Raymond Blanc's latest book looks back fondly at a career that has seen 19 Michelin-starred chefs pass through the kitchen at his iconic hotel-restaurant in Oxfordshire. Just don't mention retirement. He may have recently received an honorary OBE, but with TV show The Restaurant to front and major plans for Le Manoir, he's not about to rest on his laurels, as Tom Vaughan finds out
A chat with Raymond Blanc is delivered with Olympic zeal, almost without breath: the wild, gesticulating hands, the fists crashing on the desk with goggle-eyed emphasis. He jumps back and forth, abandoning and retrieving topic strands, making notes on the point of departure as he dives off on a tangent.
His latest book, A Taste of My Life (it's not an autobiography, he says, more a collection of memoirs, of food-related stories), has seen him plastered across national newspapers and glossy magazines. Predictably, some of the coverage has come back to bite him. Most notably a recent quote out of context suggesting that his retirement is imminent. "I don't like to talk about retirement. I'll retire, you'll retire, it's an inevitability," he says. "I want to focus on now and my team. I love this industry. I love it. I love the people. And when I stop loving it, that is when I will say, 'Goodbye - gone fishing.'"
Accompanying him on a tour of his hotel it's hard to imagine when he'll reach that point. Working his way through the kitchen, kiss after kiss, dropping in to the cookery school to wide-eyed hellos, lacquering Gallic charm on breakfasting guests, hurrying, always a pace ahead and with the semblance of a limp.
By his own admission, Blanc plans for 10‑15 years ahead, and he knows that by then he'll be 74, and a four-day week, 16-hours-a-day role will be too tiring. That, though, is some indeterminate point in the future all energies now are focused on Le Manoir's new plans.
The goal, as he sees it, is "to prepare this place beyond me to make it sustainable, so that anyone coming to this place at some time in the future will be able to make a profit from every square inch of it". He has, technicalities aside, the dream of a spa on the vegetable garden: "The best spa in Europe. Incredible! Incredible!" and a 27-acre small farm: "One of the best micro-farms in the country. Mindblowing." And when these are realised, Le Manoir will finally be complete, he says.
He fell in love with the building when he saw it in Country Life magazine, at the time searching for a small four-bedroom restaurant with a sizeable garden. Since then Blanc has passed some milestones at Le Manoir: two Michelin stars for the restaurant, five AA red stars for the hotel, the development of 19 Michelin-starred chefs in the kitchen, management retention of 90% over the past decade, and annual customer numbers of 82,000 across the hotel, restaurant and cookery school. Everything except for that third Michelin star - but we'll come to that.
I ask him whether, with the amount of energy that has gone into developing Le Manoir these past 25 years, he will be able to accept the finished article when he has it. "I think so, yes. There is unfinished business here, but when this place has its own spa and beautiful farm it will be complete. Every square inch of this place will be used. After that it's just polishing, polishing, polishing."
If the finished article is in sight - a "centre of excellence a modern classic", as he refers to it - then it explains why Blanc is starting to take stock of the past few years. Part and parcel of that has been a softening of Gallic stubbornness. "I have learnt one of the biggest strengths a person can have: the ability to admit that they don't know everything. And if they don't know it, to find the person who does." When did this dawn on him? "I am a slow learner, so maybe only in the past 10 years."
This humility was helped, he admits, by the failure of his Le Petit Blanc chain of brasseries. The first opened in Oxford in 1996 and proved an initial success, even gaining a Michelin star in its first year. Then the problems came, with Blanc, the self-taught businessman, struggling with the multi-site concept. "We moved to Birmingham and Manchester, and it is so easy to get it wrong, so easy. On a multi-site, you just get your wages wrong or your rent wrong and you lose money, as profit is that small. We knew we had problems. It was the biggest humble pie of my life, which was good for my humility. Nothing wrong with that."
After going into administration in 2003, the chain was bought by Loch Fyne Restaurants, renamed Brasserie Blanc and helped in a new direction by incoming managing director John Lederer. Part of Blanc's realisation that "if you don't know it, find someone who does" comes from this appointment. "I knew, for success with a multi-site, you need a strong board with a lot of knowledge, and in John Lederer I found the managing director I had dreamt of. A great man! He looks after what is a problem for me - the multi-site."
