Raymond Blanc: The man for all seasons

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Michelin-starred chef Raymond Blanc has never lost touch with his roots. Catherine Scott catches a masterclass in at his Leeds restaurant.

Raymond Blanc is a perfectionist. The table we are sitting at in the newly refurbished Brasserie Blanc in Leeds has a slight wobble, which he adds to the growing list of snags on his smartphone; the cappuccino, while good, isn’t quite to the precise specification, the list goes on. “It isn’t just about the food, it is about the entire experience that the customer receives. It is the detail that makes the experience,” he says, his French accent still strong despite nearly 40 years in the UK.

This attention to detail may go some way to explaining his huge success since moving across the Channel in the 1970s.

He is self-taught and yet holds two Michelin stars and has trained some of the country’s top chefs including Marco Pierre White, John Burton Race and Michael Caines at his award-winning Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons in Oxford.

Although he is a stickler for detail, he prides himself on the non-confrontational nature of his kitchen. You will hear no swearing or shouting, just a calm but firm approach. And when not tapping aide-memoires into his smartphone, Blanc is scribbling sketches on bits of paper, in a bid to ensure that he gets his point across.

As well as detail there is no shortage of passion as he tries to explain his passion for seasonal locally produced food which goes back to his childhood using an expansively drawn picture on the back of a sheet of A4 which turns out to be a draft for his new book about Le Manoir.

Looking back at his childhood, it is almost inevitable that he ended up working with food. His mother, the now famous Maman Blanc, was and still is a major influence. His sons call her “Mother Teresa on speed”, and at 94 she is still the epicentre of la Famille Blanc.

The whole family returns to France for Christmas under her watchful eye. They usually have venison and Blanc takes Christmas pudding.

“Food was much more than just a way of filling our bellies. It was at the centre of our lives. Every happy moment and every sad moment was around the table.”

When other children were out playing, the Blanc family were working in their father’s 1.5-acre fruit and vegetable garden.

“At the time I hated that garden with a passion. I would dig the ground, remove the stones. We never threw anything away. It gave me the greatest respect for food, and that is what England lacked.”

But he didn’t start out in food straight away. Blanc had 20 jobs including stints as a nurse and a factory worker before experiencing an epiphany at the age of 20. It happened one night as he was standing outside the best restaurant in his home town of Besancon, watching the waiters at work.

“At that moment I knew I wanted to be the chef who made this wonderful food. Not the waiter who gave it to the guests, but the craftsman who created these extraordinary dishes.”

He was too old to become a chef’s apprentice, so got a job as the restaurant’s cleaner. His determination and pursuit of perfection led to him eventually becoming commis chef.

But after upsetting the head chef with his comments about his food, 28-year-old Raymond was exiled to England to work as a waiter at the Rose Revived, a pub in Oxfordshire. Shortly after arriving in England he married Jenny, whose parents owned the pub.

For a Frenchman for whom good, local, seasonal cooking was part of his heritage, English cuisine of the 1970s was a huge shock. It was not just the lack of good, fresh produce, it was the attitude of the British towards food that was alien to him. Britain and the British had become slaves to intensive farming and processed food. Frozen prawn cocktail and steak counted as sophisticated dining.

What he lacked in formal training, Blanc made up for with a deep understanding of food, its seasonality and provenance. In 1977, he and Jenny opened their first restaurant, Les Quat’Saisons. They put together all their meagre savings and mortgaged their house to raise the cash. It was an overnight success, winning him Egon Ronay Restaurant of the Year and prestigious Michelin stars. Seven years later, he fulfilled a personal vision, when he opened Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons in Great Milton, Oxford.

In 1991 he established the Raymond Blanc Cookery School. He admits he is a control freak, but his pursuit of perfection came at a price. It saw the end of his marriage to Jenny and for a while a strained relationship with his two sons, Sebastien and Olivier. However, family is important to this Frenchman and he is thrilled to be working with Oli who attended Leeds University.

“I would come to see him very often when he was studying in Leeds and I love the city. We really want to open another restaurant in Yorkshire, hopefully in York.”

Oli has developed an app aimed at encouraging children to become more engaged with nature and where their food comes from. And Henri Le Worm, inspired by Blanc and narrated by Simon Pegg, has now been adopted in all the Brasserie Blanc restaurants on the children’s menu.

He says he doesn’t understand restaurants where children aren’t welcome and that the new relaxed feel of Brasserie Blanc makes it more accessible. Out are starched white tablecloths and napkins, in are wooden tables and sofas.

“People just don’t want that formality any more,” says Blanc. “Luxury is changing. People have very stressful lives and so when they come out they want to relax, they want to be comfortable and to be looked after. There will always be fine dining but the emphasis has changed. Also people have more knowledge, they want to know where their food comes from.” I feel another diagram coming on. I’m not wrong.

Blanc’s love affair with Yorkshire goes beyond his son’s education and the fact it is home to one of his 20 Brasserie Blanc restaurants. His “righthand man” Clive Fretwell is a straight talking Yorkshireman and Blanc’s affection and respect for him is clear. “Clive worked at Le Manoir for 18 years. He worked his way up from commis chef to head chef and he understands what I am trying to achieve,” says Blanc.

With that he marches me into the kitchen where the Brasserie Blanc team is getting ready for lunch. His very presence in the kitchen sees the staff stop what they are doing and pay attention. He then proceeds to give us all a masterclass in pumpkins, backed up by a taste test.

“People think pumpkins are just for October but they are best left to mature for a number of weeks.”

His love of seasonality also led to his most recent venture which was a BBC series and accompanying book. Kew on a Plate saw the famous gardens hand over a plot of land to the restaurateur to allow him to grow pretty much what he wanted by way of vegetables.

“I just loved it,” he enthuses. “It is just what I am about, the wonderful heritage varieties that we are in danger of losing. It was fantastic to be back in the garden.”

He may not have enjoyed the hours his father made him spend in the family veg plot but it seems he is really a chip off the old block.