Frenchman Raymond Blanc is one of Britain’s most celebrated chefs. He reveals how he taught himself to cook, how his French hometown influenced his obsession with freshness and his love affair with lemongrass.
Words Kate Whitehead
*Featured in Crave’s Issue 82, April 2017
For 17 years, chef Raymond Blanc tried to grow lemongrass in one of his 11 gardens at Belmont Le Manor aux Quat’Saisons, in Oxfordshire, England. At the start of each winter, he would lovingly pack straw over the delicate herbs, but by spring, the cold and damp had destroyed them. And then one year his luck changed.
“It was the first warm day and I went to the garden and unpacked the straw. I could see little green shoots of lemongrass – I was so excited, I jumped!” Blanc says.
The lemongrass was a particularly sturdy variety that grows on Mount Kilimanjaro, in Tasmania. Adapted to the harsh mountain conditions, it was able to survive a British winter. The determination, passion and enthusiasm that Blanc put into growing a tropical ingredient in the UK are typical of the French chef.
Born into a “proper working class” family in Besançon, eastern France, his parents didn’t have much money but they built a large house themselves and beside it an enormous garden. From the age of five, Blanc worked in the garden with his parents and siblings. While his friends went off to play football, he was often a reluctant pair of hands, but gradually he came to appreciate the garden.
“That garden would feed the family all year around. It was a mini enterprise and we were the commies, so to speak. I learned about what would grow and when,” he says.
So much about Blanc’s childhood has influenced his approach to cooking, particularly the provenance, freshness and the nobility of ingredients. The mountainous terrain (Besançon is near the Swiss border) meant intensive farming wasn’t possible so all the food was organic. And the family home was surrounded by deep forest, where Blanc foraged for wild mushrooms and asparagus. What wasn’t used at home he sold to restaurants.
“I learned not to sell in the market; the restaurants would always give you a better price,” he says.
In his teens he studied to be a craftsman, but he didn’t enjoy it and went in search of his passion. Aged 19 he knew he wanted to cook. He was sure of it, but the restaurant he approached, the best in town, would only offer him work as a cleaner. Not put off, he worked hard, polishing, scrubbing and cleaning until he was promoted to glass washer.
“The glasses would come to the kitchen with some wine left and I began tasting all the wines and keeping notes. Pinot noir, Burgundy … I knew what they all tasted like. After work, from 1am to 3am, sometimes 4am, I would cook for my friends,” he recalls.
And in his free time he read obsessively about cooking, food society, the food revolution. Food was his life, but he was still just a kitchen hand. Emboldened by his knowledge he dared suggest to the chef that the food was sometimes too rich. This was 1967, when the kitchen was a tough workplace and often violent. The chef didn’t take kindly to the suggestion and hit him in the face.
I ended up in hospital with a broken jaw and two teeth out. I lost my teeth, my ego and my job,” he says.
And so, in the summer of 1972, Blanc moved in England to work as a waiter in a restaurant in Oxford. “I came very humbly, but with a big dream in my head,” he says.
His lucky break came when the chef was off sick and he filled in. Impressed, the restaurant the restaurant offered him a chef’s job and a few years later, in 1977, he and his wife Jenny opened their first restaurant, Les Quat’Saisons in Oxford. There Blanc tutored himself through experimentation, determination and hard work. The following year Les Quat’Saisons was named Egon Ronay restaurant of the year and, in 1979, won its first Michelin star.
By the time the restaurant earned its second star, in 1983, much had happened. Perhaps the most exciting development was the opening of a highly successful bakery and patisserie, Maison Blanc. But he had an even bigger vision: for a hotel and restaurant in “perfect and holistic harmony”. In 1984, with the support of business partners, he bought a 15th century Manor House at Great Milton and called it Le Manor aux Quat’Saisons.
“I fell in love with the Manor House. It had so many large bedrooms, cottages, barns and it was completely derelict. But when you fall in love, you fall in love, and from that moment I’ve never looked back,” Blanc says.
Today, Belmond Le Manor aux Quat’Saisonshas a strong Asian influence, think lobster marinated with curry leaves and coriander and served with tiny new potatoes crushed with a hint of curry paste, or ravioli of coconut with exotic fruits.
“A lot of my food has been inspired by other cultures but I never do fusion. I pick up elements and tastes and flavours of cultures and enrich my dishes, they are the tones underneath – a bit of coconut, a hint of ginger, a fire of chilli. Many of my dishes are directly inspired by Asia,” Blanc says.
My Favourite Things with
1. What’s your favourite cuisine?
I love the cleanliness and lightness of Japanese food and the purity of the ingredients. But I’m French so, of course, I love French food, too.
I love Thai mango sticky rice – you may say that I’m a simple soul, but it’s the most extraordinary dish ever invented.
3. What are you obsessed with?
So many things. I love jade, it’s a beautiful stone. I have a huge Buddha made of jade and I’ve created one room in the hotel called jade, all the colours are vibrant green and inspired by Southeast Asia.
4. Where do you feel most at home?
The gardens – they are the true heart of Le Manor. It’s a tremendous amount of love, care and creativity, the perfect gastronomic theme.
5. A favourite herb?
I love lemongrass. I first discovered it in Chiang Lai and love to add a hint of it to my dishes