His own school dinners weren’t much cop, but the young contestants on his new Disney cooking contest have given Michel a generous dollop of enthusiasm for canteen grub.
Growing up, Michel Roux Jr. enjoyed slap up dinners made by his decorated chef dad Albert Roux and uncle Michel. No wonder then, that his memories of school dinners pale in comparison to these veritable feasts.
“Eugh, I don’t want to even go there,” he says, wincing at the thought.
“I did go to English school, and I’m afraid to say, I know exactly what gristly mince and packet mashed potato tastes like,” adds the 55-year-old, who admits he’s had a “bit of a head-start in life”, growing up in a family where food was so important.
While chewy meat and watery mash was common fodder back in his schooldays, the stodgy school dinner stalwarts are certainly off the menu in his new TV cookery competition First Class Chefs.
Starting this month, it’s his first series for the Disney Channel and sees teams of school children putting their kitchen skills to the test, in a bid to transform their relationship with food.
Twelve teams of pairs will take part in a range of tasks, including devising menus, shopping for ingredients and cooking them up in the kitchen. In the final, two school canteens will be turned into restaurants, serving up a spread for fellow pupils, with the winning team scooping £10,000 to fund a school project.
And already the former MasterChef: The Professionals judge, who lives with his wife Giselle in London, has seen some considerable “talent and knowledge” from the pupils, who are aged between nine and 11 years.
“They’ve been cooking everything from the quite simple to the complex - complex for their age, but dishes even a lot of adults wouldn’t contemplate,” he says. “To be able to cook some of the dishes they’ve been doing, and so competently, is amazing to see.”
Like Jamie Oliver before him, Roux Jr. hopes the series encourages more children and their families to whip out the pans and start cooking.
“It’s great to see these children taking such an interest in food, and that comes from their family,” he explains. “Food is not just fuel. Their families are not just buying ready-meals, whacking them in the microwave, and shoving them in front of the kids, in front of the telly.
“No - their kids are taking part in choosing what they’re going to eat, and it’s great.”
His own daughter Emily, who has also followed in his foodie footsteps, will appear as a special guest chef and help with the judging.
“She’s 24 now, so she’s no longer really a trainee,” he says of his “exceptionally talented” daughter.
“She’s earning a good wage and really enjoying herself cooking. We get on very well and she always wants to do her best.”
Likewise, Roux Jr. says he’s trying to be on his best behaviour in the kitchen, too. “I mean, I’m a control freak,” he admits. “I hate not being in control and the thing is, if you do lose your temper, it’s because you’ve lost control and that’s something I don’t like.
“I’m like everyone, occasionally I do lose my rag, but I don’t like myself when I do.”
Fancy trying some of Roux Jr.’s recipes with your family? Here’s an easy-to-follow dish from his book, The French Kitchen, to get going with.
8 slices of good sourdough bread
2tbsp unsalted butter
1tbsp plain flour
Freshly grated nutmeg
280g grated cheese (a mixture of Emmental, Gruyere and Cheddar is good)
160g good-quality, sliced ham
Lightly toast the bread on both sides, then butter one side of each slice.
To make the bechamel sauce, melt the remaining butter in a small pan, stir in the flour to make a roux, then whisk in the milk. Keep whisking it well to avoid lumps and bring the sauce to the boil. Season with salt, pepper and nutmeg and cook for three to four minutes, then remove from the heat.
Preheat the oven to 200C/Fan 180C/Gas 6. Spread a little mustard on the buttered side of a piece of toast. Add a generous amount of bechamel, followed by grated cheese and a slice of ham. Spread some more bechamel on the dry side of another piece of toast and place on top of the ham, pressing a little to stick it down. Spread a little more bechamel on top of the sandwich and sprinkle with grated cheese. Make all the sandwiches in the same way.
Put the sandwiches on a baking tray and bake them in the preheated oven for six to eight minutes until crisp and golden. Serve at once.