Getting to the heart of the matter is very much what chef Raymond Blanc is about, with strong and passionate ideas about the food we eat and the four seasons that provide such variety—his philosophy backs this up and his enthusiasm proves to be an inspiration for so many. BY CHARLES FORD
Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons, set in the luxurious heart of the quintessentially English countryside not far from the dreaming spires of Oxford, is itself a dream of tranquillity, As the creator of this remarkable experience, chef Raymond Blanc has said, “Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons is the fulfillment 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.”
But, beneath this tranquillity, submerged below the view of visiting guests, there’s a strong current of electricity generated by French chef Raymond Blanc and his team that makes his personal vision a reality. It is this energy and attention to detail at every level, polished and precise, that makes Le Manoir’s ambiance unique and the dining experience unforgettable. But Le Manoir, well known for its luxurious setting and its haute cuisine, is just one part of French chef Raymond Blanc’s wider vision which includes the fine French tradition of Brasserie Blanc (now in eight towns and cities across the UK, www.brasserieblanc.com), and Maison Blanc, the authentic French boulangerie, pâtisserie and chocolaterie first launched in 1979 (www.maisonblanc.com).
Raymond Blanc has a passionate and profound involvement with the culinary arts (the word ‘cooking’ is simply inadequate). Central to his philosophy is to show the true value of the freshness and seasonality of the produce, the ingredients—from the earth and from the sea—that we should seek out to enhance our food, our health, and our lives.
“My heart has been in this since a very young age,” he says, “Maman Blanc was a huge, huge influence on me. In the kitchen, always busy. ‘Vite, vite!’ And she produced wonderful traditional French meals, using the freshest seasonal garden ingredients.” And it is these seasonal fresh ingredients that are the hallmark of Raymond Blanc’s cuisine, the influence of earlier years.
“Yes, when I was a boy living in Besançon, on the eastern side of France close to the Swiss border. As a boy, I was a forager! I knew where to go to collect the very best of all the wild produce. Sorrel, rocquet, asparagus, garlic, snails, frogs – everything. And of course mushrooms. My father had drawn a beautiful little map for me showing all the special, secret places. I kept it for many years (I wish I had it now!). Imagine, my large family of five… We didn’t have much money but we ate like kings! I’m proud to have helped my father build our house, which was surrounded by one acre of land (and land was cheap at that time and in that region of France)…”
At this point, the telephone in Raymond’s office rings for the fifth time. The maestro is exasperated: “… just send the details you promised… I am waiting, waiting… Don’t talk to me about cooking! What do you know about Jura cooking! Keep to your own business!” And bang, down goes the phone — this was the media attempting to tell Raymond how to write a recipe. “There,” says Raymond with wry smile, “now you see I have a temper, too!”
Then we are back on track, discussing the heart of the matter: “It is not enough for me to say, here are the ingredients, now we can go to work. No. You need to understand the ingredients, from the earth or from the farmyard. You need to know where they have come from, the varieties of the vegetables or fruit, how the animals were reared and even how they were killed (with no stress to the animal). From the earth to the plate, it’s a long chain that’s very important to understand.”
“Central to Raymond’s philosophy is to show the true value of freshness and seasonality of the produce, the ingredients—from the earth and from the sea—that we should seek out to enhance our food, our health, and our lives.”
A further interruption. A knock on the door. It’s a chef carrying one of Le Manoir’s postcard-sized oiled slates on which are placed seven canapés. Raymond looks critically at the assembled canapés. “Ah! I see something is wrong with this! Please tell me what it is.” The young chef shifts uncomfortably, silence. “It is this…” and he points to a tiny toast that has a slightly singed edge: “Mon petit, please connect your eyes with your brain all the time!” says Papa Blanc with a smile.
During our long conversation there are several more canapé interruptions and at one point Le Manoir Canapé Bible is produced. This is a large loose-leaf folder with hundreds of canapés photographed and catalogued, each one a unique creation – except: “This one!” Raymond takes a pen and strikes it through, “I have seen this one in another restaurant! We must always be original and not copy anything. You can take an idea for inspiration, but you must make the concept bigger and better, then it’s ok. And this one,” he continues, “try this with strands from a young Parmesan which has more moisture and is less salty, then the strands will melt together in a beautiful way. This one looks superb, look at those colours. Let us taste — fantastic!” The young chef has produced a winner!
“Yes,” he continues, “I do think canapés are very important. When people arrive for a special dinner, let’s say, canapés can raise the level of expectation. Here is something tiny and superb, a delight to the eye and delicious.”
