Reflections on Working at Le Gavroche & The Role of the Over 50s – by Louise Monaghan

Having worked at Le Gavroche in 1990 under Albert Roux, Louise Monaghan returned last year to be part of the closing team. She has reflected on her time there and has written a piece for us at Women In The Food Industry about the contrast between her experiences in her 20’s and 50’s and the vital role that ‘seasoned individuals’, like herself, still have to play in the hospitality industry. Louise is now starting a new venture to encourage the over 50’s to work in the hospitality industry.

On a cold Saturday night at the end of January this year, I was incredibly lucky to be part of a truly historic event. Being a member of the Front of House team at the final service of the legendary Le Gavroche restaurant I knew that I was playing a tiny part in culinary history.  The atmosphere was a blend of celebration and reflection, filled with smiles and laughter alongside a touch of melancholy capturing the bittersweet essence of bidding farewell to such an iconic and important restaurant.

Working at Le Gavroche in 1990

In 1990 I was 22 years old and walked into Le Gavroche for the first time to start working as a commis waitress at the, then, only 3-star Michelin restaurant in London. It was long hours and demanding work. But what a place to begin! A reference from Le Gavroche was a passport to work anywhere in the world. The Front of House team were predominantly male – I was one of only 2 females amidst a brigade of about 25. The standards were impeccably high, as expected and discipline was rigorously enforced. Finding staff was never an issue however, with a steady stream of applicants—mainly from France—eager to learn perfection and to be a part of Le Gavroche’s legacy. We opened for lunch & dinner Monday to Friday only – weekends were when the regular clientele would retreat to their country estates!

A reference from Le Gavroche was the ultimate accolade and earning one required a commitment of at least 12 months. So, after 18 months I embarked on the next chapter of my journey with Albert Roux. This led me to the USA, Europe, and back to London to Roux Lamartine in Covent Garden Market where I had the pleasure of working alongside the vibrant Marc Beaujeu, who was renowned in the industry for his expertise and infectious energy.

My Life in Food by Albert Roux - Photography by Jodi Hinds

My Life in Food by Albert Roux  – Photography by Jodi Hinds

In 2022, I returned to Le Gavroche to work part time amidst the staffing challenges brought about by Brexit and Covid. Like many businesses in the industry feeling the strain, Le Gavroche scaled back its operations, opening solely for dinner from Tuesday to Saturday. Despite the changes, the essence of Le Gavroche remained intact, its ambiance still unmistakably its own, not much had changed from 30 years before.  It did feel like coming home!

Returning to Le Gavroche at 55 years old felt like revisiting a cherished memory. Some things had changed and yet so much had remained exactly the same. The restaurant had seamlessly blended the old with the new, tradition with modernity. Demonstrating perfectly – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!

Le Gavroche 2021

Reflecting on my time in the dining room 30 years before, memories of a beloved figure named Tony Battistella resurfaced. Tony was an old-school Italian waiter, who would also work part-time. He embodied the essence of hospitality and grace with his charm and dedication. In my youthful naiveté, I always perceived Tony as an ‘old man,’ and I would question why he continued to work such long hours at his age. However, after a quick calculation, I realised that back in 1990, Tony was not much older than I am now!

So, to the younger staff, I was their Tony and they probably wondered what I was doing still working at my age! However, now I understand it and the allure and magic of Le Gavroche, a place that cannot be adequately described, has become clear to me. It’s a place where the best of the best is created. The essence of Le Gavroche extends far beyond its culinary delights or impeccable service; it resides in the spirit of its staff, their sense of belonging, and how this translates into an unforgettable dining experience for all.

Le Gavroche in 2008 - Photography by Alex Muller

Le Gavroche in 2008 – Photograph by Alex Muller

I was fortunate to have trained under the legendary figure of Silvano Giraldin, the Godfather of service. Despite his retirement in 2008, his influence lingered in the impeccable high standards that still permeated throughout. Whenever he returned, I found myself just as nervous as I had been all those years before. (“Don’t mess up, don’t mess up”).  Silvano’s immense knowledge and skill were exceptional. His presence commanded respect as he effortlessly demonstrated the mastery of his craft. Today, he is still revered as one of the best in the industry.

Silvia and Ursula Le Gavroche - Photography by Jodi Hinds

Silvia & Ursula – Le Gavroche in 2022 Photography by Jodi Hinds

Stepping into the dining room this time, I was now part of a team of 17 FOH staff, and was one of 6 remarkable women, led by the indomitable sisters Ursula and Silvia. Distinguished only by Silvia’s adorned Gavroche pin, their presence infused the atmosphere with a sense of camaraderie and shared purpose.

Le Gavroche Bar

I had the privilege of being a member of the sommelier team, under the expert guidance of the charismatic and unmistakably French Head Sommelier, Rémi Cousin. His extensive knowledge, exceptional talent, boundless enthusiasm, and impeccable hospitality skills were truly inspiring to witness. Not only did Rémi teach me the art of crafting the Gavroche Classic Cocktail—a delightful blend of Campari, Cointreau & Champagne—but his non-alcoholic creation, ‘The Cossette’, was also a resounding success. As a mentor, Rémi played a pivotal role in shaping the skills of his young team, skills they will carry with them as they continue their journey, armed with the knowledge gained from Le Gavroche’s prestigious wine list.

Rachel Humphrey - photo by Jodi Hinds

Chef Rachel Humphrey – Photography by Jodi Hinds

The kitchen was much quieter than my earlier days. (partly due to a much-improved extraction system).  Led by Head Chef, Rachel Humphrey, who also started working there in the 90s, the kitchen radiated a calm and focused energy—a testament to her exceptional leadership and the unwavering dedication of her talented team. The enduring dynamic between kitchen and dining room, full of banter, camaraderie & respect, enriched Le Gavroche experience for every customer.

In Europe, old French or Italian waiters, who have been mastering their craft for years, are revered and admired for their expertise. Their experience is celebrated, seen as the hallmark of true professionalism. Yet, in the UK, the perception of older waiting staff conjures up visions of Julie Walters serving soup!  This stark contrast emphasises the importance of recognising the valuable contributions that the more ‘seasoned’ staff can bring. Hospitality is more than just service—it’s about care, compassion & empathy.

Working at Le Gavroche in June 2023

The hospitality industry is facing significant challenges, from staffing shortages to changing consumer preferences and soaring costs. While the ‘older’ or returning-to-work generation can be seen as useful right now in addressing these shortages, my experience has shown me that we bring far more than mere convenience. Our life experience and often natural nurturing qualities equip us to be patient, resilient, and valuable mentors to younger staff. I firmly believe that we play a vital role, not just a temporary fix, during these challenging times. At Le Gavroche, I certainly felt these qualities were truly valued and appreciated.

So, as I learn to embrace my inner ‘Tony’, I see clearly now that age is merely a label. Le Gavroche, born a year before me in 1967, may have closed its doors at the age of 57, but its story is far from finished. It will continue to educate and inspire both young and old for many more years to come. Its enduring legacy reminds us that age and experience are assets, not limitations, and that wisdom and excellence transcend the passage of time. And just like its namesake, the tenacious street urchin who never gave up, neither should we.

Louise Monaghan

Louise Monaghan is now starting a new venture to encourage the over 50’s to work in the hospitality industry. For more information please contact her on info@savoytruffle.co.uk.

You may also like  Meet The Roux Scholarship Female Finalists 2024, Ruth Hansom on making the Roux Scholarship finals in 2022 and Olivia Burt on making the Roux Scholarship finals in 2022. Plus read our ambassador Antonia Lloyd’s interview with April Lily Partridge on winning the Roux Scholarship in 2023.   

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