With Blanc helping plan and develop menus one day a week, the brand has continued its growth since the buyout, with several new sites, including Cheltenham, Bristol and Leeds. There are also new plans imminent for Maison Blanc, his French boulangerie chain.
These days - the result of experience maybe, or a mellowing with age - Blanc wears his shortcomings on his sleeve. "I'm self-taught. Sometimes I wish I'd had a mentor or been to business school. I didn't have that, so I had to learn from my own mistakes."
It's this lack of a mentor that fuels his dedication to training. Nineteen Michelin-starred chefs have passed through Le Manoir's kitchen, and the management team is ferociously loyal. "I never had anyone who could truly help me. Turning from a waiter to a chef-patron and having to teach as you learn - by God, it is hard. It is hard."
It also helps explain his fist major foray into television. "At first I said I'd never do reality TV. But then I realised it was just up my street." So when the BBC came knocking, Blanc saw the chance to help young couples achieve a dream. Just what the young Blanc would have wished for. "It made sense: teaching, inspiring, getting young people into the industry and giving them the right tools to succeed."
It seems to me, and I tell him so, that there is a discrepancy between the Blanc who nurtures and develops future chef-patrons in his own kitchen and the one who promotes X Factor-style overnight success on screen. "Of course. It is TV. There are limits to what you can do. If it was for professionals, only professionals would watch it. Television can make you believe that in six months you can become Raymond Blanc. Of course it is not so."
It certainly is not so. Last year's winners, Jane and Jeremy Hooper, parted ways with their restaurant, Eight at the Thatch in Thame, Oxfordshire, run in partnership with Blanc, after just seven months. "It wasn't their dream," claims Blanc. They wanted a smaller fine-dining restaurant in a provincial town, not the brasserie-cum-pub they won. "This time round we must prepare them better," he says. "That is our job."
This year's winners are undergoing an intensive six months' training, first on paper, and then in the Brasserie Blanc training programme. Blanc is even considering initially giving them a smaller restaurant that won't turn much of a profit, so they can ease into life as restaurateurs.
With a catalogue of previous winners from chef-related reality shows not making the grade as restaurateurs - the Hoopers, Jamie's Chef Aaron Craze or any of the recent Masterchef winners besides Thomasina Miers - it remains to be seen if this year's victors can make a go of it.
Part of his motivation behind the programme was to show how hard the industry can be. "Unless you have a game plan, a strong concept and a strong knowledge of the world of business, you are going to struggle," he says. He also planned to address some of the misconceptions of life in the kitchen. "I wanted to do a positive programme and show that you don't have to scream at people and break them into 1,000 pieces. Many people will disintegrate under that pressure but will take the lessons of failing without that."
Blanc was initially exiled in England as a waiter, 35 years ago, after a pan in the face from a disgruntled head chef. A part of that dazed, aspirant chef still comes across, most notably in his war of words with Gordon Ramsay two years ago, where he criticised the celebrity chef's management style and was called in return "a French twat".
"It is not just Gordon. It's about the culture that he propagates that causes the damage. We are working very hard at changing an industry that was in the ice age, and then he creates a culture that belongs to the ice age, that is 50 years ago. I have huge respect for Gordon, what he's achieved. It's not what I want, but it is what he wants. He has done well, and he has many great qualities, but his sensationalising of violence on the screen is damaging our industry. Would you send your child into an industry that appears like that?"
Those children who were allowed into the industry and ended up as adults in Blanc's kitchen still talk of him with the utmost warmth - Marco Pierre White went on record saying he'd never have gained his three stars were it not for a spell at Le Manoir - as Blanc is, above all, an inspiring mentor. He talks passionately about the deeper connection with food and the part it has to play in our lives, excitedly drawing pictures expressing and explaining the cyclical nature of cooking.
