Raymond Blanc OBE is by all accounts aculinary genius, and one of the world’smost respected chefs. He is also entirely self-taught; a refreshing career model in today’s education-orientated world.Born and raised in a small village in the Franche-Comté region of eastern France, Raymond Blanc’s entire culinary ethos, which has revolutionised British cooking and reawakened the notion of the Kitchen Garden, is inspired and deeply connected to his humble French roots.
Indeed, he tells me some of his favourite dishes are ones that Maman Blanc made when he was young. “I have recreated them today, and they instantly transport me back. Sometimes, it’s a real Madeleine moment – like in Proust’s À La Recherche Du Temps Perdu!”
Blanc has strong connections with Oxford, and arrived here in 1972 as a humble waiter at a local restaurant, the Rose Revived. His latent passion for food was revealed when he infamously angered the chef by trying to give him cooking advice. He worked here for a while, until one day the chef was ill, and Blanc had to take over the kitchen. The rest, they say, is history.
Remaining in Oxford with his young wife, Raymond Blanc opened his fi rst restaurant in Summertown in 1977. It hasn’t always been smooth sailing, and he and his wife had to mortgage their house and borrow from dozens of people to cover start-up costs for this tiny restaurant, squeezed between a lingerie shop and Oxfam.
Blanc makes it clear that the restaurant business is one of the toughest businesses around, and the pressure can definitely take its toll. “You must be brave and maybe a little mad. Even when you’re in, the struggle isn’t over. You have to be a craftsman, a manager of money, of people, of any situation that life may throw at you. If you have a true vocation and this is what you want, I mean what you should do, then that’s great.”
His ambition and passion has paid off, however, and he now runs many hugely successful, world-famous restaurants. The name of his fi rst restaurant in Summertown, Aux Quat’Saisons, has been nostalgically preserved, and is echoed in the name of the two-Michelin-star palace in Oxfordshire, Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons.
Le Manoir prides itself on cooking local, seasonal food, and Blanc is keen to tell me all about the principles behind is success. “Seasonal and sustainable produce is vital – to me and my team at Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, and to everyone,” he says enthusiastically. His mother, the formidable Madame Blanc, always cooked with the produce from their own garden, and food that his father had hunted, fi shed or foraged. Using fresh, seasonal produce is what Blanc is accustomed to, and his high standards are refl ected in every aspect of his kitchen. He believes that people are starting to understand again that food is connected with everything – with the environment, society, the farm, home, family values, the health of the nation. “It is truly exciting to see people start to respect food, enjoy food and give it value – long may that last!”
Blanc is president of the Sustainable Restaurant Association, and a passionate advocate of the organic gardening movement that has exploded in Britain over the last decade. He is trying to raise awareness about using our local suppliers to get the freshest produce; using our local butchers, greengrocers, and having food markets to visit. Oxford is a haven for fresh fruit and vegetables, and the Wednesday market in Gloucester Green, among others, is a testimony to cheap and delicious produce available to everyone. Similarly, the OxGrow campaign in east Oxford, where local families and Oxford students alike spend weekends growing, harvesting and eating their own plants, is exactly the sort of small-scale project he supports. Blanc is currently working with Love British Food on their Bring Home the Harvest campaign that does just this; encourages communities to work together to highlight local suppliers and buy their produce.
Le Manoir has also been praised for growing a huge variety of vegetables and herbs in its stunning gardens, and specifi cally for bringing back herbs which are not commonly used today. Wandering around the stunning grounds of Le Manoir in the afternoon sunshine, I find hedgerows of wild berries, beds of tiny strawberries, and rows and rows of nurtured, rare vegetables growing in the rich soil.
Many of the ingredients at Le Manoir come from the adjacent two-acre kitchen garden, that is home to some 90 types of vegetable and an impressive 70 varieties of herb. The mushroom garden alone sprouts around 20 diff erent species. One of my favourite sections is the herb garden, where I pick and smell hundreds of subtly diff erent varieties of mint, thyme, coriander and rosemary, crushing them in my hands and breathing in their potent smells. Their witch-doctor-esque powers, I later discover, are more than just myth, and Blanc is at the forefront of a new initiative to revive the use of herbs in cooking for their medicinal properties as well as their natural fl avour enhancement.
