Presenter and chef tells corporation it's had its chips after being told TV spud ads broke rules on commercial interests
After 140 episodes and six wildly popular series, could it all have come down to a potato? The chef and presenter Michel Roux Jr has confirmed that he is to step down from MasterChef: The Professionals – and leave the BBC – following a dispute with the corporation over his endorsement of a brand of spud.
Describing his negotiations with the broadcaster as a "frustrating process", Roux questioned if the BBC understood "the realities of today's commercial world". He said: "The BBC needs to recognise … that, while we love to be associated with top quality television, we have other professional commitments that are as important to us as programme making."
Roux, the son of fellow Michelin-starred chef Albert Roux and nephew of Michel Roux Sr, has been endorsing Albert Bartlett potatoes on packs, and serving them in his award-winning restaurant Le Gavroche, for more than a decade.
But following a series of TV adverts screened before Christmas, the relationship was deemed to have fallen foul of the BBC's strict rules on commercial interests – though the chef said on Tuesday he was not clear how, precisely, he had broken the broadcaster's guidelines.
Speaking from the noisy kitchen of Le Gavroche shortly before evening service, Roux said the relationship with the Scottish potato firm was commercial, "but that is not why I continue to work with them. I regard them as close friends of the Roux family, and it precedes any kind of media work that I have done".
He had been prepared to give up the TV adverts to reach agreement, he said, but "I don't feel that every avenue was explored to the full [by the BBC]", and so he had reluctantly decided to leave.
Stressing his ongoing respect and affection for the corporation, the chef, who has also presented Food and Drink and Michel Roux's Service, insisted his decision was not because he put his commercial interests first.
"If I were more interested in the commercial aspect of my media personality I would be a very happy multi-millionaire. But I am not. What I am is a chef first and foremost. I think that comes across very plainly, and it was at the forefront of my decision making."
The BBC said Roux's departure was "due to a conflict in his commercial interests". "It has been a great privilege to work with such an accomplished professional in his field and we would like to thank him for the huge contribution he has made to those programmes."
A source indicated that a compromise deal had been offered to Roux who declined to accept.
The broadcaster pointed to its lengthy editorial guidelines and said restrictions came into play where a product overlapped with a presenter's on-screen persona. It cited Gary Lineker's endorsement of Walkers Crisps as an example of a commercial relationship with no bearing on Lineker's sporting role.
But others inside the corporation expressed frustration at guidelines that were difficult to interpret and could appear unfair. "The key point is the double, triple, quadruple standards that the BBC seems to use in these things," said one well-placed insider. "The big one is Alan Sugar, who runs a recruitment drive for his own business through a TV show, but there's been apparently no problem from the BBC on that one.
"Michel has a business which, by being on Masterchef, he is already advertising. He is filmed in the kitchen of Le Gavroche. I don't understand the guidelines, I have had to take them on a case by case basis." A number of BBC chefs, including Saturday Kitchen's James Martin, endorse cookware ranges, apparently without compromising their position.
"It is a grey area, and this is why people from time to time fall foul of the rules," said Borra Garson, the founder and owner of talent management agency DML, which represents a number of celebrity chefs. In 2000 she negotiated then BBC talent Jamie Oliver's deal with Sainsbury's, before the arrangement became unsustainable and he moved to Channel 4.
"Everyone knows the BBC's charter doesn't allow for very much commercial activity outside the show and a book to tie in," she said. "But I think the BBC has trouble defining it from time to time to its more famous faces. And particularly with chefs and all the possible commercial outlets out there, this is why certain chefs like Heston Blumenthal have migrated to Channel 4, because it enables them to take all the outside temptations of other commercial deals."
Asked if he planned to pursue other TV projects, Roux said: "That is something I haven't even thought about." But he stressed, "Every moment I have worked for the BBC I have enjoyed, and I have absolutely no regrets in any of the work I have done with them."
A seventh series of MasterChef: The Professionals will be broadcast in the autumn, with a new presenter.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010