The world-famous chef, Raymond Blanc, arrived in England in 1972, and began his remarkable career working as a waiter at the Rose Revived Restaurant near Witney. He made great strides and opened his first restaurant Les Quat’ Saisons in Summertown, Oxford. And in 1984, the inimitable hotel and restaurant Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons came into being which over the past 23 years has retained two Michelin stars and been selected as one of the AA’s top 200 hotels in the world. Blanc’s empire also includes the chain of Brasseries Blanc, the only chain of moderately priced restaurants in Britain to achieve Michelin’s Bib Gourmand, and the Patisserie Maison Blanc chain of bakeries and patisseries. He recently presented The Restaurant TV show. He is also the author of the bestsellers “Cooking For Friends”, “A Blanc Christmas”, “Recipes from Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons”, “Blanc Vite”, “Foolproof French Cookery” and the culinary autobiography “A Taste of My Life”. Last year Raymond was awarded an honorary OBE for services to the British food industry. “I am proud to have my contribution to the British food industry recognised in such a privileged way and I look forward to contributing so much more in the future,” he said when being presented with the award.
So how did a French boy who arrived in London at 25 come to find all doors open for him, get an OBE, and have a two-Michelin-starred restaurant running for 31 years?
It all started in my family: my father was a communist - an atheist who hated God, and mum was a guilty Catholic. They were two opposites in politics and religion but the same when it came to food. So, the food was at the heart of my family. We were a working-class family with five kids - there was not much money around. But we had a big garden - one and a half acres where we grew vegetables. So, at a young age I learnt about seasonal food, its varieties et cetera. We were in a beautiful region next to Burgundy with its wines and cheeses - everything was organic. My mother was a fantastic cook, a very creative chef, and I was her apprentice who wasn’t allowed to cook on my own. She taught my sisters how to do it but I watched very carefully.
Did you know in childhood you’d become a chef?
I was trained to be a draftsman in France and hated the profession - I had no engineering mind. I believed that I had a gift but it took me many years to find it. I didn’t see myself as a chef - men were always seen at the table and women in the kitchen. But it was the happiest moment in my life when I was looking through the window on the terrace of a restaurant and made the decision to become a chef. I was 21 years old and next day I went there for an interview: I was too excited and maybe too straightforward, so the manager turned me down. But I came back and said that I would do everything, even be a cleaner. And that’s where I started - polishing, scrubbing, and sweeping. Then I became a glass-washer, and then I was allowed near food, then I went to criticise the chef, and got into a fight. I was sacked.
Your hotel and restaurant Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons in Great Milton has been praised for years for its excellence, you have the chain of Brasserie Blanc, and you have fourteen bakeries. Do you really find time to run things at Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons yourself?
I do, and I pay great attention to details. I absolutely revel in detail. Everything - a single painting, even a beam of light on it, the fabrics - I choose them all. There is a Japanese garden here which I organised after I came back from Japan. I fell in love with kimonos, silks, calligraphy, food, and they inspired me. I use textures and tastes from different countries to enrich my culture, not to confuse it. I wanted to create a place which would celebrate taste - in style and in food. Modern guests are exhausted: when they come to the restaurant they want to relax. Maximum minimalism goes against human nature. I have tried to create a special atmosphere of complete welcome in Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons. I create menus for all my businesses - I find time for all this because I have a wonderful team. My chef has worked with me for 27 years; my managing director understands my vision.
Your wife Natalia is Russian. Do you find it easy to understand Russians?
We have been together for seven years and I love her very much. What I love about her is that she is not using her beauty to get people’s attention. And I love her Russian sense of humour. Natalia cooks Russian cuisine for me – she’s a very good cook now –her dishes are simple but delicious. When friends come around I usually cook. I think I will create a special Russian-inspired dish for her in my menu. It will be all about textures, maybe a dessert made of thin layers that will just melt on her tongue.
Do you ever argue with Natalia about food?
If we argue, it is most times about food. When I met her, all I could find in her fridge were bottles of Dom Perignon, a couple of organic tomatoes, some oil - shocking! But she grew up in a country where she had to queue for some bread and milk, and used the same tea leaves to brew tea two or three times. In Russia, you also have a short crop season, and the climate is extreme. So, the food culture in Russia is different from that in France which is the seventh biggest agricultural country in the world. They call it “the belly of Europe”, and food is in the heart of our nation.
How come French people eat a lot, including bread, but there aren’t many fat people in the country?
It’s called a French paradox. These good looks are achieved through good nutrition. The French eat a lot of bread, meat, butter but also lots of vegetables, fruit, and drink wine. We are relatively small, and have good health. This is because the quality of the food is very high, and it’s not heavily processed. And French women watch their weight and diet, and are very disciplined. French women don’t drink anywhere near as much as the English binge-drinkers. Now we are starting to get the problem of obesity that the UK and the US have because we eat more and more refined food which lacks fibre, and has a high glycemic index.
Do you agree that the English restaurant scene has changed a lot and become more varied?
From the 70’s to the 80’s, food wasn’t part of the culture in England. You have to go to the 17th century to find some good, simple, traditional cooking. The Brits lost their Empire, their brands, didn’t have a food culture. And when Margaret Thatcher restored the nation’s faith in itself, she brought the country together and made it commercially successful. Now there’s many good restaurants in London.
You have two sons. What are they doing?
Both are actors. Olivier is 32 - he didn’t know what to do, tried TV where he was an assistant to a director but didn’t like it. My other son did an international law degree in commerce in French and English – a very different mind. Then he decided that there was no creativity in that profession and said he wanted to be an hotelier and create his own enterprise. I got him the best people to help him and then he said his gift was to be an actor. He went to Australia to study and did very well.
You are a good chef and a business person, and now with all your talents you’ve started this TV programme where the winners get to open restaurants. How can you tell these particular people will be good?
The programme is a cooking competition for nine couples, and during each programme I eliminate one of them. I fulfil many roles in my business - as a designer, a nutritionist, an accountant, so I can see people’s weak and strong points. I had a vision about Le Manoir but I wasn’t a businessman – I’ve learnt how to find people who understand me. In the competitors I am looking for an ability to deal with stress, work with each other, and pass their vision on to other people, be able to delegate responsibilities. The programme makes people believe it is possible to become a successful chef in two months, and it is not true. So, they go through vigorous training but I can’t be too hard on them because they might break. I have to train them and make them strong.