This year's Roux Scholar, Armand Sablon, chose a stage at the three-Michelin-starred Auberge de l'Ill in Alsace as part of his prize. Amanda Afiya went with scholarship founder Michel Roux to see how he was getting on
There are thousands of chefs working in Britain who will never cross the threshold of a three-Michelin-starred establishment. Fewer still will ever work in one, and only a handful will be able to claim to have worked in one of the longest-serving three-starred restaurants in the world.
Armand Sablon, sous chef at the Galvin at Windows restaurant in the London Hilton on Park Lane and the 2007 Roux Scholarship winner, is currently enjoying this privilege. On his three-month stage at l'Auberge de l'Ill in Alsace he is benefiting from the talents of one of the most respected kitchens we know.
A restaurant that's been in the Haeberlin family for more than 100 years, it has held three Michelin stars for 40 years, ranking it alongside those of culinary heavyweights Paul Bocuse and the family Troisgros as one of the most consistent restaurants ever to hold the top Michelin accolade.
Michel Roux, food writer and former Roux Scholarship judge Tamasin Day-Lewis and I travelled to see Sablon last month. As we entered the tiny fairytale village of Illhaeusern we were struck by the area's peculiar mix of French and Teutonic architecture.
Just like the assortment of buildings in the road up to the restaurant itself, the interior of l'Auberge is an eclectic mix of designs and textures. Having reopened in March following a major refurbishment, which included installing a carpet based on the image of Alsace from Google Earth, the building still contains many elements that hint at its unique history.
Originally a wooden chalet, the restaurant had to be reconstructed in 1950 after the French army overdid the dynamite when they blew up a nearby bridge - and the Haeberlins' restaurant in the process - in 1945. But the building's post-war reincarnation was a positive one. Shortly after its opening, in 1952, it was awarded its first Michelin star a second followed swiftly in 1957 and its third star came in 1967.
With such credentials, you'd expect a bit of arrogance about the place, but the atmosphere couldn't be less so. A warm, family feel permeates the restaurant. Marc Haeberlin heads up the kitchen, and has done so since 1977, but his father, Paul, was until January this year still coming in each day to cook the staff lunches. Not bad for an 84-year-old. Jean-Pierre, Paul's brother, continues the theme front of house, where he heads up service.
Such tradition immediately gives you a taste of what Sablon has experienced. "I was very nervous on the first day I walked into Auberge," says Sablon. "But Marc Haeberlin made me feel like one of the family from day one, so I settled in very quickly."
Fortunately, Sablon had the experience of working with André Garrett, executive head chef of Galvin and the 2002 Roux Scholar, who trained with Guy Savoy, to make sure he got the most out of his stage. Advice from Michel Roux and Chris Galvin also helped to ensure it has been, to him, "the best experience of my life".
It's easy to assume that an initiative such as the Roux Scholarship is all about cooking but Sablon has learnt so much more than just the intracies of fine Alsatian cuisine. "I feel I have changed as a human being," he says, and believes that he will return to Britain later this month as a more considerate manager. "I've changed the way I think about staff, and I've realised that you get a better result from them if they are happy at work. Chefs are made to feel part of a fraternity here: they go out and do things together, such as karting or football." This is music to Michel Roux's ears, and he is thrilled to see how his scholar has blossomed under the tutelage of Haeberlin.
The rich regional flavours of Alsace in the dishes at l'Auberge de l'Ill have been hugely influential, too. Haeberlin cleverly presents a broad selection of classic dishes as well as some of the most contemporary cooking you'll encounter. Mousseline de grenouilles "Paul Haeberlin" (see recipe, left) was created in 1967 by Paul to celebrate the restaurant being awarded three stars. It's a dish that's changed little in 40 years. In fact, the only difference is that it's a little smaller than when it was first conceived. Otherwise, the recipe has remained entirely intact.
Roux is delighted to see such dishes grace the menu, but laments the fact that few other restaurants of this class are as proud of their heritage. "I have to keep five or six dishes on from my father," explains Haeberlin. "It's the soul of the restaurant, our link, our foundation." La pêche Haeberlin (see recipe, right) is also an Auberge classic and has been on the menu since 1965.
"The food I have been cooking is exactly what I wanted to cook, in the sense of it being very regional to Alsace," says Sablon. "I have learnt so much of what Alsace cuisine is all about, and I find it extraordinary that some of the dishes on the restaurant's menu have not changed for 40 years. However, their new dishes are very innovative and balance the older and more traditional dishes very well."
While Sablon has enjoyed working on every section in the luxuriously spacious kitchen where a brigade of 25 chefs work, the meat and fish section has afforded him the opportunity of seeing how older dishes, such as salmon soufflé, the frogs' legs mousseline and the pigeon farce are made. "It's been amazing to see how simple and flavoursome the dishes are," he says.
The experience has inspired Sablon so much that when he returns to Galvin at Windows he plans to offer an Alsace menu to illustrate his time away. Running from 12 January to the end of February, Sablon will be presenting his own take on some of the dishes from l'Auberge, while sourcing ingredients and wine from Alsace.
The experience of the scholarship has left Sablon eager to endorse it to others. "I would recommend the scholarship to any chef," he says. "In fact, I wish I'd done it five years ago. If I could stay on, I would. I've learnt how a three-star restaurant works, and that training is priceless. I am thinking of going back to France and hope to do a few more stages there, but utlimately it has made me change my career plans. In fact, I am planning to open my own restaurant in a few years - so watch this space."
