Generous to the Core – Interview with Raymond Blanc

Redbrook Media was invited to an exclusive interview with Raymond Blanc, OBE, at his beautiful two Michelin stars hotel Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons, in Great Milton, Oxfordshire. We arrived on a glorious summer’s morning at the beautiful Great Milton Manor.

The reception staff are impeccably dressed and extremely welcoming. We meet the charming Director of Marketing and Communications, Tracey, who offers us drinks in the calm intimacy of the bar area. Very soon Raymond Blanc arrives, dressed in chef’s whites.

Nothing prepares you for an hour with ‘RB’. For a man in his 60s he is remarkably fit and full of life and, behind the twinkle of his blue eyes, you can only imagine the mind that is constantly effervescent − and he notices all the details of the room. He greets us and immediately asks: ‘Do you think the green (pointing to the sofa) is too green?’ He seems to think that it’s about time the room got spruced up.

To help with my research I recently read ‘A Taste of My Life’, his most recent book. He wants to know what I thought of it. I tell him I found it a great read, and it has certainly got me back in the garden and kitchen to try to emulate the quality of his cooking. He is delighted.

RB orders a special Fujiyama green tea and enthuses about the idea of offering his guests the pleasure of smelling the leaves, of watching whilst they infuse and reveal their rightful aroma. ‘Food experiences should be memorable.’ And with that he becomes serious.

What was once the triumph of intensive farming, championed by America and brought  to England to stop food shortages after war times, may have come at a cost.

‘To produce more food you use every pesticide, insecticide available but you also kill the soil. Bad quality food is processed to get a better colour and taste and it is branded and marketed and we create a culture of cheap food which is atrophied and becomes a mere commodity … It creates problems such as mad cow disease, pigs fever, so the system is rotten.’

‘Food grown close to home, it travels less …. Nutrients are destroyed by light … and travelling and by the time you get your vegetables home they might have lost 30% of their nutrients. By buying products from miles away, you disempower the farmers, prevent the growth of local businesses, and alter eco systems through pollution … people have to be educated and understand the consequence of cheap food.’

He pauses; he is terribly worried about it all.

I attempt to steer the subject in a slightly different direction and tentatively ask: ‘I believe to cook well you need time, do you think women these days have the time our mothers had to cook?’

RB is quick to reply: ‘Good question, the right question. My mother did everything in the home; she cooked, cleaned, cared for the family but she didn’t work (in the salaried sense). Now not only do women do that, they also go to work and carry the guilt of not being at home for their children and, to cap it all, they have to look fantastic!’

So: ‘What is the solution?’ I venture….

He replies: ‘Men have to help more with household chores or cooking – alas, that is not in the nature of us men!

‘It should not be expected of women to go to work and produce wonderful meals daily.’

He champions the idea of a good family meal served at the table. For him that is so important: ‘It is the time when you sit together, you have a conversation, love each other, hate each other too, but it is the moment you have some sort of bonding.’

He feels that the attitude towards working mothers, or mothers in general, are changing and adds: ‘Oh, you must contact Emma O’Connor at Brasserie Blanc in Cheltenham, she will tell you a lovely story but I can’t tell you, ring her, do ring her.’

You see, with Raymond Blanc it’s all about the personal touch, he is trying to help me with juicy bits of information….Dutifully, back at the office, I call Emma. She explains that one day a lady comes into her Brasserie ‘frazzled’. She is embarrassed at needing to feed her newborn baby. Emma sits her down in a tranquil corner and offers her a cup of tea, on the house, and lets her get on with her motherly duty, then proceeds to put a sign outside Breastfeeding mums, pop in and have a free cup of tea if you need a pit stop, no need to eat, no need to ask, please relax.

It wasn’t a PR exercise, just a normal human gesture and unbeknown to her within two days the press got hold of this story and a debate started regarding breastfeeding in public; both Brasserie Blanc and Raymond himself make the headlines. Emma explains that without the training and guidance from Raymond she might not have been able to make that kind gesture.

I understand now what he is trying to tell me: the importance of making people feel happy through good quality food served at the table in a pleasant environment.

I venture another question: ‘Your staff seem to work with you for many years and be very faithful to you. Do you consider yourself a good employer?’

As quick as a flash he retorts: ‘I don’t know, ask them.’ RB:  ‘No seriously, first you surround yourself with the best people … I have made mistakes, we all do. But I care for my people.’

About young people he says: ‘You hear “they’re lazy”. Oh my god, it’s nonsense … Here we take young people, we train them, empower them, give them a bespoke program, we grow and support them. We are in an industry which has been very careless and, of course, we still do long hours.’ He is proud to have trained many chefs who are gaining their own Michelin stars.

And yet he remains very humble: ‘I have been so lucky, who am I? I know who I am. I am a Frenchman but I try to give back what I have received from my parents and the values they have passed on.’

Passing on his knowledge has been a great achievement. He has nearly single-handedly changed our attitude towards food in England.

‘It takes 10 to 15 years to become a good chef … and although food was always part of my French culture, England has opened my mind because it is open to other cultures … it has created a gastronomy which is very multi-cultural … it has not diminished the food I produce or confused it, it has enriched it. The food I do is French but I add a bit of ginger here, lemon grass there, green tea accents here and there, flavours and tastes from everywhere.’

I ask: ‘Do you think you have made many sacrifices to harvest your great talent and achieve such success?’

‘Of course,’ he replies. ‘To be successful you need a little talent, a little luck but at the end of the day people who are successful work very, very hard. Maybe I have a little talent, but I have worked very hard over the last 30 years with a very special team.’

And with that, we know that the interview will soon come to an end. The waiter Remi takes a photo of us all and we learn that Monsieur Blanc is writing a new book with yet more delightful anecdotes. My worries were unfounded, this interview has been made very special with a warm welcome, a beautiful setting and a very honest talk with Raymond Blanc, OBE, Frenchman with two Michelin stars to boot, and a wonderful generous nature: everything you will find at BELMOND, LE MANOIR AUX QUAT’SAISONS. Go and discover all this for yourselves, you won’t be disappointed!

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