RAYMOND Blanc is holding court in his Brasserie Blanc restaurant in Leeds which is celebrating its 10th birthday.
But his celebratory mood is tempered by the recent death of his friend, and fellow gastronomic pioneer, Antonio Carluccio. “He brought his Italian brand of simple, wholesome, tasty food. He’s been part of the make-up and new gastronomy in Great Britain which didn’t exist before. He was a great raconteur and someone who had a great love of life. He was the best Italian I know and I will miss him.”
Just as Carluccio was a standard bearer of Italian cooking, Blanc was at the vanguard of the French culinary revolution that swept across Britain in the 1970s and 80s. After first arriving on our shores 45 years ago, the self-taught chef quickly earned his culinary stripes, as well as his Michelin stars, and has trained such notable stars as Marco Pierre-White, John Burton Race and Michael Caines at his award-winning Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons in Oxford.
Blanc isn’t just about fine dining and it’s now 21 years since he opened his first Brasserie Blanc. “I longed to create places that were like little bistros or brasseries which could give people, whether it is a family or a businessman in a hurry, great food and make it affordable,” he says.
There are now 20 Brasserie Blancs, including this one in Leeds. So what, then, is the recipe for running a successful restaurant? “You make mistakes and you learn from them,” he says, candidly. “It’s all very well for you to have the vision but if you don’t have the right team around you, you’ll be in trouble. They are the ones at the coal face every day and if they don’t own your vision it won’t work. A lot of restaurants explode like stars and a year later they disappear.”
So choosing the right people and training them properly is key, as is making your restaurant an integral part of the local community.
“You’re not just an eaterie, you’re involved in charities and you’re part of local life. But often restaurants are seen just as places to eat. But a good restaurant will want to get involved in training young people.”
The number of chain restaurants populating the high streets of our towns and cities has grown in recent years raising concerns that they are putting the squeeze on independents.
But he views his restaurants more as a small group that’s grown organically, rather than a chain.
“We open one Brasserie Blanc a year – if we were empire building we would be having 20 a year,” he says.
Blanc’s passion and energy is matched by his drive and hard work which has helped him deflect the slings and arrows that any restaurateur must contend with. “You face recessions, economic changes, fashions and now Brexit,” he says.
That said he’s not one for foodie fads. “I never follow fashions. I was the first to get into molecular gastronomy and the first to get out of it because I didn’t want science to overpower the meaning of gastronomy.
“As much as I love him to bits, my wonderful friend Heston Blumenthal, I’m still in disagreement with him on the way to express gastronomy. On the other hand I look at you as my guest and I listen all the time. I watch the big changes whether it’s changes in diets or the shift away from meat.”
Blanc’s own story serves as an inspiration. He tried his hand at a string of jobs working as everything from a nurse to a draughtsman, “which I hated”, before fate intervened.
It was while standing outside the best restaurant in his home city of Besancon that he had his ‘eureka’ moment. “There is always an element of luck in life and I happened to be standing outside this restaurant. I saw the waiters in black ties carving and flambeing and the lovers holding hands at the tables. It was like a ballet and I wanted to be the chef producing the food.”
He tried to get a job as the head chef at the restaurant and, not surprisingly, failed. But he did get a job as a cleaner and through his hard work and pursuit of excellence worked his way up to the rank of commis chef, watching and learning as he went along.
At the age of 28 he moved to England to work at the Rose Revived, a pub in Oxfordshire, where he married Jenny whose parents owned the pub. Having been brought up in a family where food was at the centre of life, with the now famous Maman Blanc at the helm, he was shocked by the prevailing British attitudes that revolved around intensive farming and processed food.
Blanc made up for his lack of formal training with his knowledge of seasonality that he gleaned from his mother and in 1977 he and Jenny set up their first restaurant, Les Quat’ Saisons. It was an overnight success, winning him Egon Ronay Restaurant of the Year and prestigious Michelin stars. Seven years later, he fulfilled a personal vision, when he opened Le Manoir.
Since then he’s become a leading figure in modern British cookery and is now one of the most recognisable chefs in the world. Blanc, like his late friend Antonio Carluccio, has helped transform the culinary landscape in this country. “It’s been a privilege and I have enjoyed passing on my knowledge. It’s not just about cooking, it’s about teaching young people about sustainability, provenance, ethics and waste management, and how important it is to work with your community, and that it is what we have tried to do at Brasserie Blanc.”
Leading a French foodie revolution
In the summer of 1972, Raymond Blanc arrived in England to work as a waiter at the Rose Revived restaurant in Oxfordshire. One day, when the chef was ill, he took over the kitchen, which kick-started his career.
Five years later he opened his first restaurant which proved an instant hit gaining two Michelin stars within just a couple of years.
Over the years Blanc has nurtured the talents of the likes of Marco Pierre White, Michael Caines and Bruno Loubet. In 2008 he was awarded an OBE in recognition of his services in promoting culinary excellence.
He says the culinary world is changing. “We are moving towards a different society. There is a generational change today where young people don’t want to be working 20 hours a day. We want to be creating an industry which has self-respect, which trains young people and which has credentials as good as any modern business. That’s important and that’s where we’re going.”