final, Paul didn’t think he stood a chance. But this is not a competition about names and reputations but about performances on the day.

Faced in the final with a fiendishly difficult classical fish preparation, Paul relied on his experience, his cool head and his ability to improvise to pull through. “I was massively winging it to be fair,” said Paul. “We spoke to each other briefly before we went in and none of us had a clue what to do with it. I was last in and I had nearly an hour to stew on the recipe. It was experience that got me thorugh – I’ve been in the industry nearly 13 years now and everyone said I was always calm. Michel Jr said I was unflappable but inside I was going mental, screaming my head off.  As soon as I put my salmon up I went downstairs and threw up.”

Paul, who had entered the competition at the urging of his head chef (himself a previous finalist) enjoyed quite a 
year in 2013. Not only did he become the 30th Roux Scholar, winning the first ever televised competition, he also saw the birth of first daughter, Hope, and of course the experience that must top any prize of any culinary competition in the world – a three month stage at a three-star restaurant of his choice.

Paul chose Pierre Gagnaire’s eponymous three-star Paris restaurant, a decision which gave him fresh insights into attitudes
and professionalism at the very top of the industry. “It’s not like you learn how to cook again,” said Paul, “but I learnt a lot about their respect for ingredients and also the equipment – cleaning down after service was just ridiculous. You could eat
 your dinner off a solid top; it was just sparkling. None of the fish came in scaled or gutted, ducks came in with the feathers on, almonds came in in their shells – that was the main thing I took away.”   

Extended family: the Scholars Club

Now Paul has all the doors that being a Roux Scholar opens to look forward to – although as Sat Bains said, he still might have to kick them down. He also has the lasting legacy of being part of that elite club of winners, the Scholars Club. This isn’t just a sinecure but carries real benefits like the culinary journey of discovery that a group of Scholars take with Michel Roux every two or three years. In the past these study trips have been to Tokyo, Tuscany, Dubai and Scotland; this year it is New York, although sadly Paul will be missing out as the names for the trip are drawn at random from a hat.

The Roux Scholarship has reached a landmark point in its history and the reins are being passed on bit by bit to the next Roux generation of Michel Jr and Alain, but it is the Scholars Club that could hold the long-term future of the competition in its hands. “It will not only be in the hands of the Roux family,” said Michel, “but I’d like to see the scholars take over and carry on the competition. So it will stay in the family because we are a family and if you talk to most of them, they’ll say they are
members of the family.”

It is perhaps the family aspect which defines this competition more than any other. Michel cites an example as last year’s gala dinner when six of the former winners were invited to cook a course each. Michel suggested that the six Scholars invite some of their colleagues to help out. “Twenty Scholars turned up,” said Michel. “Twenty of the industry’s
top chefs gave up their day to come and help their colleagues. That gives me shivers. If you ask me the difference between this competition and any other I would give that example. Tell me another competition like that, in the world.”  

Entries for this year’s Roux Scholarship are open until midnight on 27th January. Visit www.rouxscholarship.co.uk  for more information.

>>> Read more about the Roux Scholarship here

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Editor 23rd January 2014

Michel Roux and former winner Paul O'Neill on the Roux Scholarship 2014