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Interview with Raymond Blanc, owner and executive chef at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons
14 Dec. 2022
14 Dec. 2022
Raymond Blanc’s Beginnings
Michelin-starred chef and owner of a luxury address for close to four decades, Raymond Blanc’s humble beginnings and rise to international fame is a real tale of triumph.
The chef was even ousted from his home country of France (having incurred the rage of his former head chef for giving him unsolicited cooking advice) and exiled to England, where he was left to fend for himself.
As we now know, he came out of this adventure victorious, along with a wife, Jenny (the daughter of the owner of The Rose Revived, the first restaurant he worked at in Oxfordshire) two sons, and the necessary means to launch his very own restaurant, Les Quat’Saisons.
It wasn’t long until Raymond’s humble kitchen expanded into a full-blown country house hotel and became a defining experience of the English pastoral setting.
Today, Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, A Belmond Hotel, home to his 2-Michelin-starred restaurant, unassumingly named “The Restaurant”, welcomes an influx of guests who travel far and wide to relish his sumptuous dishes. The best thing about it, is that after they’re done, they can simply take a little stroll back to their room or wander about the property until it’s time for the next meal.
Raymond Blanc: Soon after my birth! My mother was a fantastic cook who was devoted to feeding her large family. My father was a passionate gardener who provided vegetables and fruit for the table. We lived in a village in Franche-Comté, a region of eastern France that is fantastically rich in beautiful produce. And I spent my childhood in the surrounding forests, gathering fruits and berries that went into a huge basket that I filled and carried home to my mum. I went off on adventures, foraging for mushrooms and searching for asparagus. So, from a very young age, I was well aware of the produce that each season brings, and saw and learnt about the journey of an ingredient – from farm, field and forest to the plates on our table, via my little mum’s kitchen.
Raymond Blanc: I am totally self-taught, in the sense that I lacked the benefit of being trained and didn’t have a mentor. So, I was not an apprentice chef climbing the rungs of the kitchen ladder. I was on my own and was just thrown into it, one day when I was 27 years old.
Before long, my wife Jenny and I had opened our first restaurant, Les Quat’Saisons, a small and humble place in Summertown, Oxford. It was hard work, but many people will appreciate how difficult it is to set up and run a business, and then to keep it going and turn it into a success. So, while there were plenty of gritty challenges, I just had to get on with it and was totally immersed in creating sublime food.
Raymond Blanc: I must say that curiosity is a great thing. I suppose you could say that I discovered that I was driven by a desire to learn. I spent many late nights with my head buried in a cookery book and would phone food scientists to bombard them with questions. Constantly, I wanted to know about the science of cooking, and still, I am fascinated by the endless little miracles of the kitchen.
As someone with a unique perspective of haute gastronomie, Raymond has always enjoyed passing on his unique brand of knowledge of the culinary arts to the next generations. In 1991, the chef launched The Raymond Blanc Cookery School, and in 2017, the Raymond Blanc Gardening School. The chef has always mentored an impressive line-up of impressive names, such as Michael Caines, Marco Pierre White, Eric Chavot, Elisha Carter, among others.
Raymond Blanc: I tell my young chefs, ‘Open your eyes, open your heart. Taste, taste, taste! And never be afraid to ask questions.’
Raymond Blanc: We won the first star in 1979 at Les Quat’Saisons, that place in Summertown, Oxford. I celebrated by getting rid of our 25-year-old oven and taking a new one! This would help take me to better things. As for the second star, I have never forgotten the moment I learned about it.
This is a lovely story which I must please share if you have a moment. It was an evening in January 1982, and the kitchen phone rang. I was a bit irritated as I was right in the middle of a busy service. But it was Albert Roux, so I took the call. I don’t recall which of his mighty establishments he was phoning from – Le Gavroche or The Waterside Inn. But he had heard some news. ‘Tonight, Raymond,’ he said, ‘you will sleep on a two-star pillow.’ Quite dramatic. The stars came with me to Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, which is the only country house hotel in Britain to have retained two Michelin stars for so long.
Raymond Blanc: Well, I had Les Quat’Saisons, as I have said, but I began to dream about having a restaurant with rooms for guests who wanted to stay after a good supper. And I also wanted to be able to grow my own produce, varieties that suit my cuisine and the canvas to my gastronomy. I must emphasise that it was not a big dream – I wanted nothing too large or challenging. But one moment in 1983 would change my life.
