Everything went Blanc

The original outspoken chef on Margaret Thatcher, family and how he single-handedly saved British cuisine

The original outspoken chef on Margaret Thatcher, family and how he single-handedly saved British cuisine

Photography: Paul Whitfield

ABOARD the Eurostar, Raymond Blanc is enjoying having his photograph taken. Lush Kent countryside whizzes past the window as he leans forward to give the camera his finest grin de fromage. Next, he’s sliding his glasses down his nose to perform a joke-sexy scowl. Ooh la la. At least I think it’s a joke: Blanc isn’t shy of talking about how much he likes sex. Nor is he shy about making reference to the attractiveness of the PR woman accompanying us.

He has invited me to travel with him so he can show off his new menu for the Eurostar. “You are sitting here, wiz an entire carriage to yourselss wiz Raymond Blanc and we are going to make you breakfast: you cannot expect more zan zees!”

Blanc likes to refer to himself in the third person. He knows better than anyone about the “Raymond Blanc” brand that has seduced the British for the past 35 years. He represents an essentialised version of Frenchness, similar to the way British expats caricature themselves with Marmite and Union Jacks. It’s an embodiment of continental romanticism and a passionate antidote to our English stiffness. When he set up Le Manoir au Quat’Saisons in Oxford in the ‘70s, he provided an exotic alternative to the dreary fare that was the standard in British restaurants of the time. What he offered was virtually non-existent: a marriage of food and feeling.

Every word he says is imbued with a kind of hyper emotion – the Eurostar isn’t just a train, it’s “total elegance, beauty and modernity. When it launched I was staying in Paris and I saw this great long thing arriving from Great Britain, linking those two countries... that strong umbilical link that didn’t exist before.”

Who is the mother?

“I will not go into that,” he says. “It gets too complicated. But what I liked was that two countries that were always divided were suddenly connected. I love that idea. And aesthetically it was a beautiful train. It defied everything that had gone before. It was modern. It used electricity, no petrol or diesel. It was magical, a bullet coming through the station. I said ‘one day, I will run the food on this train’.”

Like the Eurostar, once he’s off, there’s no stopping him. It’s exhausting trying to get him to answer my questions. It’s not that he’s evasive – there are few no go areas with Blanc – he’s just so gripped by certain subjects that it’s impossible to derail him. On sustainability, seasonality, locality, family he talks and talks and talks. Every exclamation about the importance of local produce is backed up by an anecdote about “this little family in Brussels who make the best cheese in the world” or “a farm in Sussex with the most wonderful chickens”.

One thing he’s not so hot on is geography. Somewhere just beyond Ashford we speed past a huddle of cows and a tractor. Blanc stops mid sentence and says “Was that Paddington?”

“What, the station?” I ask, unsure whether I’ve heard him right.

“Yes.”

Er... no. The Eurostar has never been through Paddington and I’m willing to bet it never will. Later, he is describing one of the suppliers for his new menu. We have one company in Sussex. Sorry, Essex. No Sussex. No Essex...” He grins at his assistant. “Sussex or Essex?”

“Sussex.”

“Ah yes, Sussex. Kent and Sussex are the warmest parts of England so they have the best food...” It is strange that he knows Sussex is the warmest part of the UK but he couldn’t differentiate it from Essex, and I get the sense that it is a flirtatious playing dumb for the benefit of the PR woman. It’s difficult to imagine him being ignorant about anything. A voracious curiosity has left him with fully formed, articulate opinions on politics, business, management, branding, science. Every word is lit up by a fidgety intelligence.

OTHER than make the food for the Eurostar, Blanc nurtured two ambitions from an early age. “One was to own a beautiful restaurant in a lovely cottage in England, and I fell in love with the Manoir. The other came after I first saw Covent Garden at night. I saw the top of this beautiful building with a balustrade and I said: one day I will be the waiter here, or the chef. Now we own it,” he says, with a satisfied smile.

From my mum I learned that food is an act of love. If you give a horrible burger, that's an act of hate.

