The three-Michelin-star chef tells Carolyn Boyd what he loves about his home country
What are your childhood memories of growing up in Burgundy?
I was born in 1941 in the Mâconnais, when the Germans were occupying France, so there was only just enough food. We lived above a delicatessen, and the kitchen was downstairs. I could tell the day of the week from the smell of the food being prepared: Monday was black pudding day and Tuesday was pâté. It was the same when I was a pastry chef in Paris between the ages of seven and 14; the smell of flour and butter in the air. All my childhood memories are about food.
What’s the most unusual French ingredient you’ve ever cooked with?
The cardoon, which comes from southern Burgundy. It’s a vegetable that looks similar to celery and tastes a bit like Jerusalem artichoke. It was used much more frequently a few hundred years ago than it is now.
Describe your perfect three-course meal.
It depends on the time of year, obviously. I love a good mussel soup because mussels are cheap and it is light and flavoursome. Another dish I love is canard à l’orange, which I could eat once a week or once a month. I would finish the meal with a soufflé. In August or September I would use raspberries as they are bursting with flavour at that time, and in the winter I would make a hot grand marnier soufflé. The key to making a good soufflé is just having enough confidence, as with anything else in life.
You started your career as a pâtissier; what is your favourite pâtisserie?
It has to be a fruit tart, made with puff pastry. Even if you’re full after a meal you’ll still find room to eat one, whether it’s made with apples, plums, pears or raspberries.
You have a home on the Côte d’Azur. How do you spend your time there?
I go in the summer mostly, with my grandchildren, and my children come to see me too. I give my daughters a copy of my recipe book and they will select a few for me to do for them. I then go to the markets to get the ingredients; I prefer the smaller markets, such as Cogolin and Ramatuelle, as there is more food than clothing. I then let my girls and grandchildren help me prepare and cook the food. One is doing the preparation, with the measuring, another is looking at the method and the third is cooking. I also like to go walking in the Luberon and have a picnic.
Where else in France do you like to visit?
I like the south-west, especially the Pays Basque, where the food is good and the scenery is beautifully green. One of my favourite restaurants there is Michel Guérard’s Les Prés d’Eugénie in Eugénie-les-Bains.
Which chefs do you admire?
Michel Guérard is one of my favourite French chefs in France today. Thomas Keller [of The French Laundry in California] is another and I also admire Guy Savoy in Paris. These chefs still cook… by which I mean they cook the food they love eating.
What are your favourite restaurants?
La Résidence de la Pinède in Saint-Tropez is where I go if I want a superb three-star meal. If I want to dine in one of Europe’s best restaurants, I will go to Le Louis XV in Monaco. If I were to name a favourite place to eat it would be the Hôtel de Paris Monte-Carlo; it’s what I would call le superlatif.
What is France’s best-kept food secret?
It has to be the little ortolan bird. I believe that it is eaten by people at home who are able to capture it. For many years now it has been forbidden to eat the ortolan in public restaurants in France, but I believe that in life you must try something unique at least once. Ortolan has a wonderful taste; it’s like eating hot butter, the flavour explodes in the mouth.
Michel Roux’s new book, The Essence of French Cooking, is published by Quadrille, priced £30.