Raymond Blanc on spas, Michelin stars, TV shows and Le Manoir

30 October 2008 by
Raymond Blanc on spas, Michelin stars, TV shows and Le Manoir

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 http://www.caterersearch.com/Articles/2008/10/30/324365/raymond-blanc-to-go-into-business-with-2008s-the-restaurant.html" target="_blank" rel="noreferrer">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

Accompanying him on a tour of his hotel itÁ¢Â€Â™s hard to imagine when heÁ¢Â€Â™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 10Á¢Â€Â'15 years ahead, and he knows that by then heÁ¢Â€Â™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 ManoirÁ¢Â€Â™s new plans.

The goal, as he sees it, is Á¢Â€Âœto 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 itÁ¢Â€Â. He has, technicalities aside, the dream of a spa on the vegetable garden: Á¢Â€ÂœThe best spa in Europe. Incredible! Incredible!Á¢Â€Â and a 27-acre small farm: Á¢Â€ÂœOne of the best micro-farms in the country. Mindblowing.Á¢Â€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 Á¢Â€Â" but weÁ¢Â€Â™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. Á¢Â€ÂœI 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 itÁ¢Â€Â™s just polishing, polishing, polishing.Á¢Â€Â

If the finished article is in sight Á¢Â€Â" a Á¢Â€Âœcentre of excellence a modern classicÁ¢Â€Â, as he refers to it Á¢Â€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. Á¢Â€ÂœI have learnt one of the biggest strengths a person can have: the ability to admit that they donÁ¢Â€Â™t know everything. And if they donÁ¢Â€Â™t know it, to find the person who does.Á¢Â€Â When did this dawn on him? Á¢Â€ÂœI am a slow learner, so maybe only in the past 10 years.Á¢Â€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. Á¢Â€ÂœWe 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.Á¢Â€Â

Brasserie Blanc

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 BlancÁ¢Â€Â™s realisation that Á¢Â€Âœif you donÁ¢Â€Â™t know it, find someone who doesÁ¢Â€Â comes from this appointment. Á¢Â€ÂœI 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 Á¢Â€Â" the multi-site.Á¢Â€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 Á¢Â€Â" the result of experience maybe, or a mellowing with age Á¢Â€Â" Blanc wears his shortcomings on his sleeve. Á¢Â€ÂœIÁ¢Â€Â™m self-taught. Sometimes I wish IÁ¢Â€Â™d had a mentor or been to business school. I didnÁ¢Â€Â™t have that, so I had to learn from my own mistakes.Á¢Â€Â

ItÁ¢Â€Â™s this lack of a mentor that fuels his dedication to training. Nineteen Michelin-starred chefs have passed through Le ManoirÁ¢Â€Â™s kitchen, and the management team is ferociously loyal. Á¢Â€ÂœI never had anyone who could truly help me. Turning from a waiter to a chef-patron and having to teach as you learn Á¢Â€Â" by God, it is hard. It is hard.Á¢Â€Â

It also helps explain his fist major foray into television. Á¢Â€ÂœAt first I said IÁ¢Â€Â™d never do reality TV. But then I realised it was just up my street.Á¢Â€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. Á¢Â€ÂœIt made sense: teaching, inspiring, getting young people into the industry and giving them the right tools to succeed.Á¢Â€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 XÁ‚ Factor-style overnight success on screen. Á¢Â€ÂœOf 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.Á¢Â€Â

It certainly is not so. Last yearÁ¢Â€Â™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. Á¢Â€ÂœIt wasnÁ¢Â€Â™t their dream,Á¢Â€Â claims Blanc. They wanted a smaller fine-dining restaurant in a provincial town, not the brasserie-cum-pub they won. Á¢Â€ÂœThis time round we must prepare them better,Á¢Â€Â he says. Á¢Â€ÂœThat is our job.Á¢Â€Â

This yearÁ¢Â€Â™s winners are undergoing an intensive six monthsÁ¢Â€Â™ training, first on paper, and then in the Brasserie Blanc training programme. Blanc is even considering initially giving them a smaller restaurant that wonÁ¢Â€Â™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 Á¢Â€Â" the Hoopers, JamieÁ¢Â€Â™s Chef Aaron Craze or any of the recent Masterchef winners besides Thomasina Miers Á¢Â€Â" it remains to be seen if this yearÁ¢Â€Â™s victors can make a go of it.

Part of his motivation behind the programme was to show how hard the industry can be. Á¢Â€ÂœUnless you have a game plan, a strong concept and a strong knowledge of the world of business, you are going to struggle,Á¢Â€Â he says. He also planned to address some of the misconceptions of life in the kitchen. Á¢Â€ÂœI wanted to do a positive programme and show that you donÁ¢Â€Â™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.Á¢Â€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 GordonÁ‚ Ramsay two years ago, where he criticised the celebrity chefÁ¢Â€Â™s management style and was called in return Á¢Â€Âœa French twatÁ¢Â€Â.

