Lady of Le Manoir

“Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons is the fulfilment of a personal vision, a dream that one day I would create a hotel and restaurant in harmony, where my guests would find perfection in food, comfort, service and welcome.”
Raymond Blanc O.B.E

Intelligent. Daring. Adventurous. All have been used to describe the cuisine at Le Manoir – and in my opinion, quite rightly so. The modern French menu has been described as “a twist of imaginative genius” and features Confit de Cabillaud, Suprême de Canard and Soufflé à la pistache. If the sound of these doesn’t tantalise your taste buds, I don’t know what will!

There are few people who have never heard of Raymond Blanc OBE – the world-renowned owner (Chairman and Chef Patron) of Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons and one of the country’s most respected chefs. RB (as he is known by his staff) created Le Manoir to fulfil “a personal vision” and has been delighting his guests there since 1984. Awarded two Michelin stars a year after opening, these have now been retained for an incredible 27 years (the only hotel ever to have done so).

It was with great anticipation that I left the dreaming spires of Oxford behind me and set off for Le Manoir. Despite the grey, gloomy English weather, nothing could dampen my spirits as I drove (somewhat bleary-eyed) down country lanes towards my destination, listening to Radio One’s very own ‘Moylesy’ (naturally). Nestled in the picturesque village of Great Milton, there isn’t a more perfect setting for one of Britain’s finest gastronomic experiences. Idyllically situated in 30 acres of land and surrounded by immaculate, manicured lawns there’s an orchard, lake and a two-acre vegetable and herb garden.

“Would you like your car valet parked, Madam?”, a smart gentleman in a waistcoat asked me on my arrival. “Hmm, probably not a good idea”, I thought to myself. Compared to the Mercs, Bents and Jags he was clearly used to driving, my car (VW Golf, Racing Green, Reg.’02) would have been a bit of a let down. Needless to say, I declined his kind offer. Being early, for once, I was presented with tea and biscuits (scrumptious!) in the drawing room. Roaring fire. Heavenly sofas. Pure luxury. I could have stayed there all day reading about English Country Homes & Gardens, fantasising that I was Lady of the Manor. However, reality came with a jolt when I was collected ten minutes later and ushered towards the kitchens… my day at Le Manoir had begun!
Kitted out from head-to-toe in chef’s cap, whites and ‘safety shoes’ (clodhoppers), I certainly looked the part. But did I feel it? Questionable. Recent experience working in a ‘Fawlty Towers’ hotel had given me some inkling of what to expect in a commercial kitchen, but now I was well out of my comfort zone. A tour of the kitchens followed with Executive Head Chef, Gary Jones. Then, I was put to work sorting salad leaves with Chef Chris. This proved to be slow work (for me). A tiny dot, mark or tear (or lack thereof) would determine the leaf’s fate: compost or plate. So there I was, contemplating what exactly constituted the “perfect” leaf, whilst Chris whizzed through his pile like Jenson Button on the Bugatti Circuit.

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Next, the canapé section with Chef Warren. Polishing 40 slates with sunflower oil was my second task of the day. Pointless? That’s what I thought at first. However, the resulting shiny-black-sheen persuaded me otherwise. Thus, the perfect backdrop had been created for the culinary show that was to ensue. Savoury profiteroles – light, yet crispy – had been piped full with chicken liver parfait-mousse and mango pureé. Little drops of heaven. Incredible! You’d have to try one to believe it, but these were something else. Next came quenelles of goat’s cheese. Perfectly shaped ovals complete with a stripe of honey, and toasted oats and fine black truffle powder atop. These rested on a delicate piece of toasted bread barely a millimetre thick. Another three canapés completed the masterpiece and we were nearly ready for service. At 11.45am, dishes were placed on the front kitchen counter for the head chef to taste and approve. Advice and criticism were duly offered. Despite the change of gear following first orders fifteen minutes later, operations remained smooth. Too used to watching a certain ‘celeb’ chef on the TV, I was expecting profanities to be uttered left, right and centre. But, no. For the next three hours the show continued in an orderly fashion.

I was next made responsible for arranging the previously sorted salad leaves on plates. Easy? Not quite. There is a certain technique to doing this, which I’d like to think I mastered by the end. Speed was also required -very testing for the perfectionist! Lunch service sped by and soon it was time to wipe down the surfaces and have a break. Here, I was able to talk to Kate, one of the only female chefs in this testosterone-fuelled kitchen team. Having studied Food Science at Dublin, she had gone on to work at the city’s Michelin-starred Chapter One before coming to Le Manoir. I was bowled over by her dedication; despite only having an hour off each day (with shifts from 8am til 11.30pm) she used most of her break to write her kitchen section’s shopping list.
Back from the break, my final task was making popcorn, a bar snack. Even this had a fancy twist to it and was tossed in vanilla salt. However, before it was deemed ready, I had to sift through the whole lot, removing any remaining un-popped kernels. Apparently, this had become a routine activity following an incident where a guest had chipped her tooth. This was a costly mistake for Le Manoir, which they clearly did not wish to repeat.

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The Guide Michelin describes a two-star restaurant as “table excellente, mérite un detour”. If your GCSE French doesn’t stretch this far (mine did not, so thanks freetranslation.com): “excellent cooking, worth a detour”. I can safely (and humbly) say that from what I saw, no one would, or could, walk away disappointed having eaten here. However, on a student budget this kind of luxury may have to be put on hold for now. Thankfully, Brasserie Blanc in Jericho (Walton Street) offers simple, high quality nosh at affordable prices. I would recommend going for the ‘Roast Sirloin Sundays’- £14.50 inc. a large glass of wine- delicious and a welcome change from eating in Hall.

Driving back to Oxford following my day at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons I realised how much I had learnt and how little I actually knew about cooking. The techniques used in professional kitchens of this calibre are so high-tech and the pace of activity so quick that even I, a reasonable home cook found it hard to follow. Sadly, Monsieur Raymond Blanc OBE, the great man himself, was not around when I visited. Perhaps I will have to accept the invitation to return and make sure I go when he is!