I’M like a snail,” drawls chef supreme Raymond Blanc in a French accent that, 38 years after he arrived in the UK, remains as textured and ripe as a perfectly aged Camembert. “I’m stuck in my shell, and can only move very slowly.”
The reason for Blanc’s despondency is a fall he took at his Oxfordshire home a few weeks ago – he tripped heading downstairs, and missed the last five steps. “I’m a creative man, and I managed to do something very creative to my tibia and my ankle,” he says ruefully. He broke each in three different places, an appalling injury for anyone but particularly for someone as energetic and busy as the 60-year-old chef. After a stint in hospital, he’s been confined to quarters to recuperate.
That’s unhappily forced him to miss the opening of his latest venture, a restaurant right here in the Square Mile. Brasserie Blanc, opposite the Royal Exchange on Threadneedle Street, is the eighth branch of his smart but affordable brasserie chain, and Blanc’s first London enterprise. It opened yesterday.
It’s a canny time to be bringing Brasserie Blanc to the City, as the profusion of ultra-high-end dining rooms begin to seem a little out of time. Even Prism, the Leadenhall fine-dining institution, reinvented itself as a brasserie and bar at the start of the year to fit with the times. For Blanc – whose flagship restaurant is the two Michelin-starred Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons in Oxfordshire – it seemed obvious that City folk are ready for more relaxed, less costly dining.
“There are marvellous restaurants in the City, but there’s huge demand now for the kind of meals where the price isn’t going to make you fall off your seat with a heart attack, where you don’t have to sit there for ever but can eat and go in half an hour if you want,” he says. “It’s not trying to be like a ‘petit Manoir’, but the culture is the same – creating a place to celebrate oneself and to celebrate food.”
Brasserie Blanc includes a large dining room, a bar area – it has some choice real Ales, which the Frenchman admits he’s developed a taste for – and an upstairs lounge for more relaxed gatherings. Although the menu is in English (in keeping with Blanc’s desire to keep things accessible), he says the food is inspired – like his entire career – by his mother’s home cooking.
“It’s all about wholesomeness and simplicity, with lots of big, rustic, classical dishes,” he says. “I’m a peasant, and for me real gastronomy can be found as much in the simple food of ‘maman Blanc’ as in haute cuisine. With a brasserie, we want you to come once a week instead of once a year.”
Ironically, Blanc was in on the ground floor with molecular gastronomy, the science-heavy cuisine of Heston Blumenthal and Spanish chef Ferran Adria that seems the opposite of Blanc’s philosophy.
He worked with its inventor, Hungarian physicist Nick Kurti, long before Blumenthal entered his first professional kitchen. While Blanc admits to having enjoyed a 48-dish meal at Adria’s El Bulli restaurant – “the strongest food experience I’ve ever had, though by no means the best” – he dismisses molecular gastronomy now as a misunderstood fad.
“For me it was about demystifying food, not about making it more complicated. Really you need to understand the earth, the sun, the rain, the past of food. Science is just a part of it.”
Blanc describes how, as a child, he and his four siblings would spend hours seeding, growing and potting vegetables in the family garden, and hours more gathered round their mother’s stove. He laments the results of a survey in French magazine Madame Le Figaro and BBC food magazine Olive, which suggested Brits now spend more time cooking at home than his countrymen. “The French are embracing fast food, cooking less and less and families meeting less and less. It’s frightening – food requires effort, and people don’t want to make that any more.”
By contrast, he’s enthused by the interest in seasonality and sourcing that has flourished in this country recently. It’s made the UK a rather different environment for a cook than the chips-n-beans society into which he arrived in the early Seventies.
“In the past people snapped food up, chewed it up, defecated it and didn’t care,” he exclaims. “We were heartless consumers. But now we are reconnecting our food with place, with society, with family, with provenance. London is a wonderful example of the great success of this – it’s the most exciting place to eat in Europe.”
No wonder he wants to open a place here. Maman Blanc would be proud.
Brasserie Blanc, 60 Threadneedle Street, EC2R 8HP. Email email@example.com or call 0207 710 9440 to make a reservation.
CV | RAYMOND BLANC
Born: 1949 in Besançon, France .
Restaurants: the two-Michelin starred Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons at Great Milton in Oxfordshire; brasserie chain Brasserie Blanc; patisserie chain Maison Blanc.
TV: The Restaurant; Kitchen Secrets
Books: A Taste of My Life; Foolproof French Cookery; Blanc Vite.
Brasserie Blanc is offering one reader and a colleague or friend the once in a lifetime opportunity to cook with Raymond Blanc in the kitchens of the new Brasserie Blanc. To enter, please send an answer to the following question to firstname.lastname@example.org:
On which street is the City branch of Brasserie Blanc?