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Why Michel Roux Jnr may not quite be the anti-Christ

gavroche

 

The picture above is of a grotesquely exploitative institution; a living hell, where serfs labour daily and are fleeced of their wages. The presiding overlord, Michel Roux Jnr, should be dragged through the doors and burned at the stake in nearby Grosvenor Square before a braying mob. For good measure I should be tied up next to him.

That, in summary, is my Twitter feed these passed 12 hours or so after I decided to post something supportive about a man I have known for a while, have worked with and like very much, and who has been criticised over his working practices. The reception was not, shall we say, positive.

I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. Twitter is not a place for nuance. It is about black and white. They’re a saint, he’s a sinner and so on. (If you’re interested in the subject of Internet rage try Jon Ronson’s brilliant book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.)

The real world, the one outside Twitter and, dare I say it, newspaper headlines, doesn’t work like that. It’s full of murky, smudgy greys; its not just black and white. And personally I think we’re all smart enough to deal with a few of those. So I’m going to give  it a go with this story.

Last month the Guardian reported that some of the kitchen staff at Le Gavroche had been paid less than minimum wage. I was head-in-hands when I read this. The month before I had published a column about this precise issue, pointing out that restaurant goers whinge about the cost of eating out while young cooks get paid criminally low salaries. What’s more I had used Roux as an example of a good employer; one who was actually reducing the working hours of his staff to help retain them and improve working conditions. And now…

Nobody should ever be paid less than the minimum wage. I’d go further and say nobody should be paid the minimum wage, but that’s a bigger battle. Roux put his hand up, admitted it had happened in a very small number of cases and that he was making sure that they would be seen right.

Was Roux in the wrong? Yes.

Was it a valid story for a newspaper to cover? Absolutely.

Was Le Gavroche the right target? I don’t think so.

Which is where the shades of grey kick in. What happened at Le Gavroche, if you take Roux’s word for it (which I do), was small scale and accidental. However in restaurants all over Britain it’s systemic. Head chefs give their cooks contracts for 40 hours then rota them for 68 hours knowing they’ll never be paid for it. My email inbox was full of terrible stories when I wrote that column. Note the massive glaring silence from the rest of the industry. They’re all terrified of being found out. No, that does not excuse what happened at Le Gavroche. At all. But if you make Roux the target you’ll be missing the real story, which is an industry full of much worse practices.

Which gets us to the second story: the news that the service charge on the bill at Le Gavroche does not go direct to the staff. The Twitter response is clear: if it’s a service charge it MUST go to the staff and if it doesn’t it’s theft. I have an awful lot of sympathy with that as I made clear when I wrote this piece calling for all service charges/ tips etc to be wrapped up into the bill, as it is in France, Japan and Australia and where the system functions brilliantly. Then staff can be paid a proper wage.

I’m going to put the next bit in caps because people seem to ignore it, almost wilfully: THIS WILL MEAN THE COST OF DISHES ON MENUS GOING UP SO STAFF ARE PAID THAT PROPER WAGE AND ARE NOT DEPENDENT ON OUR MOOD FOR HOW THEY ARE REWARDED. IT REQUIRES A HUGE CULTURAL CHANGE. Please read the whole tips piece linked to above.

What’s clear is that diners have no idea what the term ‘service charges’ means, and who that money goes to. Roux’s argument is that it’s all revenue from which he pays salaries ie that in the end it DOES go to the staff, that he wasn’t robbing anyone. Indeed he’s now going to change the system so the menus say ‘service included’.

The Twitter mob may not like this explanation. As I’ve said repeatedly the whole damn service charge thing is as clear as mud. Could it have been clearer to diners? Of course. But I also have to say this: while I do not know how much Le Gavroche pays its front of house staff, I do know that they have had many who have worked there literally for decades. In a booming restaurant market there are choices and they’ve chosen to stay there. Which is where those shades of grey kick in again. We know that there are restaurant operators who are much, much worse than Le Gavroche, who are systemically ripping off their employees.

