Speaking to Raymond Blanc is a bit like speaking to France itself. Except, as he’s only too eager to point out, he has a sense of humour. “I can laugh about myself, zee French cannot laugh about themselves, zee English can.”
I like him already.
And it’s a sense of humour that’s infectious. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from one of the most respected chefs in Britain whose Michelin-starred country manor in Oxfordshire, Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, has been attracting culinary enthusiasts from all over the world for almost 25 years. From TV series to bestselling books, Blanc has had his finger in lots of pies, despite being entirely self-taught. My stereotypical preconceptions of Blanc as a Frenchman prepared me for him to enter with baguette proudly in hand, beret firmly on head and body buried beneath a sea of red, white and blue. In reality he was sporting none of these colours and I was greeted with one of the most optimistic and energetic 63-year-olds I’ve ever met.
So Raymond Blanc doesn’t seem to be too much like the French stereotype – until he opens his mouth and a thick accent fires out with full force (despite his somewhat dubious claim that somebody once mistook him for a Liverpudlian). He’s romantic, though more in his love of family and people than in the sensual sense of the word (in fact he’s probably one of the least pervy Frenchmen I’ve ever encountered, though he does state with confidence, “I love sex”). For him food is about sharing and reconnecting with nature, with “terroir.” His passion for these values seems genuine and it’s contagious as he bounces around in his talk at The Union like there’s no tomorrow. Except tomorrow is exactly what he has faith in. “I’m an optimist and I believe in people.”
So what is it about France that first inspired Blanc’s passion for food? “There’s this deep understanding about seasonality, about produce, about creating a moment for the family. Food was a totally integrated part of life for me from a very early stage. It was about family, about joy. It was the greatest introduction to food I could possibly have had.”
And there’s the difference between France and Britain. But Blanc believes, sadly, that this is changing; “We are losing a great heritage. Women are working now; they have to be everything – the lover, the carer, the cook, so now there’s very little cooking done at home. France would do very well to look at Great Britain and the nightmare that it’s caused us, so as not to make the same mistake.” At first I think he’s referring to France when he speaks of the “nightmare”; he is, of course, quick to correct me. “No no, in Britain!” Excusez-moi, Monsieur, a nightmare?
“Malnutrition, a terrible food chain, ill health, chemicals everywhere in food, a food chain you cannot trust. Look what’s happened with the contamination of horse meat.” Okay, point made.
I can’t resist asking about the reaction to this whole scandal by a nation hardly averse to tucking in to the odd bit of horse themselves. Suffice to say that Marie-Antoinette’s well-known cliché “let them eat cake” has now become, he tells me with a smile, “let them eat horse. Let them laugh a bit at your expense, it’s part of L’Entente Cordiale you know.” Well, I said he had a sense of humour.
So what’s the worst thing Blanc’s ever eaten? Fish fingers. “I will remember it all my life. I wanted to taste first hand some British gastronomy. So I ordered my fish fingers and it arrived in about 40 seconds. The waiter poured some vinegar onto my chips and I started to cough. My chips were grey, like the weather outside.” And even worse? “The fish was square! In our fish you have the head, the tail, it looks like a fish”. Fish that looks like fish? A bizarre concept indeed.
Yet Blanc is optimistic about the future of British cuisine. “I think the future of the top gastronomy is exciting. Because what the French have is a heritage. Whereas Britain doesn’t.” So this is where the real difference lies between France, home to frogs’ legs, and Britain, home to fish fingers. “But what Britain has is a multi-cultural approach to food, and that is its strength. I think in the long term Britain is going to be an even more creative country, because it doesn’t have that notion of tradition which you have to drive along. Now the British are understanding the true values of gastronomy, produce, seasonality, so now it’s exciting. I see the pubs becoming the hubs of localities.”
When I ask him more generally about cultural differences he goes off on one about the Normans and the Latins and the Anglo-Saxons and all of a sudden I feel like I’m in a history lesson. “In every good British person there’s at least 50 per cent of a Frenchman.” He’s clearly more than a little proud of his heritage; yet he’s forthcoming in admitting their weaknesses. “The English can listen but the French can’t. I think the French have a stronger pride. T h e French are much more outspoken…the British are more prudish.” And then in a flash he’s back to his more patriotic side: “of course we play very good rugby, but you do as well, although you keep losing at the moment.” Again, it seems 30 years in Britain has provided him with a sufficient command of dry British humour. Blanc knows how to take the piss.
