Raymond Blanc on his recipe for success, the culinary ethos of Hampshire and his Winchester restaurant
PUBLISHED: 10:55 27 February 2014 | UPDATED: 13:34 27 November 2014
Raymond Blanc tells Liz Kavanagh about his culinary beginnings, and why he loves Winchester so much
Raymond Blanc arrives with a smile, hardly drawing breath before he begins to enthuse about Winchester, the setting for Brasserie Blanc, his suitably authentic French restaurant in the city. “Winchester is both beautiful and historic, with a thriving business community and tourist industry,” he says. “So naturally I wanted to be a part of it.”
Apart from the place itself, he says that the culinary ethos that runs through Winchester is something that he really appreciates. “There’s a dedication to food that I’ve witnessed in both the city and its surroundings – from the farmers market to the watercress and trout farms.” This, he says, is something that he holds dear, and aims to promote through his restaurants. “Intensive, large-scale farming in the past meant that farmers lost the connection with their customers, but at Brasserie Blanc we work hard to forge really strong relationships with regional producers.”
Born in Besançon, France in 1949, in the home where Raymond grew up, food was taken very seriously. “My mother was one of the great cordon bleus in the region,” he says. “She would be the one to cook for any visiting dignitaries, and I grew up like a minion in the food chain, exalted to various roles in the kitchen as the years progressed. I remember being allowed to harvest and then top and tail green beans, which at the time was as close as I was allowed to the magic that was going on at the stove.”
But the ‘magic’ left a lasting impression on young Raymond, who started his career as a waiter, and was soon drawn across the channel to seek his fortune in Britain. “It was a big culture shock,” he says. “Food was not part of the British way of life and generally it was pretty grim, but I was lucky to get a job at The Rose Revived restaurant near Witney, where I befriended the chef. What started off as me taking an interest soon became a passion. I would watch him work whenever I could. When he was taken ill I stepped in to help, and from there on in I was determined that my career would be in the kitchen.
“I’d had no formal training so I approached cooking like chemistry, learning from my mistakes as I went along. I had my fair share of collapsed soufflés to begin with, but I gleaned information from wherever I could, and it paid off.”
By the age of 28, Raymond was working as head chef at The Rose Revived and had won the restaurant an entry in to the coveted Michelin Guide. Five years later he launched his first restaurant, Les Quat’ Saisons in Summertown, Oxford. “It was a huge gamble,” he says, “and we didn’t have the most glamorous location in the world either, as the restaurant sat between an Oxfam and a ladies underwear shop…which supplied the sort of underwear that wasn’t designed for the bedroom. We were on the wrong side of the road on the wrong side of the city but it worked anyway, and we were soon full every night.”
It was love at first sight when Raymond discovered a 17th century manor house with beautiful gardens in Great Milton. Safe in the knowledge that his dream could now become a reality, he took the gamble to spend all he could on it, in order to make his dream home.
Thirty years later Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons holds two Michelin stars, is part of the Orient-Express collection, and is regularly cited among the best hotels in the world. “I was originally thinking of a little hotel, perhaps with just four or five bedrooms and a nice terrace for people to enjoy aperitifs on in the summer,” he says wistfully, but with a satisfied smile. “Today it has become a multi-million pound business, but we still work very much as craftsmen. I want people to come to Le Manoir and be enchanted by what they see and eat. Good food needs to be exciting and have a magical quality, so that there are always surprises as well as the fulfilment of expectation.”
International politicians, royalty and film stars have long flocked to Le Manoir – not only for the food, but also for its relaxed ambience and beautiful rooms. The late Princess of Wales was a regular, and her love of the restaurant went on to be shared by The Queen Mother.
“One of my very best days was spent with the Queen Mother during an official visit,” says Raymond. “She asked me what my greatest achievement had been, to which I replied it was probably getting an entire restaurant of Brits to sing the French National Anthem on Bastille Day. Without a moment’s thought, she sang me her own rendition, just to show willing! I was overwhelmed.”
When asked whether he still considers himself to be a Frenchman, when he now has an OBE to his name, he laughs: “I think I’ll always stay true to my French roots. Although…” he adds, “I’d like to think that over the years I have gleaned some of the great British qualities of humour, fair-play and kindness. The French still find it hard to laugh at themselves and I can do that now – although not very often of course!”
It’s perhaps Raymond’s generosity of spirit that has made him such a success. His employees refer to him as ‘RB’ and many of the staff at Le Manoir have been with him for over ten years. He’s trained up 32 Michelin star chefs, and is still very much involved in his 19 brasseries.
He’s often in Hampshire, where he enjoys the company of his friends; international wine expert and Hotel TerraVina owner Gerard Basset, chef James Martin and racing champion Jody Scheckter, who runs Laverstoke Park Farm. “I’m very fond of fishing,” he says. “The last time I came, I fished in the river on Jody’s estate and after several hours caught a wonderful little brown trout. Spending time by the riverbank allows me to completely switch off.”
When on the subject of Hampshire he is both forthcoming and effusive: “Earlier in my career, I used to head to Chewton Glen fairly regularly to get away from it all, just sleeping, rarely leaving the site, but it’s remained one of my favourite hotels.”
His mother, or ‘Maman Blanc’ as he affectionately calls her, continues to be a force to be reckoned with in the kitchen, belying her 91 years. “Last time I saw her she was out digging up vegetables in the garden for dinner,” he says, “and she refused point blank to let anyone take over the spade. Everything she cooks is deeply connected to seasonality, which is something I’ve inherited.”
Despite all his success, Raymond says he will always be her little boy. “She calls me Coco, a pet name for ‘little one’. To her, I think whatever I achieve I’ll still be that enthusiastic small boy in the kitchen!”
Brasserie Blanc, Jewry Street, Winchester; 01962 810870; www.brasserieblanc.com
- Raymond Blanc was born on 19 November, 1949.
- In 1972, Raymond worked at the Michelin-starred Le Palais de la Bière in Besançon. He was fired for upsetting the head chef, after offering him advice on how to cook.
- Last year Raymond took on 21 apprentices, in a bid to get more people into the hospitality industry.