But Le Gavroche, being an extremely expensive restaurant (though the lunch is still one of the best value for money in town), is a very easy target. Everyone can vent their fury in 140 characters at a joint that charges £200 a head and feel a smooth burst of rightful indignation. But that’s not the same as hitting the right target.

As I said in one of my tweets that aroused such indignation, I know Michel Roux Jnr to be a good employer. That doesn’t excuse the cock up over low wages or confusion over service charges. But I really do think there are better targets out there. And I decided to be supportive to a mate, because I know exactly what it’s like when the Twitter mob descends. If you disapprove of me for that, I’ll just have to live with it.

****

Full disclosure. I have been fed for free twice at Le Gavroche. Once in the early naughties by Michel’s father, Albert, when I was writing a history of the restaurant for the Observer, and once a few years ago at a private party. I have paid for every other meal there.

38 comments on “Why Michel Roux Jnr may not quite be the anti-Christ

  1. David on

    Really interesting take on this and quite agree that knee jerk reactions condemning aren’t exactly helpful. Isn’t it, though, the *combination* of these two issues (minimum wage + service charge) that makes Michel’s position hard to defend? It’s one thing to say “our service charge does not go direct to staff because we already (in effect) pay this to them in wages”. It’s a lot more difficult to take that position and make it seem attractive when you have been paying some of the staff below minimum wage and – now that you’ve held your hands up about it – won’t be paying them more that that minimum wage (according to one report in the Guardian, anyway…).

    Reply
    • Jennie Rigg on

      Yep, it’s the combination.
      And yes, Jay, there’s lots worse goes on and lots better targets. I’ve worked both front and back of house in the food industry and it’s hard and badly paid. But none of that makes what Mr Roux is doing acceptable.

      Reply
  2. Martin Simmonds (not my real name obvs) on

    The real problem is that people aren’t willing to pay what the food is worth in restaurants. I have worked in several michelin rated small restaurants and been paid less than minimum wage. Not because the owner was greedy but because if everyone who worked for them was paid for all the hours they worked they’d go out of business. I hold no resentment towards these employers, I left on excellent terms and feel I was treated well because they knew how hard everyone worked to produce the food and service people expect from these establishments. Rising minimum wage and food prices are killing the small restaurants in this country because everyone is too scared to put their prices up incase they drive away custom, especially at the high end where margins are very small and everything is very labour intensive to produce.

    Reply
    • Garry Swan on

      Hi Martin,
      I too have worked in some smaller rosette and Michelin starred restaurants. The staff that work in those establishments tend to be those that want to achieve the best they possibly can, and generally don’t mind working a couple of extra hours a week in order to learn more/achieve what they want.
      However, there are definitely exploitative owners at any level of cooking, not just at the highest. Its shocking, and its a shame that passionate young chefs are being abused in this way and it has led to a few chefs I know personally leaving the industry altogether because they’ve become jaded with things being the way they are.
      Its time that the industry needs to change as a whole, but who is going to take that big brave step first and hope that all the others follow?

      Reply
    • Peter Fox on

      Oh come on and don’t treat people as idiots. The main problem in London are the high rents and lack of ethics. It’s not the cost of food. How much do vegetables cost? A pittance. Imagine you order a steak, then have to pay extra for chips, vegetables, even a sauce. Alcohol is where the restaurant makes it’s money. I have also worked in Michelin restaurants. They are run as ruthless businesses: wages are usually low and the hours long because of the prestige. Ok , you want to learn and work with the best but you will be exploited. The owners know this of course and ruthlessly exploit the relationship. Most are cold unsympathetic psychopaths who would not be out of place managing a concentration camp.
      It’s important that employees have an individual contract detailing hours to be worked and salary. It’s also important that working conditions are approved by the appropriate trade union. Internships should be regulated as they suppress wages.

      Reply
  3. Peter Hutchinson on

    Absolutely agree. I don’t pay a separate service charge in my bank or M&S, and I get at least as good service in France with no service charge as I do in NY with 20% service charge. Just have transparent menu prices and pay the right wage

    Reply
  4. Peter Sinden on

    I own a restaurant and distribute service charge and cash tips to all staff, front of house and kitchen. It’s run by the troncmaster who is also one of our managers.
    Anything else is unlawful in our industry.
    Tronc earnings do not pay National Insurance.
    What is hard about any of this?