I was at home and standing at the kitchen counter waiting for my coffee to brew. I flicked through a copy of Country Life that was on the counter and landed on the property pages of the magazine. And suddenly … there I saw it– the manor house in Great Milton. ‘A very fine period family house, dating from the fifteenth century… four principal reception rooms, eight main bedrooms, an unusual medieval stew pond, a seventeenth century dovecote, lovely, secluded walled gardens… ’My God, I was intrigued. Viewings were by appointment only, but I jumped into my Vauxhall van and excitedly hurried to see the property. As I pulled into the gravel driveway, it was love at first sight. It helped that Lady Cromwell, the owner, had eaten at our restaurant. ‘We had the most wonderful meal,’ she said. A lot of work went into transforming the manor house into a restaurant and ten bedrooms.
Raymond Blanc: I have given my heart, my life and soul to Le Manoir! I am totally involved in it, of course. Today, there are 32 suites, each is individually designed with its own personality and character. They are inspired by my travels, my experiences, by food, music, and art. By my life. There are 11 magnificent gardens. In 2012, we began the planting of an orchard. Today, it has 2,500 trees, and these include many heritage varieties of British and French apples and pears. As a guest, you will spend as much time outdoors as you will at the table. Le Manoir is also a world of art and sculpture.
Throughout the years, the charming little country house hotel would earn a reputation unlike any other and would continue to be one of the most popular destinations for travelers and food enthusiasts alike. In 2014, Le Manoir would begin a collaboration with the prestigious luxury hotel group Belmond, owner of several properties across the globe, including such addresses as Caruso, A Belmond Hotel, in Italy and London’s iconic The Cadogan, A Belmond Hotel.
Raymond Blanc: It is a natural collaboration and one that I am very proud of. As you know, Belmond has many remarkable, prestigious properties around the world. We share the same value: history and traditions are respected and while we honour the past, we also remain relevant in today’s world. We are passionate about culture, craftsmanship and, of course, gastronomy. Yes, it is the perfect collaboration.
Raymond Blanc: Le Manoir, I hope, will continue as a modern classic. It will always be a place of irreversible beauty which will be sustainable beyond me. I see it as a place of passion, training and mentorship, with the warmest hospitality. Here the seasons dictate what is cooked.
There is much to celebrate in 2023 at Le Manoir, and I must mention our gardening school. Every little green-fingered person knows that there’s work to be done all year round. Come rain or shine, each season brings new tasks to be completed, things to learn. But it is not horrible work. No, it is fun work, as every gardener knows. Which is why The Raymond Blanc Gardening School is expanding its calendar of courses to fill the whole year. There are so many green-fingered stories to tell and developments to share, and a new course leader and a roster of guest tutors. Our school is entering an exciting new future. We are driven by a passion for garden-to-plate gastronomy and sustainable cultivation techniques.
Under the expertise of Head Gardener Anne Marie Owens, the team has researched the best plant varieties, sown the seeds and nurtured the crops for decades. Their experience is shared with guests in classes ranging from pruning to micro-greens.
Raymond Blanc: Well, imagine you arrive at the huge gates-that-never-close, and go beyond them. Now you have stepped into an amazing fairy tale. You feel as if you have left behind the real world because that is what you have done… if only for a day.
Stroll along the lavender-lined path and begin to explore the gardens… Mushroom Valley, home to the fungi… the world renowned potager, with row upon row of vegetables that help to feed our guests… then to the Japanese Tea Garden – and remember to remove your shoes before entering the teahouse! I named this little house Fugetsu-An, which means ‘the pavilion of deep love of nature’. When I am a bit stressed, I like to come here… Pop into the Gardening School, or you may prefer to spend a day at our Cookery School.
Surely it is lunchtime by now. Or is it time for afternoon tea? Or is it time for cocktails in the bar before supper, or a glass of champagne on the lawn, in the shadow of the ancient cedar tree? … After your feast, you will have a beautiful suite in which to relax with your loved one… Et voilà!
During your adventure we will meet, I hope, and then I can tell you the extraordinary story of my beautiful Manoir.