Á¢Â€ÂœIt is not just Gordon. ItÁ¢Â€Â™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 heÁ¢Â€Â™s achieved. ItÁ¢Â€Â™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?Á¢Â€Â

Those children who were allowed into the industry and ended up as adults in BlancÁ¢Â€Â™s kitchen still talk of him with the utmost warmth Á¢Â€Â" MarcoÁ‚ Pierre White went on record saying heÁ¢Â€Â™d never have gained his three stars were it not for a spell at Le Manoir Á¢Â€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 donÁ¢Â€Â™t carry the burden of culinary tradition like the French and Italians, he explains. And while this is liberating, we must ensure we donÁ¢Â€Â™t lose sight of the origin of our food. Á¢Â€ÂœMy caution is that gastronomy takes a route from our souls, not from a million miles away. If we are dependent on imports, we donÁ¢Â€Â™t connect as well. We need to ensure we connect with our sense of place, our own varieties.Á¢Â€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.

Á¢Â€ÂœWe think we are in charge of our own destiny,Á¢Â€Â he says, Á¢Â€Âœand we are for some of it, but certainly not all of it. I didnÁ¢Â€Â™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.Á¢Â€Â

A third star

And so to that third star. Questions over the elusive accolade donÁ¢Â€Â™t sit comfortably at first, I guess because Blanc is aware of the modern fixation with Michelin stars among chefs.

Á¢Â€ÂœI said it many years ago, and I still say it today: I donÁ¢Â€Â™t work for stars,Á¢Â€Â he says. Á¢Â€ÂœI think itÁ¢Â€Â™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 Á¢Â€Â" to work at their best, to be their best and to progress Á¢Â€Â" and if the stars are coming, itÁ¢Â€Â™s a by-product of that excellence.Á¢Â€Â

Has he wondered why the third star never came? Á¢Â€ÂœMaybe 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 Á¢Â€Â" a modern classic Á¢Â€Â" and I think we are doing just that. IÁ¢Â€Â™m happy with my life IÁ¢Â€Â™m happy with my team. Because I didnÁ¢Â€Â™t get that third star, am I a lesser man? Is my team a worse team? I would have to say no to that.Á¢Â€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. Á¢Â€ÂœIt is a shame about that Michelin star. To reward my team, not for my ego.Á¢Â€Â And it seems that, while the third star isnÁ¢Â€Â™t by any means Le ManoirÁ¢Â€Â™s raison dÁ¢Â€Â™ÁƒÂªtre, with the spa and farm complete, the elusive accolade will remain the last ungraspable piece of the jigsaw at his Á¢Â€Âœcentre of excellenceÁ¢Â€Â.

Then he spins, slaps my shoulder and shakes my hand Á¢Â€Â" Á¢Â€ÂœAll the best, eh?Á¢Â€Â Á¢Â€Â" and hurries back to the house.

Le ManoirÁ¢Â€Â™s Michelin-starred alumni

Marco Pierre White

Á‚ Harveys Restaurant and Marco Pierre White, London

Gary Jones

Á‚ Le Manoir aux QuatÁ¢Â€Â™Saisons, Oxfordshire

Á‚ Á‚ Homewood Park, Bath

Á‚ WaldoÁ¢Â€Â™s Restaurant, Cliveden, Berkshire

John Burton Race

Á‚ The Landmark, London

Á‚ LÁ¢Â€Â™Ortolan, Shinfield, Berkshire

Michael Caines

Á‚ Gidleigh Park, Devon

Paul Heathcote

Á‚ HeathcoteÁ¢Â€Â™s, Longridge, Lancashire

Eric Chavot

Á‚ The Capital, London

Á‚ Chavot Restaurant, London

Richard Neat

Á‚ Pied Áƒ Terre, London

Á‚ Richard Neat Restaurant, Cannes

Aaron Patterson

Á‚ Hambleton Hall, Oakham, Rutland

Andy Hamer

Á‚ Homewood Park, Bath

Eric Barbe

Á‚ Auberge de la Galupe, Urt, France

Fabio Baldassarre

Á‚ LÁ¢Â€Â™Altro Mastai, Rome

Simon Haigh

Á‚ Mallory Court, Leamington Spa, Warwickshire

Á‚ Inverlochy Castle, Fort William, InvernessÁ¢Â€Â'shire

Stewart Eddy

Á‚ Hunstrete House, Bristol

Martin Burge

Á‚ Whatley Manor, Malmesbury, Wiltshire

Chris Horridge

Á‚ Bath Priory, Bath

Alan Murchison

Á‚ LÁ¢Â€Â™Ortolan, Shinfield, Berkshire

Peter Eaton

Á‚ The Vineyard at Stockcross, Newbury, Berkshire

Pino Lavara

Á‚ Palazzo Sasso, Ravello, Italy

Michael Bedford

Trouble House, Tetbury, Gloucestershire

Adam Simmonds

Á‚ Ynyshir Hall, Eglwysfach, Powys

A Taste of My Life, by Raymond Blanc

Raymond BlancÁ¢Â€Â™s A Taste of My Life tells of his early desire to be a chef, the attempts and rejections Á¢Â€Â" including that pan in the face Á¢Â€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 Á‚£20.

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