The British don't carry the burden of culinary tradition like the French and Italians, he explains. And while this is liberating, we must ensure we don't lose sight of the origin of our food. "My caution is that gastronomy takes a route from our souls, not from a million miles away. If we are dependent on imports, we don't connect as well. We need to ensure we connect with our sense of place, our own varieties."
It must be hard for Blanc, with his earthy upbringing among seasonal home-grown produce, to understand why chefs sometimes lack a similar passion, instilled from birth. But it is his childish sense of wonder when it comes to food that inspires trainees.
"We think we are in charge of our own destiny," he says, "and we are for some of it, but certainly not all of it. I didn't want to be an entrepreneur I am an entrepreneur by accident, an accidental entrepreneur. I was a craftsman first, a man who had a business vision, but not a businessman. I know who I am: a man who is passionate and loves to work with people. And I am a man who has learnt, because in my early days you could say I was a complete maverick, completely driven by passion and instinct."
A third star
And so to that third star. Questions over the elusive accolade don't sit comfortably at first, I guess because Blanc is aware of the modern fixation with Michelin stars among chefs.
"I said it many years ago, and I still say it today: I don't work for stars," he says. "I think it's sad when young chefs work solely for stars, but I can see why it would be tempting. I would rather they work for excellence - to work at their best, to be their best and to progress - and if the stars are coming, it's a by-product of that excellence."
Has he wondered why the third star never came? "Maybe the size of the operation here has penalised me. Maybe if I had a smaller place like I first wanted, I would have had three stars a long time ago. But am I biting my knuckles? No. I wanted to create a centre of excellence - a modern classic - and I think we are doing just that. I'm happy with my life I'm happy with my team. Because I didn't get that third star, am I a lesser man? Is my team a worse team? I would have to say no to that."
He has a point: would any chef consider the greater achievement to be winning a third Michelin star, or training 19 chefs to achieve stars in their own right?
As we stand in the vegetable garden and Blanc finishes describing the new spa and farm, his eyes gloss over and he pauses, returning again to thoughts of accolades. "It is a shame about that Michelin star. To reward my team, not for my ego." And it seems that, while the third star isn't by any means Le Manoir's raison d'être, with the spa and farm complete, the elusive accolade will remain the last ungraspable piece of the jigsaw at his "centre of excellence".
Then he spins, slaps my shoulder and shakes my hand - "All the best, eh?" - and hurries back to the house.
Le Manoir's Michelin-starred alumni
Marco Pierre White
Harveys Restaurant and Marco Pierre White, London
Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons, Oxfordshire
Homewood Park, Bath
Waldo's Restaurant, Cliveden, Berkshire
John Burton Race
The Landmark, London
L'Ortolan, Shinfield, Berkshire
Gidleigh Park, Devon
Heathcote's, Longridge, Lancashire
The Capital, London
Chavot Restaurant, London
Pied à Terre, London
Richard Neat Restaurant, Cannes
Hambleton Hall, Oakham, Rutland
Homewood Park, Bath
Auberge de la Galupe, Urt, France
L'Altro Mastai, Rome
Mallory Court, Leamington Spa, Warwickshire
Inverlochy Castle, Fort William, Inverness‑shire
Hunstrete House, Bristol
Whatley Manor, Malmesbury, Wiltshire
Bath Priory, Bath
L'Ortolan, Shinfield, Berkshire
The Vineyard at Stockcross, Newbury, Berkshire
Palazzo Sasso, Ravello, Italy
Trouble House, Tetbury, Gloucestershire
Ynyshir Hall, Eglwysfach, Powys
A Taste of My Life, by Raymond Blanc
Raymond Blanc's A Taste of My Life tells of his early desire to be a chef, the attempts and rejections - including that pan in the face - that led to him crossing the Channel in 1972 to become a waiter at a pub in Oxfordshire, then to chef-patron of Le Quat Saisons in a shopping mall in Summertown, Oxford how he became a runaway success, picking up his second Michelin star before finally moving to Le Manoir in 1984.
The book is available from Bantam Press, priced £20.
Published by: The Caterer