This year marks the 35th anniversary of Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons and the 70th birthday of its charismatic founder Raymond Blanc. The chef-hotelier explains to Chris Gamm how he’s stayed on top of his game for so long
What was your vision for Le Manoir?
In the beginning, there were two other important people: Jenny, my ex-wife, and Alan Desenclos, my restaurant director. We had worked together for three years at Les Quat’Saisons (which opened in Summertown, Oxford, in 1981, before moving to its current home in Great Milton, Oxfordshire, in 1984).
We won our two Michelin stars at Les Quat’Saisons as a tiny place with a 1956 oven and 1962 Kenwood mixer, with a cheap print of Paris on the wall and red and white tablecloths. That’s where the vision for Le Manoir was born, in that tiny little place.
When we moved to Le Manoir, it was very hard. I was self-taught and had little knowledge of hotels. We had to redo the foundations, roof, plumbing and re-wiring. It was immense. Creating a whole place, not just food, but beautiful gardens and rooms, was frightening.
What’s changed in the past 35 years?
It’s constant change, but never a revolution. You need to always be curious. It’s easy to do a classic dish or beautiful room, but that dish will be murdered in no time if you stop looking at it with curiosity. You need to ask ‘what could I do better?’ every day.
I never follow fashions. Never, never, never. Fashions come and go. What I follow is what the modern guests want today and tomorrow. You have to change the food, service and design according to what the modern guest wants.
What does this look like in 2019?
Before, luxury was all about gold, heavy carpets, quite proper waiters, heavy chintz and guests wearing suits. Now it’s finished. Guests are totally exhausted. When they go to a restaurant, they want to find that joie de vivre. They don’t want to dress up or receive obsessive service. They want to let go and celebrate.
Also, luxury has been careless in terms of waste, provenance, pollution and environment. It’s time that we made luxury much more responsible.
And how is the food changing?
I’m currently reinventing the food with Gary Jones [Le Manoir’s chef de cuisine for 20 years], because we have too many garnishes. Imagine the cost, time and stress of having 10 garnishes. It’s not modern food any more. We have already created two dishes, including a wonderful langoustine with miso, which can be created in five steps. Less is more.
There will be less stress in the kitchen; food will be hotter; it will taste better; and I’ll save two hours per day. The cost of the garnish will be reinvested into better main ingredients.
Are the wine lists getting the same treatment?
I’ve sacked 50 sommeliers in the last 35 years for being too pompous with their knowledge, so haughty, like a high priest. I’ve recently cut the list from 1,600 wines to 600. People shouldn’t be frightened by a wine list.
Also, wine is possibly the worst culprit in the use of chemicals. There can be 1,000 chemicals used, with the crops sprayed 20 times, but the label says nothing. That’s not gastronomy. It’s the best kept secret in the wine industry. Today’s world wants clean wines. Our wine is organic, biodynamic and from artisans who make great wine.
How have you adapted to the growth of veganism and vegetarianism?
We’ve offered vegan menus for a long time. On the first day of opening I had a vegetarian 15-course meal. This was when there were no vegetarians – 0.001% of people. It was a bit crazy. Probably only one person ordered it.
Equally, veganism is all part of that modern consumer. It’s a huge opportunity for a chef to be creative. To use vegetables not as a little garnish on the side, but as a fully grown dish. Never mind if it’s called vegan, let’s call it a dish.
How have you maintained excellence for 35 years?
Firstly, it’s about choosing your team carefully, so you surround yourself with the very best people – whether it’s a washer-up, waiter, chef or housekeeper.
Then you have to reinvent yourself every day. Once you’ve touched excellence, immediately, it’s gone. You have to drive your team to higher achievements. If you don’t, you will quickly become totally irrelevant, very quickly.
How has your management team changed?
Our new general manager, Eveline Noort, is a joy. We will move twice as fast as she has an extraordinary mix of knowledge, management skills, people skills, emotional intelligence and project management skills.
The management team needs to be completely reinvented to deal with millennials. You can’t just tell them what to do and throw them into the deep end. Today, young people need so much more support and attention. We are retraining all the management and chefs to understand millennials, to be more sensitive, to have dialogue and be less prescriptive.
What would you do differently if you could go back in time?
I would probably work a bit less, grow slower, delegate more, plan better, learn to read a spreadsheet faster and get the best banker, accountant and manager in earlier. Before, it was all led by emotional intelligence and intuitive values and that search for excellence. That means I didn’t really like accountants at the beginning. You have to learn from mistakes. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
Why have so many successful chefs come through Le Manoir over the years?
I saw too many bad things in our industry. I didn’t want to be part of this. I wanted to impart my values of provenance, training, looking after young people, growing them and involving them in the detail.
If I teach you how to peel a carrot, you know everything about it – the soil, variety, what size it should be, whether to peel that carrot or not, how to wash it and cut it to get the maximum texture and flavour and how to cook it.
What projects are you working on now?
Over the next two years, we’re going to grow the vegetable garden into a farm eight times bigger than what it is now. The existing vegetable garden will become an art garden. Next year, we’re launching an art school and raw cookery school.
We are also creating a bee village with all different styles of beehouses. As well as that, we’ll be doing chicken houses in the next three months, with 200 mostly French chickens and a few British cockerels. It will provide the hotel with our own eggs, as well as a lovely story to share with guests.
Do you have any plans for retirement?
It’s not for me to decide that. This year we celebrate 35 years here at Belmond Le Manoir and I hope they are keen to have me continue to work with my team to provide the very, very best we can. All my other activities, such as Jardin Blanc at the Chelsea Flower Show, where we serve 6,500 people, and my TV programmes, generate great interest.
I’ve established the virtues of this place – authenticity, truth, care of young people. I’m proud of that and it’s not been easy, but reaching 35 years is a fantastic achievement.