Raymond Blanc, OBE, is the two-Michelin star chef-patron of Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, and the man behind the Brasserie Blanc chain of restaurants, eight more of which will open over 2012. His first restaurant opened 35 years ago this year…
In the home where I grew up only my father was allowed to cut the bread. You had to earn the right to cut it. Everything was about respecting food – because a great deal of love went into it. That meant also loving the season –hence the name of my restaurant – an idea that had once been lost but is now being rediscovered. There is a new respect for your own national produce, following your own seasons and eating nose to tail.
People forget that it wasn’t so long ago that food was just a commodity – you couldn’t buy local. And if it was good, it was exclusive. I’ve always thought food should be inclusive. Yes, Michelin-star food is a luxury item, let’s not forget that, but while people of renown come to Le Manoir, so do ordinary people for whom it’s a special occasion – a celebration of food, glorious food.
I don’t understand it when chefs are secretive about some lovely piece of knowledge about food – the great reward of my work, long before it may be money or fame, is to have trained some great chefs. You want to encourage your chefs to know everything there is to know about, say, a carrot (and I mean everything – how to grow it, where it’s from, how to cut it for maximum taste, texture, nutrition), and for them to then pass that knowledge on.
Knowledge is empowering because it makes you a kinder, more caring person. The industry has changed radically since Le Manoir opened three decades ago – kitchens used to be all about screaming, muscle and putting people down, which made young people very fearful of entering the business. But the industry is now realising it has a duty to educate and encourage.
However, passing knowledge on can have its consequences. I started out as a waiter while looking for my talent as a chef – mediocrity scared me. But when I offered the chef some advice, the chef who was considered god-like, his moustache bristled and he hit me with a pan. It broke my jaw and my teeth. I lost my job, but also my ego, that day. I was exiled to England but I came humbly, not as Napoleon.
English lack of respect for cooking then was frightening but I borrowed, bought second hand, re-mortgaged, got a tiny kitchen under a corrugated roof and put a plastic cockerel outside, because I wanted everyone to know this was a French restaurant. That was the best bit of branding I ever did.
I was totally self-taught. I’d never cooked under another chef. But it came from the heart and I think that showed. I remember in the early days, two suited businessmen came in and I was overjoyed. Then they sat down and covered everything with salt. I wanted to murder them. It was a lesson in what I was up against. Since then, England has found a truth in its own food and, while I’m 100 per cent French, I have come to fall under the influence of the culture. I can now laugh about myself – not much, but I can – and I’ve learned how to lose better. They’re both British qualities.
French food has changed, too. It’s still innovative but it’s less showy. It’s not about trying to do 25 different things with a dish any more. But there are still changes that need to be made in gastronomy, generally. It really can’t be business as usual any more, because we’re going to hit a wall. Ethics need to be at the core of cooking. It has to be conscious of its craft but also of sustainability.
Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, Church Road, Great Milton, Oxford, OX44 7PD, 01844278881, manoir.com. Nine-course tasting dinner menu is £150 per person.