Raymond Blanc: To the Manoir born
He is an institution in British gastronomy. But even after 35 years here, Raymond Blanc would still like to teach us a thing or two about food. John Walsh takes notes
Wednesday 19 May 2010
Raymond Blanc is such a hyperkinetic figure – dashing impetuously here and there, flitting about his kitchen at the Manoir aux Quat'Saisons for the TV cameras, prodding and encouraging his sous-chefs – it's hard to imagine him sitting still for long, let alone lying down during an interview. But to be fair, he had recently broken his leg. In five places.
"Eet was seven in zer morning," he recalls with a cringe, "at home [in Oxfordshire] I was saying goodbye to Natalia, my partner, and I took four steps back and fell down zer stairs. I land on the floor like zees [he demonstrates] and I have created a spiralic fracture at zer tibia and three fractures on the fibula. Because I am a ver' creative man."
Even when recreating his physical wreckage, M Blanc keeps up his accustomed level of puckish humour. And he really does talk like that, all zer time, despite having lived in England for 35 years. You suspect that it may be completely put-on and that, if he wanted to, Blanc could speak like Trevor McDonald. He possesses an English vocabulary as large as Shakespeare's, and deploys most of it in a torrent of fluency, as he surveys his career in 2010: a quarter-century of running the two-Michelin-star Manoir, almost 10 years of Maison Blanc patisseries (bought out in 2007 by KFG, who called Raymond onto the board a year later), umpteen television series, most recently Raymond Blanc's Kitchen Secrets, umpteen books (especially his autobiography, A Taste of My Life, 2008) and a reputation as a non-swearing, non-bullying mentor of young chefs and honorary English, all-round bon oeuf.
"I was in hospital for two-and-a-half weeks," he said (perhaps we'll drop the exact transliteration of his voice) "and there was a period when I lay, confused, institutionalised, helpless, full of drugs, and wondered – why? I'd pulled a muscle three months earlier. Why? My life was happy, everything was going so well – then this happens, twice. Then I remembered that, years ago when I was 42, I had two mini-strokes induced by stress and overwork and spent one month lying on one side. In consequence my left side is weaker, my co-ordination is poor. So I said to the surgeons and physios, you must mend me, repair me, work on my left side and create a balance on both sides. Now there's a whole team of people working to make me better. I realised I'd been going too fast, taking on too many things. I had to learn to delegate more, take on fewer tasks. My team will soon see a different Raymond Blanc." I wonder. It's hard to imagine Blanc slowing down for a second, or having less than a dozen projects buzzing in his head simultaneously.
At present, though supine, he's masterminding the creation of an orchard at Le Manoir, and a brand of spring water, L'Eau Manoir. He's just finished designing the bottle – and "a wonderful pane of glass in the conservatory – it shows an espalier tree, with the top clear glass so you can see through it, and the rest frosted. The apples will be umber-red, green and blue, to match the dark blue frosted water bottles. And we'll make a beautiful tumbler in the same blue, big enough for a lady's hand to hold ... "
How he loves the Manoir, where his taste is stamped on every curtain pelmet and cushion. How he loves showing off the wallpaper designs and hotel décor. "What I'm trying to create here is an environment truly conducive to joy," he says proudly. "It's about a lot of little things piled on each other. I've passed onto so many people the same philosophy, of elegance rather than luxury, intelligence rather than cleverness ... " He isn't keen on his brainchild ("It is my greatest triumph") being called a shrine to food and comfort. "A shrine is a temple full of ancestors looking down on you. I rid myself of them a long time ago. They're dead. This is an environment for celebrating life." I asked him about the moment on Kitchen Secrets when he was filmed at a duck-shoot, failing to blast a single flapping mallard out of the sky. Was it, I asked, true that he was a rubbish shot, or did he not wish to harm his reputation as le charmant Raymond with the lovely smile?
"No no no," he cried. "I'm a hunter-gatherer for God's sake! I cannot be something else. The British are so squeamish about such things, so hypocritical about food. It's time we changed that. The whole food-chain system has taken us away from the actual food. We're not prepared to know where it comes from."
He remembers his idyllic childhood in a village near Besançon, capital of Franche-Comté in eastern France, where "the first thing I was told was, it was my job to kill the chicken. There were chickens, two or three years old, perched on the lower branch of a tree, and I had to chase them and bring them home. I was told, from the age of eight or nine, to kill the chicken. You had to take it between your legs, pull the neck, slash it with the knife, bleed it but keep the blood. This was a chicken I saw every day. I'd grown up with it. But I knew it was food. The French don't see a chicken as a pet." After living in England for 35 years, Blanc still cannot get over his friends' love of their pet rabbits and hens.