Fortunately he knows how to do so to himself too. I ask him how his career began, expecting glamorous tales of being spotted by a world-famous chef who just knew Blanc would make it big. Not quite the case. “I didn’t become a chef, I became the best cleaner, then I became the best glass washer, then I became the best waiter, but then I told the chef who I saw as a colleague that his sauces were a bit too salty, and he smashed a frying pan in my face, which broke my jaw and my teeth and I ended up in hospital. So at the age of 21 I’d lost my job, my teeth and my ego, and I was exiled to Great Britain.” Blanc is nothing short of hyperbolic. “So obviously I didn’t come here to conquer!”
Yet his “exile” gave him the chance to get nimble in the kitchen. “From the moment I took up the frying pan I knew where my destiny was. The same frying pan which knocked me down was really the one which was instrumental to my own success.”
So what, for Blanc, is the key to success? “Talent is important, but hard work, dedication, total consistency – and of course working with people, and curiosity; ask questions until you’re exhausted!” I take it that’s the go-ahead to carry on grilling him.
I’m interested to know how much input Blanc actually has on his restaurants these days. “Quite a lot, I assure you.” He’s proud of his work on Le Manoir. “I designed all my rooms, I designed my gardens. I’m a control freak really. There’s this complete investment in creating something beautiful, which of course is going to make money. After all, it’s a business. But there’s a very powerful ethics within it. Everyone must not only share it but own it; because if you own it, it’s so much easier for me as well, because it’s yours.” In fact Blanc is anything but your standard businessman, railing against the corporate life with almost utopian dreams of a better world.
However, this didn’t stop Blanc from launching a TV career with his series The Restaurant in 2007. But Blanc claims he wasn’t keen. “The BBC’s idea was to choose the worst possible misfits who couldn’t possibly cook, so at the end I had to open a restaurant with two or three hundred thousand pounds of my own money, and to work with people who couldn’t cook. It messed up my life for about three or four years.” But a turning point came in the last series and he opened up a cocktail bar with the winners. Blanc has since starred in two other series, Kitchen Secrets and The Very Hungry Frenchman which sees Blanc returning to France to show us the country that inspired his love of food.
I’m aware that Blanc missed his daughter’s wedding in Barbados because he was too busy with work. How hard is it to balance personal life with public life? “Well I’ve had two divorces and two strokes. It’s tough, it is tough, of course it is, yeah.” Blanc swiftly tries to shift the conversation away and moves onto talking about his passion for people.
“When I do an interview, I connect with someone and hopefully the interviewer is listening. If you weren’t attentive I’d walk out. You know if the interviewer is listening and if they’ve done their homework.” Bloody good job I’d done my homework!
So gastronomy for Blanc is a means of connecting with others, it is a “people business.” It should be inclusive (though I’m a little dubious as to how far a student overdraft would stretch during a weekend away at Le Manoir). “Gastronomy is as much a beautiful, simple tomato salad as a three star Michelin meal. Gastronomy is fundamental to good life, to better society, to better sharing, to better communication, to better health. It connects with everything, and if we start to value food better in this country we will have maybe 50 billion fewer problems than we have at the moment.”
So it turns out gastronomy is more than just a question of shoving a sausage in a frying pan; it is a question of enhancing quality of life and, for Blanc, achieving a moment of perfection. “If you’re very lucky like I was, then after having built something up, layer upon layer, day after day, month after month, you may reach intensity, you may touch it for a few seconds, and that’s the most intense moment of your life. And you will know it yourself; you do, you truly do, whether it’s an interview or a piece of writing or whatever.” Now I may not be experiencing the most intense moment of my life as he says this but I am nevertheless feeling positively inspired.
Blanc tells me about the Art de Vivre Festival he is planning for Le Manoir, a way of giving people a chance to reconnect with the environment and encouraging young people to speak out. The festival is Blanc’s own way of helping to promote change; he has a strong vision for the future and he’s not afraid to voice it. “I see things becoming more ethical. I see people embracing things, discovering technologies, forming dynamism, and we have to listen very carefully to food. Two million young kids are dying every year. Is it acceptable? Is it really acceptable? It’s not, it is not.”
It seems Blanc’s vision extends far beyond the borders of the kitchen. It is about changing the way we perceive food. Yet I can’t help thinking there’s something slightly contrived in all this – does he really believe in all these phrases he’s churning out? Can one of the most successful businessmen in Britain really claim to be anti-business? Then again, maybe I’m just being a British cynic. In which case, Britian, we’ve got a lot to learn from Blanc.