When I was 23 years old, after I had done time with [Albert] Roux and [Pierre] Koffmann, I found myself working for a chef who was soft and inquisitive. He was a man who actually asked for my opinions and who wanted to know about my passion for food. In fact, Raymond Blanc was so enthusiastic and encouraging that I discovered a sense of freedom, and that is when my confidence started to grow. It seemed as if I had done painting by numbers and now I was being given a blank canvas. Or even a Blanc canvas. If I had never worked with Raymond I would never have gone on to achieve my three-star dream.
The foundations of Raymond's food were classically French, but the concept was lighter. There were no full-bodied sauces. Raymond knew that Mother Nature was the real artist.
Although his creative influence was sporadic it was more often than not inspired. He would get an idea for something - a vision - and then he would throw on an apron and get to work. I would watch and absorb. He showed me how to question every little part of creating a dish and taught me how to question my palate. A typical Raymond lesson would go like this, "Say you take two decilitres of chicken stock in two different pans. You reduce one down quickly, the other slowly. The taste of each stock is completely different because if you reduce something rapidly you retain the flavour. By reducing it slowly it stews and you lose freshness and sharpness."
Then there was the question of seasoning food. "Don't just chuck in some salt and think that you've seasoned it," he'd say. "Taste it, taste it, taste it. Get inside the food."
When he wasn't being a genius cook, he was a comedy act; a funny, accident-prone figure - like Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau. And, for all his elements of genius and spontaneity, he had an annoying habit of changing things at the last minute - adding an ingredient, playing around with the picture on the plate - in the middle of service.
If Raymond asked if you were OK the response had to be, "I'm fine, Chef." I didn't want him joining in. I kept my surfaces clean and tidy and that way Raymond thought I was all right. If there was mess all over the place, he reckoned I was in need of assistance. I was on Meat once when I sensed his presence and heard that chilling question, "Can I help you?"
"Can you do the duck please, Chef?" "Where is it, Marco?" "In the oven, Chef."
Raymond bent down, removed the pan from the oven and placed it on the stove. Then he took the duck from the pan, chopped up the bird, turned around without the cloth and seized the scorching pan handle with his bare hands. His palm sizzled and Raymond crouched down in agony. He had welded himself to the blisteringly hot metal. Even the customers in the restaurant must have heard his torture-chamber screams of misery. The skin on his palm rapidly tightened and I zoomed in for an inspection of the claw. In the centre of his purple palm there was a white dot, left by the hole where the handle hung from a hook. I feel for him now, but at the time it was the sort of Raymond episode that made the brigade chortle.
White-balled at the footie match The whistle did not leave Raymond's mouth. The chef was now Ref. He bit the whistle, sucked it and every ten seconds blew hard, piercing the blissful tranquillity of Great Milton with its high-pitched rattle. On one side were Le Manoir's French waiters, with the other team being made up of the restaurant's chefs, who were mostly Brits. Raymond, as you can imagine, was doing all he could to swing the game for his fellow countrymen.
It seemed that every time the kitchen brigade got the ball Raymond's cheeks would puff up and we'd hear the dreaded shriek of his whistle. It didn't matter whether or not we'd fouled, Raymond would stop play to award free kicks to the waiters and wave cards at the chefs with the agility of a croupier.
"This is crazy, Chef," I shouted a few minutes into the second half. "You're blowing the whistle every two seconds. You're nuts."
He flipped. For a second or two he was speechless, perhaps pondering my impudence. Then, crimson-faced, he raised an arm and pointed to the sidelines. I thought I was about to be sent off, but instead he yelled, "You're sacked." I was astonished. The huddle of villagers who had gathered to watch the game started muttering. Great Milton had never known such drama.
I repeated the word back to Raymond, "Sacked?" It was all too comical for words, and when I started to snigger Raymond looked puzzled. "Why are you laughing at me, Marco?" "Because when I get back to London I'll tell Albert [Roux] that I was sacked for playing football and he's going to think you're a lunatic." As I marched off the pitch I heard him bark, "In my office at five thirty."
I tried to reflect on the match rather than my future. Although it had been billed as the English versus the French it was something akin to Millwall (chefs) versus Chelsea (waiters). In the kitchen we'd come up with a motto, an adage that explained our tactics: ‘The ball might go past but never the player." The waiters had certainly sustained a few injuries and maybe Raymond was right to be so whistle-happy.
At 5.30 I went along to Raymond's office. Would this be it? Was I to get my P45 for calling him crazy on the pitch? Raymond, however, was remorseful and drained of rage. "Let's forget about what happened in the football game," he said and we shook hands.
I'd got my job back. In service that evening and for a few days afterwards, the waiters were limping like walking wounded. Diners being greeted by black-eyed Frenchmen must have felt as though they'd stepped into A&E at Oxford General. The waiters never mentioned a rematch.
Harveys The same two questions always crop up about Harveys. First, was I really so nasty to my chefs? Second, did I really kick people out of the restaurant? Dealing with the staff issue first. Yes, I was a hard boss. I expected my chefs and waiters to match my commitment, and I let them know that. If joining Gavroche was the culinary equivalent of joining the Foreign Legion, then taking a job at Harveys was like joining the SAS. We were a small unit of hard nuts.
In the kitchen, the first three weeks was the toughest period for the new boys. By the end of it they were usually fucked, having lost a stone in weight, gained a dazed expression and cried themselves dry. That was when the shaking started - and when many of them left. One day they were there, the next day they were gone. If they could make it into the fourth week they were doing well and those who, like Gordon Ramsay, lasted longer than a year at Harveys were by and large destined for acclaim.
In order to achieve my dream I reckoned I needed a brigade with army-standard discipline and, as I had learned at Gavroche, discipline is born out of fear. When you fear, you question. If you don't fear something, you don't question it in the same way. And if you have fear in the kitchen you'll never take a shortcut. If you don't fear the boss, you'll take shortcuts, you'll turn up late. My brigade had to feel pain, push themselves to the limits, and only then would they know what they were capable of achieving. I was forcing them to make decisions. The ones who left, well, fine, at least they had decided a Michelin-starred kitchen was not for them.
The thing is, a bollocking isn't personal. It's a short - sometimes not so short - sharp shock. It's an extremely loud wake-up call. It's smell the bloody espresso time. In the heat of service, I didn't have time to say, "Arnold, would you mind speeding up a little, please?" I couldn't stop cheffing, couldn't take my mind off the game in order to say politely, "Gordon, when do you think you might finish the guinea fowl, old boy?" I had to be heard to deliver the message and the message was: "Do it now and do it right."
They all knew this and they all understood it. That is why, when a chef is receiving a bollocking, none of his colleagues jump in to defend him. The rest of the brigade look down and carry on with the job. Each one of them knows that sooner or later he will be the one getting a bollocking. I created fear but I don't remember anyone ever saying, "Marco, enough is enough. Pack it in." I'm convinced that a mile-wide streak of sado-masochism ran through the Harveys brigade. They were all pain junkies, they had to be. They couldn't get enough of the bollockings.