Michel Roux Jr has described the moment his two-Michelin-starred London restaurant, Le Gavroche, was caught paying less than the minimum wage to some kitchen staff as embarrassing, but has said he has put a plan in place to ensure that it won’t happen again.
An investigation by the Guardian newspaper in November found that some salaried kitchen staff were being paid less than the legal minimum. It had found that some earnings were working out as low as £5.50 an hour, below the £7.20 National Living Wage introduced in April this year, due to the number of hours people were working. Unnamed sources quoted by the paper claimed that they routinely worked between 62 and 68 hours per week for about £375 before tax.
However, Le Gavroche responded immediately by pledging to increase the salaries of those employees working longer hours than anticipated, as well as committing to reduce the maximum working hours for all employees to 50 hours a week.
A year ago, the two-Michelin-starred restaurant announced it was to change to a five-day week, down from six days, with a view to improve the work-life balance of staff, and to help the site offer new pop-ups.
Speaking to The Caterer about the controversy Roux said: “The buck stops with me and I take responsibility for ballsing up on this particular front. I am embarrassed and I am sorry for it but in no way was it done intentionally.”
He explained that after the departure of a couple of chefs in August, along with an unfortunate combination of illness and a basketball accident that saw another chef break his leg, the staffing level in the kitchen dropped from 16 to 11 earlier in the year. It left the restaurant in a tricky position, unwilling to call customers to tell them that their bookings could not be fulfilled, nor able to relax standards and send out food that was not up to par. As a result, Roux said, the hours that chefs worked crept up.
“We are not above the law and I am not in any way looking for excuses but there were some mitigating circumstances,” he said. “As chefs you get into that routine of working these hours and getting used it, coming in at 8am instead of 9am, and I am to blame. I should have seen but I didn’t see it. It wasn’t flagged up directly to me. Because it is one restaurant and because I am very hands on and I like to be in control of everything, maybe the managers and head chefs didn’t come to report to me because they thought I knew. It is my fault.”
Roux said that in addition to a pay review that has seen wages for some staff increase, the restaurant would move to working 50 hours a week by March next year, giving employees Saturday morning, Sunday, Monday and Tuesday morning off.
“Moving forwards there is now a system in place whereby this will not happen again,” he said. “I want to give my staff as much time as possible off and I don’t want to have more than one team. We used to open six days a week and there was a rota system and I was fed up of hearing ‘I was off yesterday, it’s not my fault’, or ‘there’s no mise-en-place done, when I take my day off I make sure it is full.’ The idea is to work all together as one team, everyone takes the same days off.
“It would be all too simple for me to say forget all this, let’s open seven days a week, have two full brigades, I will be far more profitable but it will be far more of a headache and it is not what I want. I want consistency and I want one brigade all to work together as a team.”
The changes will take effect from March because bookings at Le Gavroche are taken up to three months in advance and consequently the restaurant will need that length of time to adapt to the new system while fulfilling all of its bookings.
Roux said he had also taken to locking the doors of the restaurant in the mornings to ensure that chefs vying to get a head start with prep couldn’t come in and begin work early, racking up more hours than they were supposed to in the process.
“Years ago I did that – locked the door and kept it locked and no kitchen staff were allowed in, until I found out that some of them were climbing in through the window, or bribing the kitchen porter that starts at 7am with a can of beer to let them in,” he said. “You may think it is funny but it is part of the issue. If I got a pound for every time I told chefs to go on a break in the afternoon or actually go and sit down in the canteen and have something to eat… But I should not be looking for excuses and I am not.
“It is incredibly difficult because we don’t clock in and clock out and it would be such a shame if we went that way. But we have a system now where the executive chef will sign off people on a weekly and we can go back and say ok you did more hours this week, you will do fewer hours next week so we know what we are aiming at.”