Chef Raymond Blanc on Hampshire produce, local foodies and his new restaurants
PUBLISHED: 10:53 21 May 2013 | UPDATED: 10:53 21 May 2013
Raymond Blanc has a real passion for Hampshire and its local produce - so much so that he is investing in the chefs, sommeliers and waiters of the future with two new ventures
It had been a good weekend for Raymond Blanc. Despite his beloved French team losing at the rugby - he’s in high spirits: “I thought we escaped the wooden spoon, but we hadn’t,” he laughs, “First time in 14 years!”
Although the rugby hadn’t gone his way, Blanc had ended the weekend celebrating the 29th anniversary of his two Michelin starred restaurant in Great Milton, Oxford.
The self-taught chef has come a long way since arriving in Dover in his Renault 5 Gordini in 1972 and, having worked tirelessly, he’s become one of Britain’s most respected chefs. And luckily for us, Blanc has brought a little of his passion to Hampshire, with two of his Brasserie Blanc restaurants opening in Winchester and Portsmouth.
When I ask what drew him to the county, he replies: “I love Winchester – what a city! What a beautiful place. And Portsmouth is very fascinating as well, in terms of the port, all the history of it, and being by the seaside.
“The restaurants are made for beautiful small cities and towns. We are doing very well; there is strong support from the community.”
But does he manage to use any of our fabulous local produce?
“Oh yes, constantly. I love the rhubarb and obviously use the watercress and I’m also working with Jody Scheckter from Laverstoke Farm – a serious player, who provides fresh produce from buffalo and pigs to lamb and Aberdeen Angus.
“I work with many other local farmers as well. That is also why I choose small cities, because there is always a backdrop of good produce; you don’t have to travel millions of miles in order to get it. It’s in my heart,” Blanc explains, “I lived in a village until 20 years of age, and I was gardening as well, which would feed the family for the whole year round. It was proper gardening, and it was my favourite thing. When harvest came round there would be tonnes of beans or peas or whatever and I’d give it to my mum who would apply the simple art of cooking.”
Born in Besançon in the east of France, between Burgandy and the Jura mountains, Blanc’s biggest inspiration was his mother, Mamam Blanc.
“We change our menu four times a year at Brasserie Blanc – no chain restaurants do that because it’s too difficult – but we do it because that’s my culture. That is what my mum gave me - she made me understand the value of seasonality, of freshness and the importance of the soil
“She really passed on this incredible knowledge that food is about fun, about celebration, all the family round the table - which is something we all miss very much because we work hard. We hardly have time to sit down together as family. I beg the readers to, at least once or twice a week, sit down together, cook together, celebrate the simple craft of cooking and have a great time.”
With such a strong work ethic, it’s not surprising to hear that Blanc rarely gets much time out. “I am a working beast. What we do requires a tremendous amount of work, clocking lots of hours and it’s terrible to say that we don’t have enough time to eat out.”
However, Blanc has managed to squeeze in a little time to sample some of the county’s finest foodie establishments. “I was at Lime Wood Hotel about three weeks ago for the new Hartnett Holder & Co. restaurant opening - it was really fantastic! I went to The Montagu Arms in Beaulieu as well and I’ve been to The Three Lions in Stuckton, near Fordingbridge.
“I also know this wonderful family, who have a lovely little restaurant close to the New Forest, called Hotel TerraVina. It has the world’s best sommelier, Gerard Bassett, and offers wonderful wine by the glass as well. Last time I went we had the greatest evening. It was about three years ago - that is ridiculous.
“I’d like to go every week - you really must go it is fantastic. Tell Gerard I sent you, he will look after you!”
There is absolutely no escaping Blanc’s infectious enthusiasm. Despite his success, he remains so incredibly warm and down-to-earth - happy to share his passion and knowledge. This is probably part of the reason why the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, wanted Blanc to help spearhead his scheme to create 250,000 apprenticeship places in London by 2016.
“The service industry has changed dramatically,” explains Blanc, “It used to be the worst possible industry and it was more connected with being a ‘servant’, than ‘service’. Service industry isn’t a dirty word; it is the most extraordinary, exciting industry which is very dynamic and modern.
“The ability to train and recruit young people to the industry is wonderful and we want them. This should really be a national campaign to look for local apprentices - we want local talent.
“If I was in France, Italy, Spain or China - all the food countries of the world – I would have at least 50% of local people. We don’t in the UK, but we should.”
But Blanc’s real passion to back the campaign stems from his own experience.
”I am totally self-taught, I never had a minute under a chef, and my god I missed a mentor – someone who could help me, support me and give me direction. I’d like to give to young people what I didn’t have,” he explains.
With this in mind, Raymond has pledged to take on 21 apprentices in his Brasserie Blanc restaurants across the UK, including the two Hampshire restaurants in Winchester and Portsmouth.
But what qualities is he looking for?
“First you have to want to be in this industry. We don’t want to drag people in,” he explains. “They have to say ‘I’d love to be that chef’, ‘I’d love to cook for people’, ‘I would love to be the barman who makes these wonderful drinks’; so there must be a real willpower to become part of this industry - because it’s very demanding.
“They’ll be given a training programme where they can grow confidently and discover our industry - connecting with its food, with ethics, with sustainability issues and to look at the whole scene – we cannot go on buying cheap food as we’ve done in the past.”
Raymond is clearly a man on a mission and - with characteristic urgency - he heads back to the kitchen.