Raymond Blanc reconsiders the cost of going organic

30 September 2010
Raymond Blanc reconsiders the cost of going organic

Rising food costs has caused Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons to rethink its plans to increase the use of organic produce. Chef-patron Raymond Blanc explains.

Global warming, food securities, desertification and many other threats are now facts and will impact our businesses. I am fascinated by the issues that lie behind these problems and find the detail gripping, because some of these are deep matters. These are factors that influence the future of our businesses - and impact on world agriculture and yields.

Our food costs have increased frighteningly since last year. Just to take a few examples from Le Manoir's own provisioning: our blueberries have gone up by 16% since 2009, butter 4.5%, flour nearly 12%, Jabugo ham 15%, Manuka honey 11.5% and milk by more than 8%.

Of course, food costs are not the only increases we have to cope with - energy and fuel prices are always rising, labour costs seldom decrease and even VAT is going up in January. We're talking of the actual costs of doing business.

So far, Gary [Jones, my executive head chef] and I have managed over the years to absorb most of the increases in the food that we buy. We have achieved this with a mix of good management, sourcing skills, craft skills and intense training. We use every bit of the animal, fish or vegetable: for many years we have been using fish such as pollack, megrim sole, mackerel, sardines, etc. Meanwhile, our seas are becoming depleted of these species. All of our choices are at all times guided by seasonality. After all, we are called Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons. At Brasserie Blanc we also follow the same principles.

At all times we apply the strictest rules of provenance, good ethics and systems of husbandry, good farming practices and the best choice of assurance schemes. We have performed miracles to keep our food costs down and still give our guests the very best we can. And I must pay credit to Gary and the team.

Having done all of that, now, the food cost can only go up. There is only so much ingenuity a chef can bring to cook a plaice or pollack.

We have a number of choices:

Trade down. This would damage our profile and aspirations; it would also undermine 25 years of excellence and, long term, our business module - jamais! (never)

â- Increase our prices - it is a certainty. Our guests will have to absorb some of the increase. How much - I have no idea?

My role at Le Manoir is to ensure that I protect the business the best I can. I do this by planning ahead and every year I review the five-year plan with Philip Newman-Hall, general manager, and Gary, and we either prepare the business for a new level of excellence or, today, for the worst-case scenario.

Last year my aim was to increase our use of organic produce from 31.4% to 80% by 2014. Today I have been wrong-footed; the plan that I set up is not achievable owing to the huge environmental changes impacting on the cost of food.

Currently we have:

â- 31.4% of wild-organic and biodynamic produce.

â- 41.7% of quality assurance scheme produce - ie, freedom food, such as Label Rouge.

â- 26.9% of lower assurance scheme produce - ie, naturally produced, such as Red Tractor, Lion, FABBL.

My aim was to achieve 80% organic and biodynamic produce by 2014, reduce use of quality assurance produce from 41% to 15% and cut down from 26.9% to 5% the lower assurance scheme produce. This will have a huge impact on our bottom line and profitability.

To achieve 80% organic and biodynamic produce, our food cost will need to increase from 28% to 34% by 2014, a 6% increase (£560,000 net cost over five year - this is not acceptable. I will have to revise the increase of organic from 80% to a more manageable 50%.

Other steps we are taking are to increase the size of our vegetable garden from 1.5 acres to three acres. At present the vegetable garden gives us a 2% saving on our food cost. We have drilled into our bore hole which will soon allow us to bottle our own water. We are presently setting up our own 20-acre orchard which will reconnect with our own lost orchard tradition, local values and celebrate the entente cordiale

On the menu, we will rely less on animal protein and exercise our creativity on the magnificent vegetables, herbs, fungi, etc.

It has always been my policy and belief to buy local as much as possible, these past years even more so, as the farming craft has so much improved. Local and seasonal makes sense, it is close to home, has a better taste, colour, texture and withholds more nutrients. It also has the virtue of being cheaper as there is usually a glut of it.

Local production will minimise our carbon footprint and revive local farming traditions. So, not only will we see a revival of local food, a more stable price, but also a better long-term business model.

Shall we?


Catch up with Raymond Blanc's weekly blog at www.caterersearch.com/blancblog, where Raymond gives a unique insight into Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons and shares his thoughts on the challenges facing the industry.

Recent posts have included: Action Against Hunger: Fight Hunger, Eat Out; A tribute to M Alain Desenclos, Le Manoir's restaurant director; Back in the kitchen, cooking on one leg; and Dress Code: take off the jackets, undo the ties


Caterer and Hotelkeeper and Raymond Blanc would like to hold a chefs' forum later this year to discuss the issues highlighted in this article. If you would like to take part, please eâ€'mail amanda.afiya@rbi.co.uk.

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