Raymond Blancâs 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 donât mention retirement. He may have recently received an honorary OBE, but with TV show TheÂ Restaurant to front and major plans for Le Manoir, heâs not about to rest on his laurels, as Tom Vaughan finds out
A chat with RaymondÂ 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 (itâs 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. âI donât like to talk about retirement. Iâll retire, youâll retire, itâs an inevitability,â he says. âI 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, âGoodbye â gone fishing.'â
Accompanying him on a tour of his hotel itâs hard to imagine when heâll 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 10â15 years ahead, and he knows that by then heâll 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 Manoirâs new plans.
The goal, as he sees it, is âto 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 itâ. He has, technicalities aside, the dream of a spa on the vegetable garden: âThe best spa in Europe. Incredible! Incredible!â and a 27-acre small farm: âOne of the best micro-farms in the country. Mindblowing.â 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 â but weâll 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. âI 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 itâs just polishing, polishing, polishing.â
If the finished article is in sight â a âcentre of excellence a modern classicâ, as he refers to it â 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. âI have learnt one of the biggest strengths a person can have: the ability to admit that they donât know everything. And if they donât know it, to find the person who does.â When did this dawn on him? âI am a slow learner, so maybe only in the past 10 years.â
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. âWe 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.â
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 Blancâs realisation that âif you donât know it, find someone who doesâ comes from this appointment. âI 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 â the multi-site.â
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 â the result of experience maybe, or a mellowing with age â Blanc wears his shortcomings on his sleeve. âIâm self-taught. Sometimes I wish Iâd had a mentor or been to business school. I didnât have that, so I had to learn from my own mistakes.â
Itâs this lack of a mentor that fuels his dedication to training. Nineteen Michelin-starred chefs have passed through Le Manoirâs kitchen, and the management team is ferociously loyal. âI never had anyone who could truly help me. Turning from a waiter to a chef-patron and having to teach as you learn â by God, it is hard. It is hard.â
It also helps explain his fist major foray into television. âAt first I said Iâd never do reality TV. But then I realised it was just up my street.â 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. âIt made sense: teaching, inspiring, getting young people into the industry and giving them the right tools to succeed.â
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 XÂ Factor-style overnight success on screen. âOf 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.â
It certainly is not so. Last yearâs 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. âIt wasnât their dream,â claims Blanc. They wanted a smaller fine-dining restaurant in a provincial town, not the brasserie-cum-pub they won. âThis time round we must prepare them better,â he says. âThat is our job.â
This yearâs winners are undergoing an intensive six monthsâ training, first on paper, and then in the Brasserie Blanc training programme. Blanc is even considering initially giving them a smaller restaurant that wonât 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 â the Hoopers, Jamieâs Chef Aaron Craze or any of the recent Masterchef winners besides Thomasina Miers â it remains to be seen if this yearâs victors can make a go of it.
Part of his motivation behind the programme was to show how hard the industry can be. âUnless you have a game plan, a strong concept and a strong knowledge of the world of business, you are going to struggle,â he says. He also planned to address some of the misconceptions of life in the kitchen. âI wanted to do a positive programme and show that you donât 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.â
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 GordonÂ Ramsay two years ago, where he criticised the celebrity chefâs management style and was called in return âa French twatâ.
âIt is not just Gordon. Itâs 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 heâs achieved. Itâs 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?â
Those children who were allowed into the industry and ended up as adults in Blancâs kitchen still talk of him with the utmost warmth â MarcoÂ Pierre White went on record saying heâd never have gained his three stars were it not for a spell at Le Manoir â 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 donât carry the burden of culinary tradition like the French and Italians, he explains. And while this is liberating, we must ensure we donât lose sight of the origin of our food. âMy caution is that gastronomy takes a route from our souls, not from a million miles away. If we are dependent on imports, we donât connect as well. We need to ensure we connect with our sense of place, our own varieties.â
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.
âWe think we are in charge of our own destiny,â he says, âand we are for some of it, but certainly not all of it. I didnât 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.â
A third star
And so to that third star. Questions over the elusive accolade donât sit comfortably at first, I guess because Blanc is aware of the modern fixation with Michelin stars among chefs.
âI said it many years ago, and I still say it today: I donât work for stars,â he says. âI think itâs sad when young chefs work solely for stars, but I can see why it would be tempting. I would rather they work for excellence â to work at their best, to be their best and to progress â and if the stars are coming, itâs a by-product of that excellence.â
Has he wondered why the third star never came? âMaybe 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 â a modern classic â and I think we are doing just that. Iâm happy with my life Iâm happy with my team. Because I didnât get that third star, am I a lesser man? Is my team a worse team? I would have to say no to that.â
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. âIt is a shame about that Michelin star. To reward my team, not for my ego.â And it seems that, while the third star isnât by any means Le Manoirâs raison dâÃªtre, with the spa and farm complete, the elusive accolade will remain the last ungraspable piece of the jigsaw at his âcentre of excellenceâ.
Then he spins, slaps my shoulder and shakes my hand â âAll the best, eh?â â and hurries back to the house.
Le Manoirâs Michelin-starred alumni
Marco Pierre White
Â Harveys Restaurant and Marco Pierre White, London
Â Le Manoir aux QuatâSaisons, Oxfordshire
Â Â Homewood Park, Bath
Â Waldoâs Restaurant, Cliveden, Berkshire
John Burton Race
Â The Landmark, London
Â LâOrtolan, Shinfield, Berkshire
Â Gidleigh Park, Devon
Â Heathcoteâs, Longridge, Lancashire
Â The Capital, London
Â Chavot Restaurant, London
Â Pied Ã Terre, London
Â Richard Neat Restaurant, Cannes
Â Hambleton Hall, Oakham, Rutland
Â Homewood Park, Bath
Â Auberge de la Galupe, Urt, France
Â LâAltro Mastai, Rome
Â Mallory Court, Leamington Spa, Warwickshire
Â Inverlochy Castle, Fort William, Invernessâshire
Â Hunstrete House, Bristol
Â Whatley Manor, Malmesbury, Wiltshire
Â Bath Priory, Bath
Â LâOrtolan, Shinfield, Berkshire
Â The Vineyard at Stockcross, Newbury, Berkshire
Â Palazzo Sasso, Ravello, Italy
Trouble House, Tetbury, Gloucestershire
Â Ynyshir Hall, Eglwysfach, Powys
A Taste of My Life, by Raymond Blanc
Raymond Blancâs A Taste of My Life tells of his early desire to be a chef, the attempts and rejections â including that pan in the face â 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 Â£20.