    Reply
  5. TC Dunlop on

    Good response to a hugely fraught subject. I do disagree with ‘is Roux the right target’ as i think articles that bring this to attention with big names do help bring it out in the open rather than a small local place who won’t be deemed newsworthy. That doesn’t mean I think he should carry the can for the industry. However his first response to the story in which he said ‘all staff share in the service charge’ was disengeniois and deserved to be followed up, it’s a very different slant to ‘we add service charge to revenue out of which we pay all staff, some below minimum wage’.

    Reply
  6. Richard on

    One years work at Le Gavroche easily equates to an increased earning potential for the rest of your career. I was paid £8k a year back in the 90’s, I’d have worked for free knowing what I know now. Le Gavroche is one of a mere handful of restaurants in the U.K. you can actually learn to cook.

    Reply
  7. Samantha Reavley on

    If he is relying on service charges to cover his overheads then something is going very wrong. What about other companies whose staff don’t receive gratuities? They have to manage their cashflow and make any necessary amendments to stay solvent. This should not involve expecting your staff to work for nothing. I’m sure that it’s generally understood that the other name for working without pay is slavery. If putting up the price of the food is what is needed to put a stop to this then crack on. If people are prepared to pay £200 per head then those are the people that can afford to be extorted a little further, not somebody who isn’t even pulling minimum wage.

    Reply
  8. Marty McFly on

    No, the issue with the service charge in Roux’ case was that Le Gavroche put out an (at best) misleading statement suggesting that tips were shared equally amongst staff. So, there is not only a public interest in exposing that but a public interest in exposing the hypocrisy of the public position versus the reality. I think it is disingenuous to use the “well there are worse folk out there so leave Roux alone” line. And if that is true, where are your stories exposing the systemic exploitation in which Roux was unarguably a participant?

    Reply
  9. JJ Hockley on

    Unfortunately for Roux he has rather set himself up for this fall, through a combination of conceit, disengenuousness and his level of celebrity.
    I don’t doubt that most of his celebrity chef peers undertake similar low practices, there is little that can be said to defend them.
    It’s all part of the ‘race to the bottom’ in Britain, it is correct that the prices are too low and until they rise across many industries these practices will continue. Part of the problem is a certain mindset amongst the wealthy, many of whom share a near fearfulness over paying sensible prices for services, wealth has become a form of illness.
    Lastly, in the current economic climate I think far more of these pale businesses should shut down; artificially low interest rates as well as low prices and wages have only served to support a ghost economy. We need real jobs with real wages, this will require investment, solid long term governmental planning and muscular leadership.

    Reply
  10. Michael on

    He did it and deserves the criticism,how can chefs in a Michelin starred restaurant get less than the minimum wage or even the minimum wage, these are highly skilled people at the peak of their craft and should be paid accordingly, catering has a disgusting history of the treatment of staff, very stressful,terrible hours,conditions and pay.they all need to stand together and fight for better conditions

    Reply
  11. Aldo on

    Unless they own the freehold, I doubt Le Gavroche would survive if it didn’t treat the service charge as revenue. This is not to excuse the behaviour of Michel Roux Jr, but we shouldn’t forget the role of the bloody landlords in this.

    Reply
  12. Scott Price on

    Michel Roux hasn’t been singled out for this. Both Côte and the Turtle Bay chain have caused uproar with similar practices.

    While the whole tipping debate rumbles on, what isn’t up for debate is most people believe that service charge or tips should go directly to staff and not doing this is deceitful and wrong. I don’t believe that with his vast experience in the industry Michel wouldn’t have been aware of this.

    Reply
  13. Ian Cooper on

    We’ve discovered that some of the kitchen staff at Le Gavroche have been paid below minimum wage. This is bad, even if it’s not systematic as it is elsewhere.

    You have talked about staff being paid well, but we don’t know what kitchen staff and front of house staff are generally paid there. If they are only paid around minimum wage then it makes an absolute mockery of the argument that service charge as revenue being used to pay staff well. The lack of transparency and obfuscating ‘answers’ from Roux’s PR team make this worse.

