A man for all seasons…

Islay O'Hara

Over the course of a 40-year career, Raymond Blanc has become one of the world’s most acclaimed chefs and a mentor for 27 Michelin star winners. Fred Latty sat down for an exclusive chat about France, fish fingers and why Britain is finally finding its foodie feet…

As the two Michelin-starred chef who brought seasonality to our shores, Raymond Blanc can now boast a reputation as an international icon who has launched the careers of a number of high-profile, Michelin-starred peers.

The 66-year-old self-taught chef was raised in Besançon in eastern France, between Burgundy and the Jura mountains. It was here he became inspired by the local terroir, learning from his mother about the benefits of using fresh, local produce and ingredients.

After moving to England in the 70s, Raymond opened his first restaurant, the two Michelin-starred Les Quat’Saisons in Summertown, Oxford. In 1984 he realised his personal vision of creating a hotel and restaurant in the form of Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons in Great Milton, Oxfordshire.

Since then, Raymond has established a culinary empire and built a reputation for his love of all things seasonal. In addition to being honoured with an OBE, he has opened his own cookery school, become a bestselling author and household name on television and created the nationwide group of 20 Brasserie Blanc restaurants, while also supporting a number of charities and initiatives for organic food and sustainability.

His chosen path hasn’t been without its challenges. Renowned for a workaholic lifestyle, he suffered
two stress-induced mini-strokes at the age of 42 and has been through two divorces, notably from business partner and Le Manoir co-founder, Jenny Blanc, in 1985, with whom he has two sons, Olivier and Sebastien. And yet, it would seem that his mission to educate and inspire is far from over. Here, we take a look back at an illustrious career and find out why this particular Frenchman is still hungry after all these years.

You grew up in eastern France’s Franche-Comté region. How did this first inspire a love of food?
At an early age I was an experienced hunter-gatherer, inspired by my mother and father. It has long been my vision to have plenty of outdoor space to grow fruit, vegetables and herbs for my very own seasonal menus. Maman Blanc’s seamless ability to make a fantastic family meal from the produce we collected locally inspired me. I will always remember a casserole she used to make with the freshest vegetables from the garden.

Your mother must have had a strong influence on your passion for cooking. Is this something that’s always been in the family?
Where do I begin? Maman Blanc cooks with intuition – I would call her a great cook, but not a chef. I think it would be wrong of me to talk of Maman Blanc without talking about her maman also – my grandmother – Germaine. She also had amazing culinary talents that were respected throughout the region. She passed on this cooking DNA to Maman Blanc, who passed it on to me, the first male chef in the family. We launched a course last June in The Raymond Blanc Cookery School dedicated to spreading Maman Blanc’s philosophy on simple, rustic food.

You are entirely self-taught. Is this something you would recommend or do you see more value in professional training?
You can learn from your own mistakes, but you can also learn how to avoid mistakes from having training. To get far in this industry, you need to be able to rely on others, but also learn new skills and experiment yourself.

What advice would you offer to today’s young chefs?
The restaurant business is one of the toughest around. The pressure can definitely take its toll. You must be brave and maybe a little mad. You have to be a craftsman, a manager of money, people, and any situation life may throw at you.

Has the approach to your restaurants changed and developed over time?
I don’t follow fashions. I’ve always taken young people, trained them, empowered them and given them a programme to support them. Every great restaurant needs a great team. I surround myself with wonderful people who I trust and that hasn’t changed.

Which chefs have had the biggest influence on you?
There are many chefs who I admire, both from the past and present. There are too many to name them all but Michel Roux, who I fought with and played football with, is now one of my greatest friends, Keith Floyd – the bon viveur who made such great dishes and television – Heston, Marco Pierre, Michael Caines… The list is endless.

With so many media commitments, how much time do you spend in the kitchen?
What do you mean? I’m always in the kitchen! Whether it’s on the TV or at home. But yes, it’s true; I’m a perfectionist, even when it comes to being out of the kitchen. The whole setup of the restaurant, hotel, the gardens, everything – I think about it almost 24/7, but I’ll always find time for cooking.

Has cooking in Britain for so long changed your perception of British food?
The first British food I had was a fish finger. I was astonished because it was a square and looked nothing like a fish. Now Britain makes just as much cheese as France and the food culture is growing. The British are also discovering that it makes more sense to use local producers. The food is fresher and cheaper as it hasn’t travelled thousands of miles to be served on the plate.

What is it about fresh, seasonal produce that’s so important to you?
At Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, we are totally seasonal in our menus and we grow as much of our own vegetables, salad leaves and fruit as we can. My mother always cooked with the produce from our own garden and food that my father had hunted, fished or foraged. Using fresh, seasonal produce is what I’m accustomed to. I have always been, and will always be, an ambassador for healthy, fresh food.

What does the future hold for your career?
I have a heritage garden at Belmond Le Manoir and reintroduced fruits and varieties that were forgotten. The gardens are as much a part of Le Manoir as the food and exceptional service and gardening is a huge passion of mine. Our garden has been designed to showcase heritage vegetables and demonstrate the principles of organic gardening and sustainability.

For reservations and further information about Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons and The Raymond Blanc Cookery School, visit www.belmond.com/lemanoir

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