Joy To Behold: Raymond Blanc

SLIDESHOW: Raymond Blanc’s charmingly accident-prone nature is well known, but when it comes to plating and palate, Pierre White is adamant that he is without parallel.

Belmond Le Manoir in Oxfordshire, England, continues to be a monument to Raymond Blanc’s creative ingenuity.

This year marks four decades since Raymond Blanc, the most Anglophile of Frenchmen, moved from the town of his birth Besançon in Burgundy, to Oxford.

Ever since, he has helped define the joy of art de vivre for generations of guests at Belmond Le Manoir Aux Quat’Saisons, his legendary Oxfordshire manor-house hotel.

So when it comes to aesthetics there are few better placed to comment than a man who has held two Michelin stars for more than 30 years and personally overseen every detail of the interior and exterior development of his breath-taking property.

His is a mind and a vision that is cinematic in scale. Seemingly unable to sit still for too long, a whirlwind of energy, enthusiasm and passion, he derives as much joy explaining the angle of a tree in the Japanese corner of his garden as he does caressing a statue in one of the property’s unique suites, or ensuring that each plate served in the restaurant is perfectly constructed.

From an initial small and humble restaurant in Oxford, he then proceeded to open Belmond Le Manoir in 1984. This was not a time when being a chef was either cool or aspirational and ‘British cuisine’ was still largely an oxymoron. Blanc was set on changing the guest experience in a way that was revolutionary, as he explains during a walk around the garden that seems to be his greatest joy: “Back then the waiter wasn’t allowed to talk to the guests! I wanted to create somewhere joyful, fun, full of beauty; giving guests — strangers — a true experience, a moment to remember through our garden and the little touches.”

Back in 1984, one of the chefs working under Raymond was a young Marco Pierre White. He had already worked at London’s French temples to gastronomy La Tante Claire and Le Gavroche, but it was his time at Belmond Le Manoir that would subsequently make him into a three-star chef. Not that you’d initially think that Blanc was a master of aesthetics, as Pierre White explains: “When he wasn’t being a genius cook, he was a comedy act; a funny, accident-prone figure — like Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau.”

Blanc’s charmingly accident-prone nature is well known, but when it comes to plating and palate, Pierre White is adamant that he is without parallel: “Raymond is the most multi-dimensional chef this country has ever seen. No one has a palate like him. He is the only genius I ever met in the kitchen.”

High praise indeed from such a mercurial talent himself, but ask anyone in the world of British cooking and the chances are that you’ll hear the same. In a highly competitive industry, there seems to be nothing but respect and affection for Blanc.

He has always seemed one step ahead of his time. His culinary philosophy was led by the finest seasonal produce decades before it became fashionable — you only have to translate the full name of Belmond Le Manoir Aux Quat’Saisons to appreciate that. Embracing seasonality stemmed from his happy childhood and the food he ate at home: “From the earliest age I learnt the laws of the seasons, the cycles, the moods, the varietals. When I was seven, my mum would never say ‘get me some potatoes’ — she’d say get me some Bintje, some Ratte — for French fries, I knew it was Maris Piper.”

Today that impeccable produce grows in Le Manoir’s two-acre walled gardens where more than 70 types of herbs, 90 types of vegetable, orchards, fruit hedges, a ‘mushroom valley’ and more vie for space. These days, translating the produce on to the plate is the work of his executive chef Gary Jones, someone who has spent 18 years running the kitchens. As he explains, symmetry is critical when it comes to delivering plating that transcends the expected and is taken somewhere special: “When you are plating you always do odd numbers as symmetry helps and getting the balance is key to creating a dish. But the most important part of any dish is that it has to taste good. Raymond works with the season, so the fresh produce that is in season at the time will come together to create the perfect dish. Ultimately everything goes on a plate for a reason and that reason has to be flavour.”

It’s clear that plating at The Restaurant — the simply named dining venue at Le Manoir — follows rules but also allows for individual expression: “Chefs plate up to an agreed design to ensure consistency in the kitchen, but certain individuals have a more artistic eye than others, so it will come more naturally to them.”

A case in point comes in Blanc’s classic celebration of the finest seasonal produce, namely a confit of salmon with cucumber salad and horseradish cream. On paper, perhaps not the most innovative or difficult of plates, but when it appears, it is truly a dream of balance, colour and positioning.

“It is all about the quality of the ingredients and how each ingredient compliments each other. The idea was to create a light spring dish full of flavours and it has been a classic dish here at Belmond Le Manoir for many years.”

Blanc himself, modest as ever, explains the mission of Belmond Le Manoir in the simplest terms: “The heart and the soul and the deep vision here is about people: that I work with, train and support to make this a place of joy, excellence and beauty that we celebrate every day.”

It’s an ambitious mission, but one fulfilled daily without fail by England’s ultimate French aesthete.

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