Marc Haeberlin's mousseline de grenouilles - created in 1967 by Paul Haeberlin when the restaurant earned its third Michelin star.
Peche Haeberlin - created by Paul Haeberlin in 1965
As clubs go, the Roux Scholars Club is a pretty handy one to belong to. Made up of all past winners of the scholarship, who are automatically inducted into the club when they win, its purpose is to provide an informal contact channel for its members and an opportunity for them to chew the fat, compare notes, seek advice if they want it - or just have few days of foodie fun and education on a scholars' culinary trip.
The last trip that a group of the scholars undertook was to Tuscany and Umbria in Italy in the early summer of 2006. Stretching over a total of four days, it took in vineyards, a chocolate factory, a glimpse at olive oil production, a memorable call at a traditional Tuscan charcuterie and dinner at the three-Michelin-starred Enoteca Pinchiorri in Florence.
Cheerleaders on the "Italian Job" were competition founder Michel Roux and his son Alain, and thanks to the esteem in which the Roux family is held around the culinary world, the scholars found themselves on the receiving end of some very generous Italian hospitality.
One of the many highlights that sticks in 1996 scholar Trevor Blythe's memory was when the group rocked up to Dario Cecchini's butcher and charcuterie shop in Panzano - Antica Macellira Cecchini - to find the street closed, trestle tables ranged down one side and "four huge pieces of delicious beef on the barbie" awaiting. "Is there a butcher's shop in the UK that would ever do a similar thing?" he asks.
Blythe was also impressed by the visit to the Amedei chocolate factory at Pontedera, being seduced by both the company's business philosophy - which encompasses protecting plantations and bean varieties that it sources - and the unique taste of its Porcelana chocolate.
For others on the trip, the jaunt to Enoteca Pinchiorri proved to be a high point, not only for the opportunity to sample a seven-course tasting menu at one of Italy's leading restaurants - one of the grandest, too, being situated in a typical Florentine palazzo - but also because of the chance to see the restaurant's amazing wine cellar. "I was blown away by it," says Blythe of the £24m-worth 150,000-bottle treasure trove with wines from 18 countries and all the wine regions of Italy lining its walls.
It's true to say that the trip furthered the scholars' Italian wine education as much as it did their knowledge of Tuscan food. A Chianti Classico tasting at the Riecine vineyard near Gaiole in Chianti under the guiding hand of winemaker Sean O'Callaghan was enlightening. Englishman O'Callaghan moved to Italy in 1991 after working in Germany and is a passionate advocate of traditional organic methods and "real" Chianti classico using 100% Sangiovese grapes. "It's a difficult grape to work with. You have to put a lot of work into the wine, but if you get it right, it's absolutely stunning," he told his audience.
In addition to the Riecine vineyard, the scholars were also treated to tastings, and fantastic lunches, at the La Massa vineyard of Giampaolo Motta in Panzano in Chianti and at the Siesti family's wine kingdom at the Castello de Argiano in Montalcino. Both producers make wonderful but very different wines - the former rejecting the strict Chianti classico route although still growing and using Sangiovese grapes the latter concentrating on growing Sangiovese (also known as Brunello) biodynamically. "I only realised how much I'd learnt about wine when I got back and was chatting to our restaurant manager at Ockenden Manor, who's Italian," commented Matthew Tomkinson (2005 scholar - now head chef at the Goose, Britwell Salome).
Tomkinson concluded: "The trip as a whole was very enjoyable, and for me, as a relatively new scholar, it was great to meet and chat with past scholars and to develop the idea of a network that you can tap into at any time."
The Roux Scholars Club will be travelling to Dubai next year and, while there, will be cooking a gala dinner at the Grosvenor House Dubai hotel to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the scholarship.
Marc Haeberlin on…
L'Auberge de l'Ill
I think it's both a regional and international restaurant. If you look at my clientele, they are people living close by in neighbouring Germany, Switzerland and France, but my international client base is very strong also.
Favourite place to travel to?
French Polynesia, Tahiti. I love to go there and would visit Tahiti every year if I could. I also love Japan, which is why I've opened a restaurant [l'Auberge de l'Ill Nagoya] there.
The leader of the pack?
Paul Bocuse. He's a man who doesn't change his opinion or politics every month or two. He's a strong man who shows great leadership and determination. Second-in-command would be Alain Ducasse, because he has been able to show that by being a very good chef and having great management skills you can do something that has never been achieved before.
2008 Roux Scholarship - call for entries
In 2008 the Roux Scholarship celebrates its 25th anniversary and the competition will enjoy the largest prize pot in its history. In addition to the coveted three-month stage at a three-Michelin-starred restaurant, the scholar will receive £5,000, and the remaining five finalists will receive £1,000 each.
Entrants this year are required to submit an original recipe to serve four people, using two fresh lemon soles (500-600g each), cooked and served either whole or in fillet accompanied by two garnishes, one of which must be potato.
The 2008 judging panel is joined by Tracey MacLeod, restaurant critic for the Independent Magazine, as guest judge. The panel also comprises Michel and Albert Roux, their respective sons, Alain and Michel Jnr, Heston Blumenthal, first Roux Scholar Andrew Fairlie, David Nicholls, Gary Rhodes and Brian Turner.
As well as the stage and cash prize, courtesy of the Savoy Educational Trust, and trips to Italy to visit Caffè Musetti, thanks to L'Unico and Champagne Gosset, the scholar will spend a week in New York with Restaurant Associates.
The closing date for entries is 18 January 2008. For an entry form go to www.rouxscholarship.co.uk.