In 2006, a new dimension was added to the kitchen garden in the form of a Malaysian Garden. Subtly woven into the existing design of these stately English gardens, diff erent varieties of herbs and spices such as ginger, lemon grass and turmeric grow together with vegetables and pulses such as pak choi and soya beans, as well as squashes and the exotic purple lablab beans.
In Asia lemongrass is like our mint, Blanc tells me, and there is plenty of it everywhere. It has its own fl avour, smell, character; it is very diff erent from all other lemon plants that I know. It was his trip to Thailand and Malaysia that inspired Blanc to try growing lemongrass in the gardens at Le Manoir, but it took some time to get it right. “I had to try 25 varieties before I could fi nd one that could resist the British weather.”
Among other things, Blanc is a pioneer of creating new culinary sensations and novel combinations out of traditional old favourites, and I am keen to fi nd out what inspires and drives his creations. As a chef, it is crucial that Blanc travels and discovers new ingredients. He tells me that if you are able to bring three completely new fl avours together, it’s like giving a painter extra primary colours. You imagine the new dishes you can create. “To me, food is about displacement and discovering something new and alive and herbs enable you to do this. Herbs have long held a holistic place in our wellbeing. We depend on them to purify our body, mind and soul!”
The menus at Le Manoir change with the seasons, and Blanc and his team spend a huge amount of time deciding what to cook to refl ect what is growing in the gardens, what animals are being hunted, and what people want to eat in response to the weather outside. To create new dishes takes time, inspiration and confi dence, he tells me. “I have travelled all over the world and can honestly say that I’ve learnt something from every single place I have visited. My travels help me to experience new ingredients and fl avours and often, the most simple ingredients can be the most eff ective and memorable. For example, I adore the hawker markets in Hong Kong and Singapore.”
These markets indeed use local ingredients recipe traditions that have been used for generations, and the people come up with the most wonderful and sublime dishes. “You just can’t beat experiences like that and when I return to my beloved Le Manoir, I like to use them as inspiration and add a little twist of my own!” As one of the most discerning cooks in the world, I am interested to know which restaurants Blanc likes to go to when he eats out, and what he thinks makes a good restaurant. At first he avoids the question, telling me that there are so many he loves, and he couldn’t possibly choose.
For him, it takes an ensemble of things to make a good restaurant, and food alone is not enough. A good restaurant, Blanc believes, should have ambience, warmth, a true ‘food and people’ culture, staff who care and food that makes you dream. True to his humble French beginnings, Blanc enjoys simple and wholesome food such as Morteau saucisson, Comté cheese, homemade preserves and crusty bread. He is a connoisseur of fi ne ingredients cooked to an exquisite standard, rather than of pretentious and ambitious fi ne dining that is vacuous in fl avour and quality. For him, it is the ability to take simple ingredients and turn them into the most delicious recipes that takes a chef from good to exceptional.
So what are Blanc’s favourite restaurants? In the end, he picks three. Firstly, Le Vin et l’Assiette, situated in Blanc’s hometown, is owned by a close friend, Bernard Leroy. He has a huge wine cellar too, and the most amazing French hospitality. In accordance with Blanc’s nature, it is fi tting that he chooses a local restaurant with an excellent tradition of high standards as his first choice.
On the other hand, Blanc also believes that Heston Blumenthal has been very instrumental in redefi ning a certain aspect of cooking, namely molecular gastronomy, and Blanc is very fond of his celebrated restaurant, The Fat Duck. Interestingly, Blumenthal spent time as an apprentice of Blanc at Le Manoir, so perhaps he sees something of his own ethos in the younger chef.
Finally, Blanc describes the “amazing proliferation of small bistros with real character” in Paris, and singles out Le Beurre Noisette as a personal favourite, very simple, but elegant. Looking back over his many years of success, development and incredibly hard work with more than a tinge of nostalgia, Blanc offers me perhaps the most poignant and interesting nugget of all; a single piece of advice that he wishes to impart on me and all other students: “Stick at it! I worked hard and didn’t give up. At times I was [so] exhausted that I thought I couldn’t do it anymore but I did, and the advice would be: stick at it”