Michel and Alain Roux on the opening of Roux at Skindles
PUBLISHED: 15:30 05 November 2018 | UPDATED: 15:41 05 November 2018
We find out about a fabulous new destination overseen by food and hospitality ‘godfathers’, the marvellous Michel and Alain Roux
Michel Roux Snr OBE is in an irrepressible mood with a teasing twinkle in his eye as we discuss the times when Skindles, beside the Thames at Taplow, was a world renowned hotel with a racy edge. Princess Margaret was amongst the guests of what today would be a Celeb List of music and film stars, politicians and others who like to ‘live on the edge’.
Want more names? Bette Davis, Boris Karloff, the Marx Brothers, King Hussein of Jordan and, even the then US Vice President, Richard Nixon. And although John Profumo and his lover Christine Keeler are most connected with nearby Cliveden, supposedly they too weren’t averse to nipping down to Skindles for a tryst.
But the reputation of this destination goes way back past the Swinging Sixties. Even in Edwardian times there was a music hall joke: ‘Are you married or do you live in Maidenhead?’ Yes, Skindles had always been more than a little bit ‘naughty’.
In 1971 The Rolling Stones had a ‘leaving do’ there (guests included John Lennon and Eric Clapton) before heading for overseas tax exile. Towards the end of that decade impresario Louis Brown opened the now legendary nightclub and disco, Studio Valbonne at Skindles. By this time TV stars could be found in the restaurant, bars or on the dance floor. But the thing is, so could you. Just whizz down in, say, a Mini Cooper S in your sparkliest glad rags, and spend a week’s wages on cocktails.
And then there was the indoor swimming pool and what people might, or might not, have got up to in it beyond the breaststroke. “Of course…” winks Michel. He now glues us with an interrogative eye: “Everyone, yes everyone, we all remember THAT swimming pool. But, strangely, I have yet to meet any of us who actually admits to jumping into it. Perhaps…?”
No Michel, we were too busy invoking Saturday Night Fever on the dance floor to engage in such shenanigans. As for Michel, he will only admit: “I, of course, have been just once for drinks, and thought I was going to be kidnapped!”
But by the gloomy mid-80s Studio Valbonne had closed and the site put up for sale. Boarded up Skindles went through the 1990s and into this century, becoming a raddled and increasingly shabby eyesore right by Maidenhead Bridge.
In all honesty we ‘shed tears’ for that slow demise, and then one or two more misplaced ones when Berkeley Homes took on the site and began to build a splendid collection of homes, from luxury villas beside the river to stylish apartments. Poor old Skindles had to be put out of its misery though, but what the property specialists replaced it with has provided a new jewel in the crown at the entrance to Maidenhead.
“We went into the site before Skindles was knocked down, and it was terrible, just terrible,” reveals Michel. “There was no hope for it.” These reminiscences clearly bring back sad memories for both father and son. Alain recalls: “Trees were growing inside… they were bursting through what was left of the roof.”
But the sparkle is back because October will see the opening of Roux at Skindles, a brasserie on the very spot of its infamous predecessor, over three storeys with a dining space, terrace, bar and even a little dining room on the top floor suitable for 14 people to enjoy an intimate spot. It will be overseen by Alain, alongside his role at The Waterside Inn in Bray, aided by his treasured ‘Number Two’, chef Raj Holhuss. Alain says: “People will be able to drop in just for a drink or a bite as they choose. We will not be aiming for another Michelin star restaurant but we want to focus on quality and value for money. It will be somewhere people can come for a coffee or lunch and stay for 10 minutes or two hours.”
But what lured the Rouxs to take on this project? It turns out there are two reasons.
Michel insists: “How could we not? To say to people, local people like us, ‘Look, Skindles is back!’ Different, yes, but for the local community that Skindles somehow exists is very important. We know the Waterside is not somewhere one eats every day, but Roux at Skindles can be, if you so wish.
“And it’s only 12 minutes by boat, our electric launch, from the Waterside, or eight to 15 minutes by road, depending on the traffic. You could go there, say ‘It’s me’ and have one dish and then perhaps come back here for dessert!”
Underpinning all this excitement is the second reason – in that a bistro-style restaurant takes the Roux family back to their roots (Michel and his brother Albert co-founded the first ever brasserie in the UK, Brasserie Benoit in London) and allows them to serve ‘French influence’ flavours in a relaxed atmosphere alongside tastes which take their fancy from across the planet.
“So yes, there will be snails and frog legs on the menu, but also a proper English breakfast, sharing platters with cheeses, tapas, but I wouldn’t call that bites,” says Alain. “You might just go for a coffee and croissant to sit by the river, pop in for drinks on your way to dine somewhere else, or enjoy a leisurely Sunday brunch or roast.”
As Alain returns to the Waterside kitchen (assorted lunch guests, from a couple celebrating their wedding anniversary to a member of the House of Lords and his party, are arriving) he reveals one secret: “We are working on a Skindles Cheeseburger – it’s going to be very special!”
Just like his father then, almost dancing round the Waterside garden with a Skindles-style spring in his step as he greets those enjoying an aperitif outdoors on a sunny day before entering the beautiful dining room. And he’s still teasing… “Will it be me cooking for YOU today? Perhaps… we shall see!”
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