A chef for all seasons: in conversation with Raymond Blanc OBE

By Michelle Johnson | 06 Apr 2022 | Indulge, Leaders

Tempus heads to Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons to meet the iconic Michelin-star chef

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The world of fine dining is explosive. The best establishments live and die by their bold flavours and bolder personalities, where the chef is a tastemaker leading with personality, passion and creative genius.

But French Chef Raymond Blanc OBE, 72 (pictured), has a different view of what it means to be a chef célèbre. His is an energetic philosophy of scintillating contrast and surprising balance; of impossibly fresh, straight-from-the-garden ingredients combined to delight and dazzle the palate.

Born near Besançon in eastern France, he inherited his love of cooking from his parents – particularly his mother, the influential Maman Blanc. Entirely self-taught, Blanc has mentored top chefs such as Heston Blumenthal and Marco Pierre White, yet his early career as a waiter was cut short after being fired from a restaurant for offering the head chef advice on how to improve his cooking.

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Arriving in Oxfordshire in 1972, he worked under André Chavagnon at French restaurant La Sorbonne before striking out on his own in 1977. The first Les Quat’Saisons was among a row of shops in Summertown, Oxford – its overnight success went on to earn him two Michelin stars.

His first La Maison Blanc boulangerie opened in 1981 and then, in 1983, Blanc bought the Oxfordshire manor that has become today’s two-Michelin starred gastronomic hotel Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons – ubiquitous with the very best food in England. Blanc is not only the chef patron of Le Manoir, he is also the driving force behind the designs of each palatial suite as well as the beautiful kitchen and herb gardens, and his team hosts regular cookery classes for guests who visit from around the world.

With all this on top of the release of recipe books, television appearances, luxurious events and his 20 Brasserie Blanc restaurants across England, we head to Le Manoir to discover what inspires this joyful approach to gastronomy and hospitality.

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Raymond, how has your philosophy of cooking evolved over your career?

My parents taught me from a young age about the importance of growing your own produce; planting, nurturing and when to pick and creating the most delicious meals for us all. It was simple, delicious food, and my Maman taught us to use the food wisely – to use what we had so we never wasted anything – making meals, pickles, jam. So, for me, the importance of seasonality has always been my philosophy.

What makes seasonal food so appealing?

For me, there is something truly wonderful about growing your own [ingredients] and using them to create meals for family and friends. I have the fondest memories helping my Papa in the garden and then bringing in the vegetables and fruit to Maman, so she could work her magic.

Here at Le Manoir, we take guests in our Raymond Blanc Cookery School into the kitchen garden to select produce to use to create their dishes. We rely on our local suppliers, who have proved so important during the pandemic. I think we are so grateful for what we have close by, and we must make sure we support them. By buying locally, you are supporting the craftsmen who give life to our villages. You help your local farmer to keep his farm and, therefore, support his staff. It’s like a tower of cards – if the farm is alive, the village keeps its post office and its pub. It keeps the community alive.

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Do you have a favourite childhood dish that brings back memories?

One of my favourite dishes that we used to have was a simple tomato salad. We grew the Marmande variety – they were fat, meaty and so juicy. Maman would slice them and put shallots with them, and she made a mustard dressing – just delicious. The memory of the taste of that tomato essence has not faded, and it is still one of my very favourite meals today.

You have influenced a generation of talented chefs. Is it important to you to inspire others?

I believe that you never stop learning – this is our ethos here at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons and also at Brasserie Blanc. I have always thought it is crucial to pass on skills to others and, as a self- taught chef, to have nurtured so many successful chefs through our kitchens and to have helped create a network of fantastic talent... there is nothing greater and I am a proud man.

Every single member of the team here at Le Manoir works to exceed expectations – from the team in the kitchen, housekeeping and front of house. We look out for each other and help one another; we are lucky to have such a good team.

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What do you think of any rising new trends in gastronomy?

Gastronomy has changed a great deal over the years. The consumer is really starting to understand more about what they are eating but, also, how they want to be treated when they are out dining. Here at Le Manoir, we ask if you want to be disturbed or not. If you don’t, we put the menu on your table and you can see what you’re eating; if you do, we can tell you everything you want to know. We give options – to me, that’s true luxury.

Le Manoir is a true gastronomic escape. What inspired you to create this experience for guests?

I am involved in every part of Le Manoir and I truly love it. It is a place for celebration, creating memories and. spending time with loved ones. I wanted to create somewhere that would exceed every expectation. Each of the 32 bedrooms is individually designed, drawing inspiration from my travels. The areas of the gardens evoke memories; our Japanese Tea Garden gives guests a taste of Japan. I have chosen artwork,

sculptures – some from my own collection at home. I must add that I have been lucky to work with my team for many years – my head gardener Anne-Marie has been here for 35 years, Mark Peregrine in the cookery school has worked with me for nearly 40 years – so we share the same passion.

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What’s next for you?

I have recently finished filming the second [television] series of Simply Raymond – it has been hard work but the feedback for the show and book has been positive, and it was exciting to do a second series. We have some lovely events this year at Le Manoir, including our summer party in July, and a wonderful calendar for guests. I’m also already preparing for Jardin Blanc at the Chelsea Flower Show in May and then Royal Ascot in June.