Raymond Blanc, OBE, is the 63-year-old, self-taught chef patron of, a hotel-restaurant in Great Milton, Oxfordshire, England — where the likes of Marco Pierre White trained — and the man behind the Brasserie Blanc chain of restaurants, 18 of which are now open in the UK. He emigrated to Britain from France in 1972, found a job at a restaurant in Newbridge, Oxfordshire, and later married the owner’s daughter.
Together they opened Les Quat’Saisons — the forerunner of Le Manoir — 35 years ago, famously along an alleyway between a lingerie shop and a charity shop. A Frenchman in the English countryside then still being rather exotic, some diners assumed by his thick native accent that he was from the gastronomic Mecca that is Liverpool. Despite this, his restaurant won the Egon Ronay Guide Restaurant of the Year, with two Michelin stars to follow.
While now deeply committed to life in Britain, his recommendation for a properly gastronomic Mecca would be the region of France from which he hails: Franche-Comte, a little known area in the east. There, he claims, there are 40 varieties of local cheese and cows “with udders the size of England”. He once nearly chocked to death eating live octopus. Next year sees him lead a festival of British chef talent in Paris. Here, he talks with Billionaire.com about his four decades in the culinary trade, and the vast changes that have occurred over that time.
Do you think, with intensive and factory farming, year-round supply and the like, we’ve lost touch with what good food is?
Absolutely. In the home where I grew up only my father was allowed to cut the bread. You had to earn the right to cut it. Everything was about respecting food — because a great deal of love went into it. That meant also loving the season — which is where the idea for the name of Le Manoir comes from — an idea which once had been lost but is now being rediscovered: there is a new respect for your own national produce, following your own seasons and eating nose to tail. People forget that it wasn’t that long ago when food was just a commodity — you couldn’t buy local. And if it was good it was exclusive. I’ve always thought food should be inclusive. Yes, Michelin-star food is a luxury item — let’s not forget that. But while people of renown come to Le Manoir, so do ordinary people for whom it’s a special occasion — that’s a celebration of food, glorious food, but also a reflection of new interest. We’re starting to print a book all about the ingredients we use in our dishes — because people are comforted to know where their food comes from. They don’t want it from one big factory.
You’re a Frenchman who’s made his career in Britain. Is the British reputation for having no regard for quality food still deserved?
I started out as a waiter but was looking for my talent as a chef — mediocrity scared me. So when I offered the chef some advice, the chef who was considered god-like, his moustache bristled and he hit me with a pan. It broke my jaw, my teeth, I lost my job but also my ego that day too. But it also meant I was exiled to England — but I came humbly, not as Napoleon. English lack of respect for cooking then was frightening. I remember, in the early days, when two suited businessmen came in and I was overjoyed. Then they sat down and covered everything with salt. I wanted to murder them. It was a lesson then in what I was up against. Since then England has found a truth in its own food — and while I’m 100 percent French, I have come to fall under the influence of the culture. I can now laugh about myself — not much, but I can — and I’ve learned how to lose better. They’re both British qualities.
Much must have changed about the restaurant world during your 35 years in the business.
The industry has changed radically since Le Manoir opened — kitchens used to all be about screaming, muscle, putting people down, which made young people very fearful of entering the business. But the industry is now realising it has a duty to educate and encourage. French food has changed too — it’s still innovative but it’s less showy. It’s not about trying to do 25 different things with a dish any more. But there are still changes that need to be made in gastronomy in general. It really can’t be business as usual anymore, because we’re going to hit a wall. Ethics need to be at the core of cooking, it has to be conscious of its craft but also of sustainability. But that makes good commercial sense too.
You’ve recently gained a higher profile on TV, through your BBC series ‘Kitchen Secrets’ and ‘The Very Hungry Frenchman’, which have been sold internationally. Why are so many chefs on TV now?
Well, it’s not essential to business but there’s no doubt that being on TV brings customers in — more than you can take, really. Branding is important. With my first restaurant I put a plastic cockerel outside it so everyone would understand that it was French — and that was the best bit of branding I’ve ever done.
You have to grow a brand that’s not dependent on TV of course, because the call to be on TV will stop eventually. And there’s plenty of bad cooking TV — for 10 years I wouldn’t go near it. It was all just so shallow and negative — it never attempted to discuss the true values of food, or to give the viewer real knowledge, other than how to put a recipe together. That’s changing now, though. We have to encourage people to have a passion for food — especially for the industry. Because it’s a killer industry. It may sound obvious, but everything has to be done by hand. You can’t work it into a 35-hour week. You do that in two days sometimes. It’s tough. But it’s good.