Raymond Blanc on his ethics and thoughts on sustainability
PUBLISHED: 11:54 03 September 2019
Sarah Rodi joined Raymond Blanc, one of the finest chefs in the world, for an evening of food, wine and conversation, and heard all about his good fortune, ethics and thoughts on sustainability
Growing up in eastern France, Raymond Blanc didn't know what he wanted to do as a career. "I studied architecture, but I knew it wasn't for me. Then I became an apprentice nurse, but I realised that wasn't right for me either. Although I did have some fun in the cupboard with the other nurses!" he laughs wickedly. "And working in a factory - that was the most dehumanising moment of my life."
Then, late one evening, Raymond was walking past a restaurant called Le Palais de la Bière. "It was extraordinary. The waiters were wearing Bordeaux jackets with silver epaulettes, there were French cheeses and intimate conversations... it was like watching a ballet. And that's when I decided what I was going to do. I would be a great chef, creating beautiful food."
It made sense. His grandmother and mother were good cooks. And Raymond had always loved gardening, foraging or fishing, growing or finding ingredients for his mother's meals. "But back then, there weren't many male chefs," says Raymond. "Women cooked in the home, not men."
And when Raymond went into Le Palais de la Bière to ask for a job... "The old boy looked at me and said you can be a cleaner!" laughs Raymond. "I took the job though and became the best cleaner they'd had. The toilets were like Versailles! I then became the washer-upper. And for two months I was the best at washing dishes. And my work ethic meant I soon became a waiter. I learnt a lot about team work and how a restaurant is run. And this, I think, is why I have become a success. I know a team has to work together, with everyone giving their best."
When Raymond was in the kitchen, he began to taste the sauces and would make suggestions to the Head Chef, who didn't like this. "He hit me round the head with a frying pan and knocked me unconscious. I woke up in hospital with a broken jaw. I'd lost my job and was exiled to Great Britain. But I still had a dream..." says Raymond.
Raymond became a waiter at The Rose Revived in Oxfordshire, and when the chef fell ill, he stepped in, cooking with the very frying pan that had broken his jaw! "The pan that broke my jaw made my dream," he says. And the crowds soon flooded in.
Raymond went on to launch his own small restaurant in Oxford, called Les Quat'Saison. "I used cheap red and white tablecloths and put a statue of a cockerel out the front so people knew it was French. I cooked and I loved it. And I went on to win two Michelin stars there," he says.
Then Raymond fell in love with a manor house, just outside Oxford. "I drove there in my green Vauxhall and knocked on the door. A lady came out, who I thought was the cleaner. It wasn't, it was Lady Cromwell, and I told her I wanted to buy her house!" he says. "And to my surprise, when I told her my name, she invited me in and agreed to sell it to me. There's always luck in life."
Raymond bought the manor house and named it Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons and the rest, they say, is history. Belmond Le Manoir is now one of the top dining destinations in the country. It has retained two Michelin stars for over 30 years.
Raymond also launched a restaurant brand, Brasserie Blanc, which has more than 20 restaurants in the UK. "I wanted to create somewhere with affordable food, but still quality food. Brasserie Blanc uses the same suppliers as Le Manoir," he says.
The Executive Head Chef of the Brasserie Blancs is Clive Fretwell - the former Executive Head Chef at Belmond Le Manoir. "I love him," says Raymond. "He is a blessed man. And four times a year, we lock ourselves in the kitchen and cook, creating the menus together using sustainable and seasonal French food."
Recently, they have revamped the brasseries - and I met him in the sophisticated Beaconsfield restaurant. "We've made some aesthetic changes," he says. "We've removed the tablecloths to make it less formal too." The intimate bar is a cosy meeting place and there is a large restaurant with an atrium ceiling and banquettes.
"We've invested in more training so that the staff are knowledgeable and loyal. I believe in hard work. I also believe food, and sharing it, is an act of love. A celebration. And I hope I have translated these feelings into all my restaurants," says Raymond.
All the dishes on Raymond's new Brasserie Blanc menu have flavours from around the world, celebrating his love of travel, such as the Moroccan meze and Indian spiced samosas, lamb tagine and Malabar fish curry, and classic French dishes. "I've enriched myself from my travels," he says.
On the menu tonight, he tells me the heritage tomato salad starter was inspired by the tomatoes his mother used to grow. "My mother is quietly proud of me," he says. Especially as Raymond was awarded the insignia of Chevalier in the Ordre National de La Légion d'Honneur and also an OBE by Her Majesty the Queen,for promoting culinary excellence and raising awareness of the importance of healthy food.
In 1991, he established The Raymond Blanc Cookery School and, in 2017, the Raymond Blanc Gardening School. "33 Michelin-star chefs have been taught at my training school," he says.
He is Culinary Consultant to Ascot Racecourse and he's also the President of the Sustainable Restaurant Association. "Of which I am very much involved," he says. "And we now have 7,500 members. We discuss how we choose our suppliers, we train, we manage waste, discuss wages and we're a community. We were part of the negotiation with the Government about the School Food Plan so every child in Britain gets a good lunch. We must make the consumer responsible for what they're buying. Knowledge is about empowerment."
A champion of good ethics, I can't think of anyone better to lead the way in promoting sustainable practices.
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