The early chapters of Raymond Blanc’s life are full of such mythology. Things don’t just happen to him. None of his stories start with: “They contacted my agent and it was decent money so I thought ‘yeah, why not’”. He has to see something, fall in love, have a dream and realise it. The journey from French obscurity to British household name is similarly storied. In his hometown of Besancon in the Franche Comte region of southern France, he was working as a waiter alongside a huge, moustachioed chef with a short temper. Blanc made the mistake of criticising the cook’s sauce (too salty, apparently) and got a jaw-shattering frying pan to the face for his honesty. Unable to return to his old waiting job, he left for Britain in 1972, where his old boss put him in touch with a restaurateur in Oxford. It took him three days to get there because his English was so bad. Blank expressions would spread across drivers’ faces as the wildly gesticulating Frenchman demanded directions to “Hoxfor”. He soon found his feet and, after just five years, opened his first restaurant. Two years later he earned his first Michelin star. Two years after that he earned his second.

Blanc is the original culinary evangelist, arriving in England from foreign lands, sent to spread the good word that food is something to agonise over, care about and, heaven forbid, enjoy. All religions need their creation myths. But are they just that – myths? Sometimes it sounds a bit too perfect, a bit too romantic. Tentatively, I ask: is it all true? Did you really get your jaw smashed by a frying pan? Did you really always want to design the menu for the Eurostar (a strange ambition, it seems to me, for an aspiring chef)? He becomes animated. “Yes! I had to work in the bloody garden when my friends played football and then I had to cut wood for three months. I know what it means to create a six-bedroom house with my own hands. I helped my father saw the trees, lift the icy wood in winter. That mythology is bloody lived! It is not mythology. Well it is, but it is real. It is what happened.”

That background instilled Blanc with the belief that when food is treated properly, it can literally offer salvation. It “connects with everything”, he says, and can deliver us from the social problems he sees Britain struggling with today. “My mother and father taught me that food is about civility and nobility, that it is an act of love. You share it, I know it sounds corny but my God I wish there would be a bit more love in Great Britain. There wouldn’t be so much social dysfunction. The mistake we have made is to reduce food to a mere commodity, in which the only values and virtues are cheapness and shelf life.”

The waiter brings over a range of dishes to try from Blanc’s new menu. The staff are visibly nervous at having to perform in front of the king. He points at the smoked salmon and crayfish timbale: “I’m happy with that.” Then at the ham hock terrine with homemade piccalilli: “I’m happy with that...” Then at the asparagus with shallot dressing: “I’m not happy with that. I’m not happy with that. Too greasy! If it looks greasy then it tastes greasy.” I think it looks quite nice, I say. “Well, you are an Englishman.”

Despite my failure to note the over-dressed asparagus, Blanc is keen to recognise transformational progress that British food has made in recent years. Arriving in Britain in the ‘70s he was shocked at the stiffness of British mealtimes. “They would never, ever talk about the food they were eating. It was boring. They would never play footsie under the table. They would sit with their arse...” he laughs impishly. “Sorry... bottom at the edge of their seat and hold their spoon perpendicular to their bodies and suck the food into their mouths. The atmosphere murdered any joy. From my mum I learned that food is an act of love, and if you give a horrible burger that’s an act of hate.”

FOR all the theatrical exasperation at the culinary failings of the English, our incompetence has been something of a blessing for Blanc. Arriving in Britain in 1972, he was presented with a blank slate; the opportunity to lead the charge of an entire generation. Yes he’s become rich, but he’s also created a “legacy”, of which he is rightly proud. He has trained 27 of Britain’s Michelin Starred chefs, and hundreds of other culinary craftsmen have passed through his kitchen. Talk of seasonality, provenance, locality and “great British ingredients” is today familiar to the point of tedium, but Blanc was doing all that long before supermarkets began putting “West Country” and “oak cured” on their ploughman’s sandwiches. Even now, he says, we don’t care enough about where our food comes from: “That’s how you end up with horse in your burger!”

The horsemeat scandal must have been pretty funny for the French... “The French are laughing – I can hear them as we speak. All of France laughed. You have not just eaten horse for the last six months: you have been eating it for the last 40 years. All of France has always known that Britain was a dumping ground for bad food.”

Now it’s time for the main courses: British lamb confit with pea and marjoram purée, and cod fillet with a tomato and caper compote. He removes the lids from the dishes and inspects them. “You see this,” he says, pointing to the top of the lamb. “It is too dry. Next time we will put a bit of foil on and it will keep the meat moist.” He spots no such imperfections with the cod. He approves of the taste too: “Voila! Perfection!” It is good, but I find it hard to get too excited about a piece of cod in tomato sauce so I’m getting stuck into the lamb. “Hey, leave some for me!” he says when he notices that I’m well on my way to eating the whole thing.

