“Food connects with everything”: Jack Rayner meets Raymond Blanc
"I was in the garden of Le Manoir, and I heard enormous laughter, enormous. I knew it came from France: 60 million French people laughing"
It is nigh-on impossible not to be charmed in the presence of Raymond Blanc.
Here is a man that achieved everything there is to achieve in one of the most cut-throat, high-pressure industries in existence, yet remains flawlessly unjaded: all smiles, wild gesticulation and childlike enthusiasm for lovingly prepared, unpretentious food.
Then again, Raymond has always been something of a rarity amongst his famously disdainful cohort of British celebrity chefs. Faultlessly polite, he refers to both the French and the English as “we”, and his diplomatic appreciation for both sides of the channel comes across as genuine and unrehearsed, rather than as a necessary toeing of the party line to keep on the good side of his adopted countrymen. He apologises for being not 5 minutes late of our scheduled start ("Your time, anybody else's time, is as important as mine. I don't take anything for granted, I never have"), and immediately offers me a glass of wine. This is not a man with something to prove.
That’s not to say, however, that he doesn’t love a good-humoured jibe. After asking a waitress to clear the glasses from our table at his flagship Brasserie Blanc on Walton Street ("Voila! Now, we can expand"), Raymond jumps headfirst into an anecdote, lightly poking fun at the UK’s infamous horse meat scandal of 2013:
“I was in the garden of Le Manoir, and I heard enormous laughter, enormous. I knew it came from France: 60 million French people laughing”. If the physics of this particular story seem at odds with your current understanding, then I can only apologise. “The laughter became louder and louder, and I realised that they were laughing at Britain – the British had laughed about them for so long for eating horses and frogs, and then the news came to France that evening that you had been eating horse for 50 years without knowing it!” Raymond barely makes it to the punchline before collapsing into a deep belly laugh, highlighting how naturally he commands the energy of a room as his staff glance up from their iPhones to smile warmly at their boss.
It might be a light-hearted joke, but this story comes from a place that Raymond is deadly serious about: his near-obsessive passion for food knowledge and ingredient sourcing. It is his job, his hobby, his raison d’etre, and our conversational anchor as he veers wildly from subject to subject. I ask him about his early years in the UK - working at the Rose Revived in Newbridge – and his memories again relate back to his peers’ attitude towards sourcing and freshly-cooked cuisine:
“It was the most beautiful, charming pub, and I still remember the day when I first went over that little 13th Century bridge. It was so quaint and quintessentially English, but then, the food was just frightening - we had completely lost our way in England during this time. Intensive farming and heavy processing of food was very common, as well as heavy marketing and branding. Then, we made food a commodity, where the only value and virtue held to food was cheapness. So, we had lost the plot completely, and food was exclusive rather than inclusive”.
Inclusivity is crucially important to Raymond’s ethos in a way that belies his Michelin stars and innumerable accolades as an haute cuisine chef:
“For example, children were certainly not welcome, because that's just how it was. I come from a working class background, and where I'm from, food is for everyone. Between our two countries, I think that the fundamental difference is the revolution – France had a revolution, and England didn't.”
That final statement is where the conversation really begins to get interesting, because to Raymond, everything is food and food is everything, from the minutiae of family life to the broad narratives of national legislation:
“Politics relates to food, history relates to food, religion relates to food. I think the revolution in France democratised our right to eat well – the right for the peasant to till his own land, to grow his own food, to cook his own food. Of course, France is also blessed with a wonderful climate, and chefs very much tended to own their own restaurants. Food was, and is, for everyone. When I was a child, my parents might've only taken us to a restaurant perhaps once or twice a year, but we ate well every day and we celebrated food as a family. We had a jardin potager where I learned all about seasonality, variety, and the earth. We might not have had a lot of money, but I was a rich man from the age of 7 in terms of my knowledge.”
