Raymond Blanc was born in 1949 in Besançon’s Franche-Comté region to a watchmaker father and home cook mother. After being told at school he would become a draftsman, he went to work as a clothes cutter in a factory, before finding the restaurant industry aged 19. He moved to Oxfordshire in 1972, opened his first restaurant in 1977 and Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saison in 1984. The restaurant has held two Michelin stars for the past 30 years. Blanc received an OBE in 2008. His partner is nutritionist Natalia Traxel and he has two sons from his first marriage, Olivier and Sebastien.
It’s 11am on Monday and Raymond Blanc is popping corks like it’s Bastille Day in the lounge at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons. One couple have made the pilgrimage from China to try his two-star Michelin food, one pair are parents of a member of his brigade and one lady declares her fangirl status with a glint in her eye that suggests she’s pleased her husband isn’t around as Blanc hands her a glass of his house cuvée. They all receive the same welcome. The Blanc you see on TV with his ‘zut alors!’, ‘oh la la!’ and Gallic charm laid on thick is exactly the same as the man who insists on greeting his guests. He knows the part he has to play and he plays it with aplomb.
It’s a role he’s been playing since he arrived in the UK as a chastened waiter nursing a broken jaw in 1972. ‘I wanted to be a cook in France but at 19 I was told I was too old – proper chefs start at 14,’ he says. ‘So I started working front of house at a local restaurant and I loved it. Any dregs of wine left after customers’ meals I’d scurry together and taste them after service and make notes. I’d get ideas for dishes and invite friends over after my shift. We’d regularly be up until 5am tasting my food and chatting. They were good days.’
Blanc’s confidence surged as he picked up skills and applied his learning to his head chef’s food. ‘He was a giant of a man,’ he recalls. ‘I’d tell him the sauce wanted more salt, it was too rich, or needed a touch of cayenne. I still remember his moustache bristling and chest puffing up as I told him it wasn’t reduced enough.’ It was the last nugget Blanc passed on to him, as the chef selected a copper pan from the rack and thanked him for his wisdom with a full swing to the jaw.
However, the sleepy French town of Besançon’s loss was the UK’s gain. Blanc was ‘exiled’ as he describes it – ‘but I was nothing like Napoleon’ – and set his coordinates for the UK.
He had one last staging post before his assault across the Channel; an 18th-century chateau restaurant he’d long admired from afar. ‘Le Palais de la Bière was the most sophisticated restaurant I’d ever seen. The waiters wore black tie and conducted a ballet around guests. The first time I pulled on my jacket, I was so proud. I did it all at the restaurant: washing up, cleaning, serving and I felt ready to start a restaurant ensemble of my own.’
Blanc landed in Oxfordshire in the summer of 1972 and set up a base in the county he hasn’t left since. He began at The Rose Revived – a gorgeous Thameside pub that remains today – and planned to forge a career as a front-of-house maestro. Keen not to require the attention of a dentist so soon, he kept his opinions on the food to himself. ‘My first shift I arrived very late, at around 4pm. I walked straight in through the kitchen door to the sound of The Carpenters on the radio and the thick smell of overcooked meat and cognac coffee in the air. The chef – this time a blond giant – was behind the pass unceremoniously stuffing sponge into custard and squirting on whipped cream. My heart sank.’ It was Blanc’s first encounter with a Seventies British trifle and one that he vowed never to wear, so kept his attitude neatly in check.
Everything moved swimmingly. He was forging a reputation among the gentlemen and, particularly, ladies of Oxfordshire as the charming French waiter they’d come for miles to see. He still had designs on rattling the pans himself but wasn’t going to talk beyond his station. ‘After six great months, the chef got sick. The owners knew I was a keen cook and asked me to go behind the pass. When the chef was well again, I kept the pan firmly in my hand and, thankfully, he wasn’t asked back.’
