Rachel Humphrey, head chef at Le Gavroche

The Staff Canteen

Rachel Humphrey is the first female head chef at Le Gavroche, Michel Roux Jr’s prestigious London restaurant. The Staff Canteen spoke to her to find out what it has been like as a woman making her way in the industry and how it feels to bear the weight of all that Roux family history on her shoulders.

All your career you have been at Le Gavroche, from apprentice right up to head chef, is that right? Yes, apart from a three-year gap in the middle. I was here for four years starting as an apprentice, then left for three years between 2000 and 2003 when I was a cook in the RAF, then I came back as chef de partie then sous chef, then head chef five years ago.

Do you feel you’ve benefited from staying at the same place and not moving around a lot like many modern chefs? I do feel it’s benefited me because I feel like I really understand every position in this kitchen, so when I ask the guys to do something, it’s not something I haven’t done. I can understand things from their perspective as well and that helps with the management of the kitchen when you know what can and can’t be done. It also means I really understand the ethos of the restaurant because obviously it’s got such a long history.

Having come up through the ranks yourself, is that the kind of thing you now encourage: bringing other young chefs up through the ranks internally? Yes, because we’ve been established so long, we definitely look to promote from within just because you know how the kitchen works. So we have commis and demi chefs come in and we have a look at them and promote from within from there. It works better with our system and it creates a family atmosphere where you’re all in it together rather than constantly having a revolving door.

What have you found to be the most challenging step up in your career at Le Gavroche? The last one – from sous chef to head chef because now the final responsibility is with me whereas in the previous positions there’s always someone there who’s got your back but when the buck stops at you, that’s the biggest jump.

And what have you found the biggest challenge of that jump to head chef? Because Le Gavroche has been around such a long time it’s the feeling of responsibility of stepping into the shoes of lots of previous head chefs and making sure that you keep to the standard of everything that’s gone before.

That feeling of history must have been quite a weight on your shoulders; how did you cope with it? I just got on with it. I tried to learn from what’s gone before and liaise closely with chef Michel to make sure that standards are maintained. It still is a big weight because people come here with definite expectations and we have such a lot of regular customers, you just want to make sure everybody’s happy.

Does that motivate you or make you nervous? Nervous but in a good way because you don’t want to get too relaxed. For me a little bit of nervousness is good; it gives you that edge, but not too much so that you can’t do your job properly.

Because of chef Michel’s connection with MasterChef you get a lot of the winners and runners up coming here to work or do stages; how do they generally cope? Are they a bit full of themselves having become minor celebrities? Derek Johnstone, who was the first MasterChef winner, came here and he really got his head down and worked hard and did really well and now he’s head chef at one of Albert Roux’s places in Scotland. We’ve never had an issue with them. I think they’d have been caught out earlier if they were a bit cocky.

You’re the first female head chef at Le Gavroche and part of a growing group of women chefs at the very top of the industry; how does that feel? I don’t really think about it too much. It’s not something I dwell on. There were points when I was the only girl in the kitchen early on and I think I kind of got used to that fact. You have to learn to stand up for yourself quickly, but I never really had any problems. As long as you get your head down and work hard, it doesn’t matter to most of the guys if you’re a man or a woman, just like it doesn’t matter to me. It was more of a challenge for me being shy as a person rather than being a woman.

Why do you think there are so few women in the industry in general? I think it probably boils down to the same reason it always did: family. If you’re married and have children, it’s very different for a woman than for a man. Obviously, it’s not a nine-to-five job so you can’t have a childminder and pick the kids up after work. I think it boils down to that and I think it always will.

What advice would you give to a young woman who is thinking of becoming a chef but who perhaps finds the industry a bit daunting? I would say there’s no reason why anyone can’t do it if they want to. It’s just a case of being prepared to work hard. As I said, I’ve never had any problems with lads in the kitchen. It boils down to the fact that if you can do your job, nobody bats an eye lid.

And what about the future of Le Gavroche? Is there much talk in the kitchen about regaining that third star? Not really, we don’t sit and talk about it. At the end of the day if customers are happy and they come back, that’s what you want as a restaurant. Of course if you asked any chef, I don’t think they’d say they didn’t want another star, but we don’t sit around saying: “What are we going to do to get the third star?” It’s more about what are we going to do to get these customers coming back and to entice more customers in?

Finally, you work for one of the most prestigious families in the culinary world; what’s the best piece of advice any of them has given you? Probably chef Michel when I was a commis; he said: “Trust no one, not even me,” which sounds a bit weird but he meant don’t rely on anyone else to do something for you, which has ultimately been great advice for getting me where I am today.    

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The Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 15th May 2013

Rachel Humphrey, head chef at Le Gavroche