I can’t resist probing further into Raymond’s comparisons between his two beloved nations, and one subject he gets particularly animated about his how far British cuisine has come since he arrived at Dover in 1972:
“Oh, it's exciting, and again we are talking about a revolution, but a very British one. It's exciting, for example, that now there are as many cheeses in Britain as in France – maybe not always as good, but then again you cannot change a country in a few minutes. In France, it was almost thought of as a problem – there's a story that General de Gaulle raised his arms to the sky, asking God: ‘How can you deal with a country that has 350 cheeses?’ One for every day! And soon, the British will have the same number, so watch out for big problems coming up! More cheese, more problems!” Another thick, gutsy laugh spills out. “No, I think it's fantastic, because the British consumer is much more knowledgeable and much more aware.”
He may be no less enthusiastic about food than when he first opened Les Quat’ Saisons in Summertown almost 40 years ago, but surely one has to take a more conservative attitude when running an 18-piece chain, no?
“The passion has not diminished – if anything, it has increased. It has made me realise that the more I know, the less I know. At this stage, my success is about teaching others, and making my vision the vision of others. If you're a person looking to grow in this kind of industry, you have to surround yourself with the best people – the best waiters, the best cleaners, the whole lot. If you can do that, and every day you are patiently, lovingly using your best intelligence, then maybe one day you may touch excellence…for a few seconds.”
Raymond’s gastronomic ideology is certainly based in these notions of traditionalism and sharing, but his all-encompassing culinary worldview also extends into the more detailed and scientific. His 1996 book and TV show Blanc Mange saw him team up with Oxonian biochemist Professor Nicholas Kurti to apply academic knowledge to the world of flavour.
“I met him at the Oxford Symposium, and when he spoke to me about food, he spoke in the most clear, beautiful language. I tried to read all the scientific books to learn what was happening in my soufflé, for example, but I couldn’t understand them. I was very lucky to meet Professor Kurti.
“We proved that a poulet de bresse [top-end appellation d’origine contrôlée French chicken], a British free-range chicken, and a terrible factory chicken all have very different flavours. I put them in three different ovens, with a copper tube coming out of each oven. I heated each of them at 190 degrees to get my Maillard reaction, so all of the gases and moisture goes into the copper tubes, and Professor Kurti was able to break down the flavour molecules by group. Then, it was connected up to a computer, and you could see how many more and more varied flavour molecules were present in the poulet de bresse, and even the free-range British chicken than in the factory-produced one. You could argue that I was the first big chef to use ‘molecular’ gastronomy, although not in the way that you'd use that word today”.
Indeed, Raymond briefly instructed the poster-boy of ‘molecular’ cuisine, Heston Blumenthal, during a short stint at Le Manoir. Does he see his influence on British cooking in the young chefs of today?
“Of course I can see it in the chefs that I've trained, but I'm not here to create lots of little Raymond Blancs. I aim to support them and lift them up so that they are embracing the same philosophy – the philosophy of the land, of local values, of no chemicals, of unadulterated food – but not the same style of cooking. We talked earlier about this food revolution in the UK, and this revolution is as much led from the top as from the bottom – these chefs are now inspired by many cultures and many styles of cooking, and it's going to spread all across Great Britain. That's a fantastic thing.”
It certainly is. Raymond’s assistant had asked me to keep my interview to 15 minutes long (he had an admittedly spectacular pile of books to sign), but after 45 minutes he was showing no sign of wanting to leave. I felt rude, but then again, who am I to stop the man in full flow? I let him give one piece of advice to home chefs before my professional courtesy got the better of me:
“Always be curious, always ask questions, don't ever think that when you've cooked a dish once, you've completed that dish. Love it, go on to be curious about it, think ‘how can I do it better?’. Food connects with everything, and the dinner table is a place where you communicate, you have fun, you celebrate life.”
The French may have laughed at us across the channel for eating undisclosed horse meat, but in Raymond’s eyes, food is clearly something to bring us together, whether as a family, a city, or a nation. Here’s to many more celebrations to come.
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