It’s not many chief execs who can laugh about the time they got bawled out by Michel Roux Junior after splattering a scallop dish all over the kitchen of Le Gavroche.
Yet Chris Dee of Northern retailer Booths recounts the story with great humility and humour.
A keen cook, Dee was working on recipe development with Steven Doherty (the former head chef at Le Gavroche) and he asked him where he should go on holiday for a week if he wanted to learn how to cook. Tuscany maybe?
“Steven said: ‘Forget Tuscany. Do you want to work for Gordon (Ramsey) or Marco (Pierre White)?’
“I said no way, that really scares me. So I worked with Steven in his pub in the Lake District for a weekend and he said: ‘You’re fine. Go and work for Michel Roux Junior at Le Gavroche’.”
Roux agreed and Dee found himself working in the kitchens of Le Gavroche for a week.
“I was petrified,” Dee admits. “On the first morning I removed the stalks from flat leaf parsley for two hours and then I was told to do the same with the curly leaf parsley. Then in the afternoon I got to chop them up.”
Having past the parsley chopping test, Dee was put to work with Le Gavroche’s senior sous chef Monica Galetti, now a judge on Masterchef.
“On day two there was a terrible accident,” he recalls. “We were making a scallop dish with a pastry seal. It takes 20 minutes in the oven, which is a really long time for a starter. I banged into her elbow, scallops went flying. I’ve never had a bollocking like it - from her and then from Michel Roux.”
Despite his mishap Dee was allowed to continue his week’s work experience.
“It was the most extraordinary hard work. I learned a lot about how teams work and about leadership. Michel Roux’s standards are extraordinarily high. He will peel sprouts. He does all his own butchery. He’s willing to do any job. There’s something of that in leadership.
“I learned that being a Michelin starred chef is about precision and speed, working entirely in silence and then getting shouted at in French.”
Having survived a week at Le Gavroche, Dee says he is now “allowed” to cook for a day in various famous restaurants.
“I’m just about to go and cook with Richard Corrigan (chef/patron of Corrigan’s Mayfair). I love the atmosphere of the kitchen. There’s something vaguely masochistic about it. There’s something about being in charge and then being the lowest in the kitchen. It’s a relief to be told what to do,” he says.
Such humility doesn’t reflect Dee’s considerable achievements.
Earlier this month he was promoted from chief operating officer to chief executive. The appointment comes as Booths prepares for the largest and most ambitious expansion in the group’s history, opening five new stores in 12 months.
Yorkshire is a key target following the success of stores in Settle, Ilkley and Ripon and the group has set its sights on opening a store in Malton, where it is working with landowner the Fitzwilliam Malton Estate.
Dee said the group has no plans to move beyond its northern heartlands.
“I hope we don’t go much further south. There’s something special about us being a northern business and a northern brand.”
Dee was awarded the top job after 20 years in the business. He joined in 1995 as the wines & spirits buyer, before becoming trading director in 2009 and chief operating officer in 2012.
A subject close to Dee’s heart is his belief that suppliers should be treated fairly. Booths has pioneered a Fair Milk scheme which promises to pay dairy farmers the highest farm gate price in the market.
“We believe we have a role to play. Most of our stores are in rural areas and a lot of our customers are our suppliers,” he says. “Our view is that to sell for less is devaluing the milk we sell. All our customers say they are prepared to pay a little more.”
Chairman Edwin Booth says he has “tremendous confidence” in Dee.
“He has the vision, and crucially, the ability to share that vision and inspire others to follow him,” he says.
Dee grew up in York and left grammar school to join the wine trade.
“I worked in a very old fashioned wine merchants. I was really interested in wine. It was not at all in my background. My parents would have had one bottle of wine a year at Christmas,” he says.
As part of his work Dee had to drive around the City of London with his tasting glasses. This was the hedonistic 1980s and the norm was to have a wine tasting on the trading floor at 10am. Armed with 30 to 40 cases of wine, he wasn’t allowed back until he’d sold everything.
“It was fun. I remember my first ever £1,000 sale. It was a revelation that someone had £1,000 to spend on wine. It was very glamorous and very different, but other than that it was just hard work.”
In the early 1990s Dee went back home and decided to set up on his own.
“I was going to open a chain of wine shops. I decided the first one would be in Bradford, which was a bit of a mistake with half the population not drinking. However another two stores in Horsforth and Headingley did ok.”
Dee sold the business to Oddbins in 1995 and joined Booths, where food became more important to him than wine.
“Wine is sold on where it comes from and what it’s made from so I took all those elements and applied them to food. So it’s about food that’s local and regional, food with provenance,” he says. “That’s what Booths is all about.”