LONDON • Former MasterChef host Michel Roux Jr has begun reimbursing staff who he paid less than the legal minimum wage at his £212 (S$380)-a-head Mayfair restaurant.
Current and former chefs at Le Gavroche are in line for payments running into thousands of pounds each, after a Guardian investigation last month exposed the chef for paying kitchen staff, who worked up to 68 hours a week, as little as £5.50 an hour. The wages worked out to well below the £7.20 legal minimum for people aged over 24.
He has written personally to former chefs, apologising for their underpayment and promising to make up shortfalls in their pay. He has also sent substantial four-figure cheques to others, which are arriving in time to fund an upgrade from Christmas Day cava to champagne for some of his hard-pressed former workers.
Roux wrote: "It has been brought to my attention that some ex-staff may have been underpaid and this may affect you. If this is the case, then please accept my apologies and reassurance that this was not intentional." He asked former staff to "confirm any shortfall that may be due".
One former chef told The Guardian newspaper that he will tell Roux he is owed close to £8,000. Another former chef quoted from Dickens' A Christmas Carol and described Roux's repayments as "a fair, even-handed, noble adjustment of things".
The move came exactly a month after Le Gavroche chefs blew the whistle on their low pay. They revealed that while they were preparing dishes such as the £60.80 butter-poached lobster with almonds, peas and a bisque sauce for guests including singers Paul McCartney and Adele, and the Queen, they were working between 62 and 68 hours a week for £375 before tax.
It was described as "simply not acceptable" by the Sustainable Restaurant Association, led by rival Michelin-starred chef Raymond Blanc.
One former chef at the restaurant said while Roux was in many ways a supportive employer, the pay was "disgusting".
Roux's friends, meanwhile, rallied to his support. They included restaurant critic Jay Rayner, who said while underpayment of the minimum wage was wrong, Roux was "a good employer". Rayner said the problem of underpayment in the restaurant industry was "systemic".
Roux had said that despite being hands-on at the two-Michelin- starred restaurant, he had not noticed the long hours some of his kitchen brigade were working and said "in no way was it done intentionally".
Some chefs are understood to have been wary of approaching him directly to ask for missing pay, for fear that such a move could affect their career prospects.
He is an influential figure in the British restaurant scene, with numerous former Gavroche chefs running top kitchens. They include Gordon Ramsay, Marco Pierre White and Marcus Wareing.
"I think it is brilliant he has done this," said a former chef who is preparing to lodge a substantial request for back pay. "It would be nice if other restaurants did the same, as I am sure many others are paying beneath the legal minimum."
Last week, The Guardian also revealed that Le Gavroche has been keeping all the discretionary 13 per cent service charge it levies on customers bills and does not distribute it to staff on top of their wages. Roux responded by abolishing the charge and increasing prices by 13 per cent. He said this would clear up any ambiguity about what the service charge was for.