    His reputation as a man has taken a hit in the past 24 hours, and it feels that it’s rightly so.

    Reply
  14. Tommy on

    My wife is a head chef and has recently taken over at a new place. Her experience as she rose up the ladder was that the way kitchens worked meant work-life balance was extremely poor which led to male dominated kitchens because of this ridiculous idea that you can contract for 40 hrs and expect 65-70hrs. Since she has taken over she has tried to ensure that chefs get paid for what they work and that no one goes over 45 hours a week. She has come up against some skepticism from the owners as it is against the norm but it’s working and they are reaping the rewards. Chefs are expected to put in the work when they are in the kitchen but not expected to do 12 hour shifts – this approach can hopefully show that chefs don’t have to all do stupid hours to get up the ranks and it can be a profession for people who value free time with friends and family. They also share tips, both front of house and kitchen staff! It can be done…

    Reply
  15. Yolande Conquest-Oakes on

    It seems that Michel Jr has been made an escape goat. I’m sure if you go to many restaurants/hotels that staff are been underpaid working very long hours. I know several young chefs who would willing go and work with him to gain the knowledge he has. I know this as my husband was also a Michlin chef and Master Chef of GB and always had youngsters want to work with him to gain experience. Lets look at the bigger picture instead of individual head hunting. Oh and as to the person who asked me if I was looking for a free meal on Twitter the answer is NO. I always pay for all my meals thank you.

    Reply
    • Elke on

      But just because young chefs want to work for him doesn’t mean that they don’t deserve the respect of a decent wage for a decent day’s work.

      Reply
  16. Nick Meir on

    HI Jay

    I also tweeted you. Here’s the issue. People judge based on their own value system and their perception. You have the advantage of knowing the guy and knowing the industry very well so your take is completely different to how this issue gets viewed by the rest of the world. Our judgement is purely based on our own values. There is no denying the Michel is a very wealthy man who owns a restaurant which carries almost £3m in shareholder value. He has a high product value. He employs people who make him very wealthy and pays them less than minimum wage. A parallel could easily be drawn with the factory owner in China who gets very rich making iPhones. And that is how people will judge this. The guy who runs the iPhone factory in China is probably also “one of the good guys” but some of the practices highlighted there do not excuse them, saying there is much worse and the tech manufacturing industry has a problem will not stop black and white judgement being made. As a former editor I completely get the notion of shades of grey but the bottom line is the industry shakedown has to start somewhere and a flagship establishment such as Le Gavroche is as good a place as any….

    Reply
  17. Elke on

    Disappointing that this man – at the top of his profession with a ‘high-end’ business- didn’t set a better example. If he doesn’t pay his staff a decent wage and/or allow them to keep the tips/service charge – then what hope is there for the rest of the hospitality industry?. His excuses are poor. Just not good enough.

    Reply
  18. Elke on

    Mr Rayner please go undercover and work in a busy London restaurant for a month or so..and see what working for ‘less than the minimum wage’ feels like. It would make an interesting feature!

    Reply
    • Elke on

      It certainly has sparked an interesting debate.Perhaps it will lead to greater clarity. .which can only be good all round. Cheerio!

      Reply
  19. Carl Smith on

    Diabolical, selfish behaviour from Roux. Do the maths. He’s got a 60 cover restaurant with a 6 cover private room. He’ll serve a minimum of 150 covers a day at an average spend of £200 per person. That’s £30,00 daily revenue (probably more) with £3,900 service charge daily (probably more). He’s ‘trousering the lot”. If he’s using this cash to pay his staff equitably how come chefs were being paid below minimum wage?
    Tragedy is. Those of us ‘putting our head above the parapet’ arguing that service charge is actually a good thing, providing It goes to the staff have been
    undermined by Roux.

    Reply
  20. Darien Graham-Smith on

    > I’m going to put the next bit in caps because people seem to ignore it, almost wilfully: THIS WILL MEAN THE COST OF DISHES ON MENUS GOING UP

    Do you imagine that people who go to the Gavroche for the £215 tasting menu would stay away if it were £230? Fine dining has never been a value proposition.