Blanc’s reputation in the community grew at a pace. Business was booming at The Rose and he was invited into Oxfordshire society. ‘I’d be asked to dinners with aristocrats and would marvel at their approach to food. They’d sit on the edge of their seats in three-piece suits with their backs rod-straight, spooning soup into their mouths in the most uncomfortable way. There was no real talk at the table – nothing about sex, love, friendship or politics – and I couldn’t bear it. I had to change it,’ he says, beating his chest with an intensity generally reserved for paramedics and practitioners of CPR. ‘It has to come from here. Your heart, your gut, your sense of passion.’ He wanted to unbutton the starched collar of the British chattering classes and show them the French way to eat. With a post-war Britain still firmly entrenched in pomp and circumstance and reeling from rationing, he had a fight on his hands but his opportunity came sooner than anticipated
in 1977, when he opened the BETA version of Le Manoir aux Quat’Saison in Summertown, Oxford. It was an overnight success. In its first year of trading it won Egon Ronay Restaurant of the Year, followed by two Michelin stars in quick succession. The first battle was won but the war was just beginning.
In 1984, a chance meeting with Oxfordshire’s Lady Cromwell revealed her country pile in Great Milton was going up for sale. ‘When I first walked into the house it took my breath away,’ he says. ‘All country houses were struggling at this time. It was expensive to run but I immediately saw its potential.’ He signed the deeds and what was to become England’s best country house hotel was born. ‘The haughtiness was the first thing I wanted to kill. I stripped all the chintz: the heavy carpets, the gold taps, the tapestries, the unnecessary clutter in the dining room. When Terence Conran told me some years later that I had “created a perfect image of contemporary style”, I cried. It was the proudest moment of my life.’
The menu was the next to receive a Blanc barrage. ‘I was the first restaurateur here to create a vegetarian menu. I also actively welcomed children. My managers thought they were little hooligans but they’re not. Catering for them is easy: just give them two desserts and a wink when they sit down. In 25 years, I’ve only had one problem of kids tearing the dining room apart. It’s French culture that children and dogs come in. Though a German shepherd once took a liking to my head waiter’s leg but we don’t talk about that.
‘I also had to fight people like you [food writers] who didn’t want changes in the dining room, chefs who didn’t want to cook for kids and managers who didn’t want to relax when speaking to guests,’ he says. ‘I wanted them to connect, to realise when a guest wants to talk and when they don’t. I was creating a philosophy of wellbeing that starts when you arrive through the gates and continues in the journey to the restaurant, gardens and rooms. I wanted an environment of class-less, rather than class-led, luxury.’
You’d be right in thinking that it sounds like marketing speak and it probably is but it makes sense when you see it in action. The hotel’s suites are individually designed by Blanc. Each represent a time in his life or a tableau from his travels. ‘Lemongrass’, for example, is a memory from a trip to Chang Mai, Thailand. It has a fish tank in the bathroom, bamboo walls, a TV in the ceiling and the biggest shower-come-steam room you’ve ever seen. It cost £1.2m to create
and is one of the most spectacular bedrooms in the world.
‘I had a choice when I took on the hotel. I could keep the eight rooms that were there and go for three-star Michelin food or I couldexpand and create a sustainable legacy that goes beyond me.’ He chose the latter. His no-expense-spared expansion put him into significant debt in the Nineties and almost led to its closure but it’s now in rude health. It was bought by Belmond in 2002 for £27.5m and employs 210 staff, which equates to three staff to every guest, not that you’d know it. ‘The service is never obvious, never overfamiliar, never haughty; I learned it from Maman Blanc,’ he says.
Blanc’s mother is an institution at Le Manoir. ‘Quat’Saison’ is named after her love of cooking following the seasons. The garden is based on her teaching and the waiting staff are taught to employ her ethos of service as an act of love.
He was a man before his time in many ways but none more so than his attitude to eating well while still eating healthily. Blanc Vite: Fast Fresh Food, a book published almost 20 years ago, pioneered what Britain is just beginning to grasp and champions what the NHS does now: more vegetables, smaller portions, less meat, fewer trans fats and fewer food miles. ‘Ignorance is at last being replaced by knowledge,’ he says. ‘Food is politics. How happy a society is depends on how they will eat tomorrow. The government is beginning to understand that.’ Blanc received an OBE in 2008 for his services to food and raising awareness of healthy eating at home. He’s clearly proud but he remains humble.
‘I look back on what I have done with fondness but we can always do more,’ he says. ‘To learn, to experience and to love are life’s greatest gifts and I like to share them in everything I do.’ It’s a profound statement and when Blanc speaks he does so with such intensity that you get the feeling he really means what he says. Indeed, it’s amazing what humility scooping up your teeth from a kitchen floor as a cocky teenager can breed.