“Sorry it’s just really good.” He looks at me almost pityingly. How can this man favour the dry lamb over the perfectly cooked fish?

Perfectionism has taken its toll on his private life; two strokes and two marriages, to be precise. They say you have to be a bit mad to be a top chef, a control freak, if not an egomaniac. “I used to be a total control freak – you have to be when a grand vision is in your mind. You don’t have time to show others how to do it. Now I know how to take time out to share my vision with people, to use somebody else’s intelligence. By having a bigger team you have more intelligence around you, so you should learn to use it. That’s what I teach my younger chefs. I worked all my life. Eighteen to 20 hours a day, seven days a week. I had two divorces because my life was totally imbalanced. I would never tell anyone to do it that way.”

These days, has he achieved balanced?

“No, not balance. What is balance? It is a dream! I always wish there was more time to spend with my family more time to spend with my friends.” Does he ever plan on retiring? “We are fire flies passing by, and I am lucky to enjoy what I am doing. As long as I love people, I will continue to do what I do. When I stop loving people is when I give up and go fishing.”

This sounds like one of those too-good-to-be-truisms that us Brits love to swallow whole from Blanc. He makes food because of a love of people? Really? “Yes. People are hugely important. Because this is a hospitality business, it is about people.”

THE channel tunnel coughs us up into the pale, flat countryside of Nord-Pas-de-Calais. I’ve spent the past two hours sitting opposite the very embodiment of France, all “zees and zat” and wild gesticulation, and then suddenly France is all around us, airy, quiet, empty. What do his fellow countrymen make of the ambassadorial role he’s carved out for himself? “Nothing. They don’t know me.” It’s true. Raymond Blanc, the Frenchest man in the world, is a virtual unknown in France. Apparently this is about to change. “People are coming to me now. They are interested. Soon I will do serious business with France.”

Still, it would have to become far friendlier to business before he considered a permanent move back. French employment law, he says, is killing its food culture. “I will never go back to France until France changes... At the moment you feel penalised, judged... France has a maximum 35 hour week. I work 70 hours in a week. Minimum. Often it is 90 or 100 but I do that because I enjoy it. If you ask a nation to work 35 hours a week you can imagine the effect it has on business.”

After setting up shop in the late ‘70s, Blanc rode the wave of entrepreneurship that washed over Britain in the subsequent decade. He maintains that none of his success would have been possible in France. We happen to be travelling the day after Margaret Thatcher’s death. What are his feelings about the former PM? “When you are a surgeon who has to cut off a limb in order for the whole body to survive, you are not a popular person. I understand Thatcher was controversial, especially given that I am working class, but that woman was a great help to me. She helped me build my business and then she saved it when I got into trouble. We were short of money and in Le Manoir there was dry rot and wet rot – the more we uncovered the more problems we found. There were so many things we needed to put right: new electricity, new plumbing, everything. So I went directly to the government at ministerial level, which is quite unusual, and asked for a grant of £185,000. When I think about it, it was crazy. I was telling them I would train young Brits and that this restaurant was going to become one of the ten best places in the world. And we got it!

“It infuriated the Labour party, who said: ‘How can the government give this French nosebag £185,000 to create a temple of gastronomy for the few while the miners are dying of hunger’, which, of course, was brilliant PR.”

Could France do with a Margaret Thatcher? He smiles. “Dominique Strauss Kahn would have been a good answer. A finance man who could really understand international problems, be they banking or the IMF. But then he starts f****** everything around him!”

Fields make way for apartment blocks as we reach the outskirts of Paris. Blanc has a jolt of self-consciousness when he realises he’s strayed a little too far from his comfort zone. “My, my you are a serious man. These are some serious questions.” It’s a signal that he’s done talking politics. When it comes to ingredients and food, he can go on forever – on the economy, half an hour is quite enough. We step down from the train and a small group of French commuters watch as our photographer takes some final pictures on the platform. “Who is he?” they appear to be asking themselves. “Probably just some English celebrity.”

Raymond Blanc shares a joke with our reporter aboard the Eurostar