    Reply
  21. Bunny Gee on

    So, if you’re pleading poverty, then put your prices up. If that’s your EXCUSE, that guests pay too little – not that the Company hierarchy take too much, I note- then put your prices up as you claim is required. Market forces shall prevail and you will soon have to close your doors. Put up….or shut up. But don’t blame the customer for Michel Roux Jnr (or yourself, or anyone else) paying your staff below the minimum wage along with adding insult to injury by STEALING their gratuities.

    Reply
  22. Whatsthepoint on

    Someone would have thought after changes made in 2008 by HMRC restaurants would have put to bed the idea of paying less than MNW. For years even thought I was earning good money my cost to the company was £1.80 per hour. Clocking the working hours must be made mandatory in the industry. Not recording the hours is allowing the owners to exploit the vulnerable employees which Desparatly need a job.The hours we are putting in weekly are scary. 60-70 hours are considered the norm nowadays. Companies have found ways to manipulate the CC tips, avoiding paying the NI to HMRC and getting all the benefits which comes with service charge.
    HMRC needs to revise the all tips system. As long as tips are considered to be part of the business revenue the owners will always find ways not to pass fully to the waiters.

    Reply
  23. Dr David Ng on

    There is a humbling story of the teacher writing on the blackboard the 7-times table.
    1×7=8, 2×7=14, 3×7=21, 4×7=28, 5×7=35….12×7=84.
    His class laugh. He asks “Why are you laughing?” “It’s because you got one wrong?” . Teacher replies, “It’s a life lesson. You can do everything right, but when you do something wrong, people take notice, and remember you for it” .
    MRJ is a gentle man, creating great food, promoting healthy eating, teaching excellent chefs and cooks, and an inspiration to many amateur cooks like me. No one should cast the first stone. Yes, the industry needs a shake up but don’t vilify a good man who has made 1 mistake.

    Reply
  24. NANCY on

    Out on works Christmas lunch yesterday. Had to be fully prepaid several weeks ago. Imposed 10% for TIP from all, I don’t tolerate reluctant tippers We’ve done this for years, and place this money directly in their hands, hoping it doesn’t have to be “surrendered” to General Tip Box, but accept that’s not in our control… Alas, yesterday, our initial server was a sour-faced little cat who actually “looked me up and down” AND responded snappily to a general query ! I NEVER complain about staff anywhere, as I’ve worked in both catering and retail and make allowances as anyone can have a bad day, but I made an exception for Little Miss Sunshine. We sought out a manager, enquires as to her name and both complained about her attitude and advised we’d rather she didn’t receive a share of the tip money. She probably did receive a share, but reckon she deserved it as we were fairly frosty after her initial rudeness. All’s well that ends well The restaurant don’t do SC, by the way.

    Reply
  25. Nicci Gurr on

    I feel really strongly about this article. Being a former employee of Roux Restaurants (I was always treated well when I worked for Roux and this was before minimum wage.) and now being an employer myself. Obviously also being a massive fan of Jay 🙂
    I have to say that we must of course pay all of our restaurant staff well if we wish for a respected industry in this country, and we want to continue to have creative chef’s that are breaking the boundaries. This doesn’t pay for itself. Of course this has to be passed onto the client, diner, guest – but when we – the establishments point out the cost and explain, then put it into comparative terms such as paying for quality ingredients, and the fact that we are happy to pay for Fair trade coffee but stop at paying ‘Fair Trade’ wages to our own teams – I find the eaters and seaters more understanding of the difference in costs.
    However, being treated well doesn’t stop at a minimum wage. It should also come from an understanding of employee’s and the correct management of a team, rather than the under qualified shouty chefs, that we so sadly ever increasingly see in the local pub/ ‘restaurant’ where they re heat boil in the bag tripe. Oh, if only some of these ‘Chefs’ even knew how to cook tripe or even have a basic understanding of basic housekeeping. However, that is an argument for another day 🙂

    Reply

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