Blanc thinks it's about time British people could be more responsible about the food they consume. He'd love, for instance, to see English consumers demanding English apples from fruit retailers – "but how would that translate to a householder who earns £2,000 a month, has three kids and a mortgage, and had been told for years it's okay to buy cheap food? How do you tell him that, from now on, he'll get his apples from Kent or Dorset, and will have to pay 20 per cent more for them?"
Perhaps inspired by the Manoir's new orchard, Blanc is furious about apples and modern corruption. "Remember the Golden Delicious, the French apple which destroyed the English orchards? It had a high sugar content, it was extremely sweet, it was so commercially viable, it took over the whole English market," said Blanc. "Now the Chinese are doing the same, but bigger. They've created the an apple to seem perfect – they're all the same size and shape, every single seed is coated with pesticides to step them having any form of disease -- and that's what we're buying. We buy through our eyes not our brain or heart or conscience. The Chinese apple will take over the world. But there will be a socio-economic and a health impact, because this is a bad apple. It's full of residues and things that may induce cancer in the long run. Aristotle said, 'Let food be your medicine,' but we've stopped thinking in such terms. To British people, the only values that food possess are cheapness, convenience, shelf life and never mind what's in the stuff, provided it looks right."
Whew. M Blanc in full rant is an impressive sight. But even while delivering these tirades he remains tremendously courteous, welcoming the woman who's come to water the living-room flowers ("you go ahead, my lovely") and the young chef with some urgent query ("you wouldn't think it but I'm working here, mon petit"). In the 10 years that have passed since he was last seen cooking on TV, he's been at his flagship restaurant, tirelessly training up chefs to Michelin-star level – 23 of them. It's quite a record. He's like a gastronomic version of the venerable teacher in James Hilton's Goodbye, Mr Chips (Au Revoir, Monsieur Frites?) Did he wish he'd expanded into bigger restaurants, as Gordon Ramsay and Alain Ducasse did, and opened in Paris and New York?
Does he hell. "The last thing I wanted to do was build an empire. Empires by their nature are about greed, expansionism, and they're always going to fall, eventually. And I was never interested in going to Paris or New York. Believe me, I could've opened there any time, but I said no. I wanted to stay in Britain. I feel very comfortable here. I know my guests well, my children were born and schooled here, my friends are here, it's my heart."
Blanc is, he says, a craftsman by nature. He became an entrepreneur by accident, and has become a brand by a similar caprice of Fate. "I was totally self-taught," he recalls. "I never held a frying pan in my life before I took up one in a pub called the Quatre Saisons in Summertown, Oxford. It changed my life." Three months later, he and his wife, Jenny, "saved our money, mortgaged the house and bought this little corridor between a ladies' underwear shop and an Oxfam shop. It was awful. We had nothing. We owed money to 18 people ... "
Didn't he have some kind of mentor at the start? His best guide was a cookbook called Cooking in 10 Minutes, by Edouard de Pomiane. "He was an old Professor at the Sorbonne, a wonderful, vociferous man with a bald head but big tufts of hair. His special subject was the DNA of horses. But he wrote about all the values I share and I love his generosity and humour." De Pomiane died in 1964, but his classic book (offering 228 recipes in 150 pages) is published by Serif, with a loving foreword by Blanc.
As we parted company, I asked him, what do you like about British culture? He considered. "What I like? First, your ability to laugh about yourselves, which the French don't have. Second, the British sense of humour. It's comfortable. Third, I love your ability to recognise your mistakes, The French don't know how to do this. We always have to be the best. Fourth, you argue much more rationally. We argue with passion, and when you do that, you're bound to make mistakes. Most of all, you listen while other people speak, and in France you cannot, which creates problems because in the political world, the cultural world, the family world, everyone speaks at the same time. It's a complete cacophony. The British listen better, so there's a fair chance for everyone to pass on their views."
Did he feel very English now? He looked at me with very French, je m'en-fou-tiste incredulity. "Non, definitely not, no way, no way."
But surely, after 35 years? "When I first came to England, I thought the French were a universal race who should rule the world. Living in a multicultural society has allowed me to be a better Frenchman, to keep my French tradition and enrich it with other cultures. So maybe I can say I'm 100 per cent French and 20 per cent British. The 20 per cent is important. It means I'm not the arrogant little bastard Frenchman who thinks he knows everything." He scratched his wounded shin. "Oui, that makes perfect sense."
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