A chat with Raymond Blanc OBE
The French-born, British-based chef Raymond Blanc is one of the country's most renowned gourmet talents. His restaurant, Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons, A Belmond Hotel, remains the only UK country house hotel to have retained 2 Michelin Stars for 39 years, and is also home to the Raymond Blanc Cookery School and the Raymond Blanc Gardening School.
His long and productive career includes several TV shows, like ITV Simply Raymond Blanc Series 1 & 2 and his books include Simply Raymond Blanc: Recipes from Home.
Raymond joined Tripsmiths on an exclusive cruise through the Bordeaux wine region and prior to the departure, we sat down with him to chat about the highs (and lows) of his career so far, and what he's most looking forward to on the cruise.
Can you tell us a bit about what first got you into cooking?
I should have been a chef from the age of three, really! My parents were extraordinary cooks, gardeners, farmers, and winemakers. The table was really the heart of the house.
So I grew up ensconced in food creation. My mother came from a farmer's family and they built their own house. It took my grandfather six years. I really learnt my values and work ethic from him.
I have to mention the garden, too. It was huge and the produce we grew would feed our whole family for about nine months of the year or more. That's how I developed such a deep knowledge of the seasonality of food.
Did most of the food you ate at home growing up come from your garden?
Not all of it. As well as the garden, there was a huge forest nearby, and my papa had created a secret map of the forest specifically for foraging.
We would get up and go into the forest at five in the morning, so no one would follow us. What I couldn't get from the garden I could find in the forest. I remember going asparagus hunting and bundling up dozens of wild asparagus to sell on the side of the street or at the market to make some money.
Is this why seasonality and local produce is such a strong focus at Le Manoir?
Oh, very much so. Seasonality is so important in my cooking. If it's seasonal it is close to home, if it's close to home the taste, texture and colour will all be better. Even more importantly, eating seasonal food helps the local farmer to continue farming, helps the village to keep the café, and you don't have to import food from millions of miles away, creating pollution along the way.
I'm president of the Sustainable Restaurant Association and we have 16,000 restaurants who embrace those values in UK. It's about purity, authenticity and close to home. Here at Le Manoir, we recycle everything, and all of our green waste is composted on-site.
You're joining us on a trip to Bordeaux in the autumn and although you grew up in eastern France, did you ever visit Bordeaux?
Burgundy was only 60 miles away and Bordeaux is arguably one of the greatest cities in France, but I have to confess I haven't visited it yet. I'm so excited about this trip and I'm very much looking forward to it.
For me, the chance to discover the stunning architecture of the city and to get to know the local food and wine is really appealing.
Are there any specific wines you're looking forward to tasting on the trip?
I'm partial to Burgundy and some new world wines but I have to say the clarets are extraordinary and are becoming more and more organic and biodynamic.
Did you always know you wanted to be a chef?
For some reason, when I was growing up my teachers thought I should be a technical designer, an architect. But I hate lines, squares, anything geometrically driven and I hated arithmetic, geometry, chemistry so that wasn't going to work out!
I decided I would train to be a nurse as a teenager, but it was a disaster. I found it so hard, I then went to work in a factory and that was another difficult experience. When you work in a factory, you do your eight or nine hours, you leave, and you don't even get to see what you've done. That really frightened me!
So what prompted you to change careers and eventually become a chef?
I was walking in my old city in Besançon. It was a beautiful summer night and in the middle of the square I saw a very fancy restaurant with waiters in black tie. I then saw someone flambéing in the window and I fell in love with the magic of it. It was at that moment I decided I wanted to be a chef.
And what steps did you take to make the transition?
I went to see the boss the next day to try and get a job and I told him over the course of about an hour that I would be one of the greatest chefs in the world. He gave me a job as a cleaner.
So I started as a cleaner and I made it my mission to be the best cleaner they had ever had. I would clean the beautiful 18th-century mirrors until they sparkled. I was proud and I was appreciated, and eventually they promoted me to waiter.
I wanted to become friends with the head chef, but instead I made an enemy. I asked him too many questions and I would suggest things like adding a bit of sauvignon to lighten a sauce or adding a bit of smoked paprika, which he did not like. One day, he raised a saucepan and smashed it with full force into my face. I ended up in hospital with a broken jaw.
The big boss came to see me and said he could see I would go far, but I couldn't antagonise the head chef. So I was exiled to England!
Do you think that was one of the most challenging moments of your career?
That would be one but there are many others. When you are completely self-taught and have no mentor to hold your hand through the terrifying moments, it is challenging!
In 1977 I opened a restaurant in Oxford and I was completely on my own. There were strikes all over England. I bought a tiny little place and kitted it out with cheap red and white tablecloths and prints of Paris on the wall. I put a cockerel outside the door with red, white and blue feathers so there was no hiding that it was a French restaurant!
I had opened a restaurant in one of the worst economic times - interest rates were 17%, inflation was 15% - and I was a young chef who'd never cooked before.
So what do you think was the secret behind your success?
I had a tiny little kitchen and not much experience, but I had an obsession with excellence and a deep understanding of food which was instilled in me from my parents and grandparents.
I had an old oven with no bottom to it and a 1962 Kenwood, but we managed to get one Michelin star in just a year! Most chefs will tell you it takes the best part of 10 to 12 years to train as a chef. Here I was without even a minute of professional training!
What are the next projects you're working on and what's new at Le Manoir?
There is so much going on. We are reinventing Le Manoir completely and building seven new gardens as well as a vineyard.