This microscopic attention to detail is an integral part of the Raymond Blanc philosophy of food. This philosophy is shared with the generals of the brigade, Gary Jones (Executive Chef) and Benoit Blin (Chef Patissier), who share the vision and pass it on. Between them, Gary and Benoit have worked with Raymond for twenty-two years and Le Manoir has a management team retention of some 80 percent over the last ten years: “and that’s the secret of Le Manoir’s success,” says Raymond.
It is the seasonal aspects of Le Manoir’s menus that has inspired Raymond Blanc into an ambitious “home grown” enterprise, with a large part of the hotel’s extensive grounds having been given over to the cultivation of choice, organic vegetables, most of which are harvested for the fullest flavour when they are only half the size of those sold commercially. And following an inspirational meeting with Richard Edwards of the mushroom supplier, Humungous Fungus, Raymond and Head gardener, Anne Marie, are now developing a woodland area where speciality wild mushrooms can be grown naturally.
Farming methods and sustainability are topics close to Raymond Blanc’s heart, and he believes it’s important to be able to adapt and change our food choices according to season and availability. “We are flying produce thousands of miles!” he exclaims. “Strawberries! They have no taste! But at last we are seeing the return of some of the older varieties that have so much flavour. We are too used to having something whenever we want it. I find great pleasure in the seasonal availability of produce. Looking forward to when we lift the first new potatoes or pick those succulent green beans—now that’s something special. Let’s keep it that way, and reconnect food with our culture.”
Now, as we come in to the winter season, I’m keen to know if Raymond Blanc’s Christmas and winter seasonal menus are going to present something innovative, something a bit different…
“Look, in England, France, Germany, everywhere, people want and expect the same things at Christmas, and why not? Beautiful, traditional food.”
Not turkey, surely?
“But turkey can be wonderful! Buy a beautiful free-range turkey that has been well cared for, prepare it and cook it carefully, and it will be superb. Just take the trouble to find a the best supplier possible.”
And for a special winter dinner?
“Any game birds are perfect at this time. But let’s not forget the perfect roast chicken—or a slow roast with autumn/winter vegetables. Sensational!”
It’s hardly surprising that Raymond Blanc’s menus and his food philosophy are hugely appealing—seasonal, fresh and bursting with flavour, and uniquely creative—then there are the aspects of healthy eating, too…
“Escoffier, a wonderful chef of a hundred years ago. But if we cooked like that today people would be falling off their chairs. But there is a place for cream and butter in special dishes — poulet aux morilles, for examples begs for loads of cream— but it’s not for every day!”
The maestro’s enthusiasm is infectious and it’s easy to see why so many trainee chefs have fallen under his spell and gone on to become master chefs themselves, including an array of Michelin star chefs such as Marco Pierre White and Michael Caines. Within Raymond Blanc there’s a tremendously diverse energy going on, too, with Le Manoir itself, a growing number of Brasserie Blanc restaurants, the hugely popular and riveting television series, The Restaurant, and, most recently, a fascinating new book.
It’s clear that Raymond has put a huge effort into his bestselling new book, A Taste of My Life. It’s a book you can’t put down. It brings together the shifting picture of Raymond’s life, the challenges facing a self-made chef, the inspirations, successes and a few entertaining disasters—spiced, of course, with many great recipes.
“It’s more a foodography than autobiography,” says Raymond. “There are tasty food stories from the heartland of my kitchen and Maman Blanc’s kitchen. It’s about how I began to go into the heart of food, the essence of food and learning to love and appreciate it—from romantic frog hunting to the terror of opening my first restaurant, and all that has led to. At the centre of this is Maman Blanc who has been the strongest influence on my life as a chef, as I’ve said many times.” Not prepared to step back for a moment, Raymond is already planning his next book.
An abiding passion is passing on food lore and in a remarkably generous and open-handed way, knowledge to those of us who are receptive and inquisitive, because, as Raymond says, “Food is really the essence of our human makeup, it connects with who and what we are. It connects with what sort of society we want to create.”
This is a cry from the heart and I ask Raymond if being a Frenchman reinforces this passion.
“Yes, I’m very much a Frenchman at heart. But I’m probably a better Frenchman because I’ve been enriched by the multicultural approach to food in England.”
So, dear reader, read on, and be inspired by Raymond Blanc’s food philosophy, his passion for quality, and for our remarkable four seasons that inspire us to enjoy and appreciate the fresh perfection that’s available to us all if we take the trouble to seek it out, prepare with care—and cook from the heart!
A Taste of My Life by Raymond Blanc has been published by Transworld Publishers.