A Matter of Taste

19th July 2013

As a new series – Raymond Blanc: How To Cook Well – hits the nation’s television screens, Al Gordon meets a man on a mission to help us all master the basics

The lunch service looms at Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons, a heavenly Michelin-starred hotel-restaurant set in the tranquillity of the Oxfordshire village of Great Milton. The kitchen’s brigade of chefs chop and slice, and in the dining room beyond the sliding doors, the tables are being swiftly laid by a regiment of waiting staff. But the general of this imposing army, is in a panic, a muddle. He’s lost his glasses. “I can see without them, but not that well,” says Raymond Blanc. “I seem to spend more time searching for my glasses than I do wearing them. I’ve got about 50 pairs but still they vanish.”

Blanc, 63, is a compelling character, once described by his protégé, Marco Pierre White (who trained under Blanc at Le Manoir in the mid-80s) as “part culinary genius, part Inspector Clouseau.” This entertaining Frenchman is a tireless bundle of creative energy. Aside from Le Manoir, he has 18 Brasserie Blanc restaurants, is culinary director of Eurostar’s Business Premier Class, has just finished filming his new TV series and is the president of the Sustainable Restaurant Association. He has an OBE, and is the author of best-selling cook books and his gastronomic must-read memoir, A Taste of My Life.

It is four decades since he crossed the Channel, leaving his home in Besançon, in the Franche-Comté region of France, to become a champion of the British food revolution. As a teenager he had studied to become an architect “but realised I hated symmetry so architecture wasn’t for me – I hate squares and rectangles”.

He shrugs off the experience in typical Gallic style. “I looked for my passion in life and eventually I found it in a beautiful restaurant in Besançon. I did not begin as a chef. First, I was given the position of cleaner. But from the moment I started to clean I put all of my heart into it. I made that restaurant look like the Palace of Versailles.”

His career in France came to an abrupt and painful end when he dared to question the head chef. “I said his sauce might need a bit more pepper and that was that. He was a giant of a man and whacked me across the face with a frying pan. I lost a couple of teeth and broke my jaw. But the restaurant’s owner found me a job in Oxfordshire.”

When Blanc arrived in Britain in the early 70s, the restaurant scene was in a dreadful state. “Strikes… doom and gloom… Restaurants were not good.” Those were the days when if you wanted olive oil you had to buy it over the counter at the chemist, he recalls. “In my French culture food had always been inclusive. In Britain food was exclusive. Remember, Britain was an empire which was founded by the wealthy. Catering was considered unimportant. If you were a chef then it meant you were a social outcast.”

He opened his first restaurant, Les Quat’ Saisons in Oxford, with his first wife, Jenny, daughter of the man who’d given him a job when he exiled himself. It was an instant hit. They went on to open Maison Blanc, a patisserie-bakery that heralded a chain. And then Monsieur and Madame Blanc transformed an ancient manor house into Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons.

“When I looked around me, I saw many opportunities. I had a strong food culture which my parents had given to me, and it made sense for me to use it. But I was in the right country…” In Blanc’s opinion, the British are extremely open to new ideas. “They are experimental. And they are great supporters of the underdog. And if anyone was an underdog then it was me.”

He says he’s not a businessman. “Nothing happened over-night. I was the craftsman – the artisan – but at the same time I was the opportunist. It was a case of creative heart versus business brain. I have always remained an artisan [and] I have surrounded myself with businessmen – professionals who are the best in their fields. Running a business is frightening.”

Despite an awareness of a paucity of basic skills in the nation’s domestic kitchens – hence How To Cook Well – he has a great deal of respect for the professionals. “So much creativity,” he says. “Despite the recession, a vast number of young chefs are complete – by which I mean they understand about ethics, business and design and the real values of gastronomy. Without question, British chefs are now as good as any chefs in other parts of the world.”

Does he consider himself French or British? “Oh, a true Frenchman…but I love Britain, though I’ve had to get used to the cultural differences. For instance, in Britain anglers put the fish back in the water. In France we’d eat them.”

He has both emotional and practical regard for good ethics and sustainability: “I really believe that [they] will translate into good business. I am the architect of these businesses but I am also a micro idiot. I spend a great deal of time poring over the details. Sometimes so much so that I can get lost.” And he’s reminded himself, “I need to find my glasses.”

In the middle of a sentence about the philosophy behind Brasserie Blanc (“ great food at a good price… produce from a sustainable source… the warmest of welcomes…”) he stands and darts towards the kitchen door. “The car, the car,” he says. “The glasses must be in the car.”

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