With an impressive career spanning more than four decades, French chef Raymond Blanc has a love of gardening that has carved his career in the kitchen, and his infectious passion for cooking with the seasons continues to inspire a legion of loyal fans.
His revered Oxfordshire restaurant and hotel, Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons, is the only UK country house hotel to have retained two Michelin stars for more than 30 years, with its stunning gardens equally popular with visitors who come to sample his award-winning cuisine.
On Friday 10 May 2017, Raymond will take to the stage for his From My Garden To Your Plate talk in the Kitchen Garden Theatre at RHS Malvern Spring Festival, with the exciting seasonal extravaganza running from Thursday 11 to Sunday 14 May 2017.
It was much before. My papa was a working class person, he built his own house with his own hands as land was very cheap, and because we’re working class we grew a huge garden about half of the size of the one at Belmond Le Manoir.
So effectively it was there I learnt all the basics of good food, of good gardens, of good gardening, the best produce, and the best varieties. While my friends were playing football, I was digging the garden, turning the earth round, removing the stones from the ground, removing the grass and the weeds, and watering the plants.
I would even say that gardening in my native France, in Franche-Comté between the ragged Jura mountain range and the lovely hilly Burgundy, that all this land was organic so I learnt all about organic values, the soil, and seasonality.
The joy that these foods gave us on the table, that’s very much the base of my philosophy and one I pass on to young British chefs. My region, my family and my own garden played a huge role in how I cook today and what my ethics are about food – provenance, purity, nobility, freshness and seasonal at all times.
I had a deep knowledge of food from a very early stage. When you grew your food right through the summer to the winter, you would harvest all this wonderful food. In the cellar we had rows and rows of jars of food, on the floor you had the potatoes, the beetroot, the parsnips, and then you had a big barrel of wine, dripping very often.
The smell in that cellar as a child was amazing; it was a beautiful place to be with an extraordinary scent. So yes I think you could say that my garden in France had a huge influence on how I see food, how I teach people and how I pass on that knowledge to great chefs who now adopt those same values.
Oh yes, immediately. I remember very well because we did the garden before the house, which was also in great need of care because we had to do the roof, the foundations, there was dry rot, wet rot, but the garden was in a worse state.
There were rabbits everywhere, there was ground elder all over the place; it was a frightening sight. I’ve never been frightened by a garden but that really took fear! I put my papa to clear it up and that’s how we started.
For me, a garden had to be part. I would say a garden is central to the best gastronomy and we are so lucky here because not all, but a great deal of our food comes from our garden.
Anne-Marie, who leads the garden, and I have worked together for 31 years, she was the first apprentice and now she’s the head gardener running a team of eight.
She’s an amazing lady, she’s been a friend, she’s got wonderful skills and whatever challenge I give her she takes it, although she suffers a little! I came back from south east Asia and said ‘let’s do a south east Asian garden, let’s grow mangos and ginger’ and she says ‘oui chef!’
I love gardens and I don’t just love them for the food, I love them for their beauty, all the display of colours they offer. From the first radishes in spring to the summer when it’s full of colour, right up to autumn and the gathering and the harvesting of the root vegetables– there are all sorts of varieties and different colours, it’s wonderful.
I wanted to do a gardening school for a long time, about 10 years. It’s called The Raymond Blanc Gardening School and you may ask why it is called Raymond Blanc when I’m not a gardener, and I’m not, but I love gardens.
Gardens are also about design. Why not, when you have a lovely allotment, make it more beautiful by planting companion plants, by creating a beautiful edge that will also protect against the frost and the winds? To me, there are so many elements and of course the gardening school was inspired by a love of these gardens.
The gardening school is going to be extraordinary, no less! It’s going to be as much for the novice as for those who know about gardening. Our school, as far as I understand and I’ve looked high and low across the world to find any hotel or restaurant that has a gardening school and we’ve found nobody. So we believe we’re the first in the world.
We have a beautiful 16th century water garden, a Japanese tea house garden – they are all inspired by my travels and the marvellous people I’ve met, books I’ve read, landscapes I’ve seen. We’ve got a micro herb garden, a medicinal garden, and we’ve got a heritage garden that Prince Charles came to open with me; it was wonderful.
I wanted to show His Royal Highness that my garden was possibly better than his. And he came to see it and said ‘yes Raymond, you are right.’ He’s a good loser!
The pace, the stress, the delivery of food – yes, a kitchen is very beautiful but I’m sorry but a garden is all about space, breathing, it’s about the smells, the colours, the textures.
You may say I’m an optimist or a romantic, probably I am both, what I’m witnessing now is that my British friends are reconnecting with the values of food, they are reconnecting with seasonality, and their head chefs are reconnecting with their terroir, their suppliers, their regions.
I feel that the consumers of the large supermarkets are much more demanding, much more aware, much more responsible, and they start asking questions about chemicals and how it’s grown. Now knowledge is replacing ignorance and that’s marvellous because it’s completely empowering.
For me, seasonality is everything. At the moment we’re growing the first radishes, the first British asparagus, the first peas and broad beans, and we have about 18 varieties of salad. I really look forward to the first new potatoes that we are going to dig in early June. We have 150 varieties of vegetables growing at Belmond Le Manoir, so there’s so much going on. The seasons command what we put on the plate.
I’m glad to be a chef not a gardener because if you grow a garden and suddenly you have hail, frost that kills all of your seeds, or you have an infestation of white flies which are going to murder your onions, you can only control those as best as you can. Being a chef in a way is much easier because we don’t have so many enemies.
To understand gardens is a good start, like I did with my papa, because if you have a deep connection with produce, for me a garden is a cradle of great gastronomy, simple as that. To have that knowledge is always helpful.
You need to be curious, have thousands of questions, but you need to be hard working because there’s no doubt you need to have discipline within yourself.
To be a great chef, some of it is talent but talent will never be enough to make a great chef. Mostly it’s how you work with a team and how demanding you are. You also need to be a perfectionist – try to aim to touch total excellence, and that is not easy but it’s wonderful if you manage it and it’s worth it I assure you.
Travel, read, and eat, not in burger land, but in little cafés, learn about food, go in other restaurants, and do some work experience. So I think if you do that you are more likely to be a young professional chef.
A lot of our industry hasn’t been kind to itself and with our chefs we truly nurture and care for them. I think that’s important that we create an industry that nurtures these young people to guide them and that’s what we do. And I feel proud.
As a restauranteur, we aren’t perfect but we work bloody hard to create something truly beautiful and multi-faceted in all of its aspects and to have true ethics and a true heart. And our guests all know it when they come here, they feel it, it’s special.
I try to take a day off a week, it’s very important to reinvent yourself. One of my favourite restaurants is The Wild Rabbit in Kingham, it’s an absolutely fantastic pub. I love Whatley Manor in Malmesbury, I think it’s a beautiful little hotel with a good restaurant in it.
But the one I still prefer is the brasserie we created, I think 18 years ago, in the heart of Cheltenham called Brasserie Blanc. I love its rusticity – it celebrates good, delicious food and it’s affordable.
By Anna Marshall
Thursday 11 May 2017
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