Raymond Blanc dislikes being labelled an ‘entrepreneur’.
And yet the meteoric rise of this down-to-earth yet world-class chef who conquered the UK with an innate understanding of what makes good food, could only be evidence of someone prepared to take bold risks in the name of his passion, and significantly change his industry as a result. He can now be found at Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, in the role of Chef Patron.
“Catastrophic” is how Raymond Blanc describes his arrival from France to Britain at the beginning of the 197os. Armed with little but the culinary experience nurtured by his family and an unstoppable work ethic, he started aged 18 at the bottom of the heap, as a restaurant cleaner.
He consciously strove to excel at the job, and was quickly promoted to washer, before the proud moment when he took on the role of waiter. Those formative roles shape his early understanding of progress.
“I quickly understood that a great restaurant relies on good teamwork,” he says, “– a good washer, a good cleaner, a good chef and a good waiter that together offer your guests a moment that they will remember.”
Thinking he had the formula cracked, Raymond’s confidence – and brass neck – grew. After a run-in with the chef, whom he criticised for the nature of his sauces, he both lost his job and found himself in hospital for his trouble.
Undaunted by both blows, Raymond set about creating a restaurant on his own terms in 1972. Britain at the time did not have a good relationship with food, he recalls. “We had intensive farming followed by food processing; and with heavy marketing and branding, we reduced food to a mere commodity of which its only virtue was its cheapness.”
This was by implication a blessing in disguise. He was able to use all the French stereotypes available for his first venture – from red-and-white checked tablecloths to cheap prints of Paris on the walls – to ensure success among an intrigued, if uninformed, customer base. And yet with only the most basic of kitchen utensils, Raymond still managed to secure 2 Michelin stars within three years of opening – “an extraordinary experience”.
I quickly understood that a great restaurant relies on good teamwork
Taking risks and embracing change
For Raymond, change comes with the territory of such a fast moving sector as the restaurant business. There is always so much to learn,” he says. “In the process, I have had to eat a lot of humble pies because the idea of compromise would never enter my head. I was a romantic idealist, and not the best of businessmen. I would say I became an entrepreneur by complete mistake.
Whether a true ‘businessman’ or not, fast-forward to present day, and Quat’Saisons in Oxford is where Raymond practises his craft with all the trappings of a world-class centre of excellence. To get to that point, he managed by an extraordinary stroke of luck to convince funders to provide a grant for his vision of passing on his knowledge to legions of young British chefs.
Today hundreds of Michelin-starred chefs have left Raymond’s tutelage to make their mark in the world. “This is the most rewarding part of what I do,” he says. “I’ve worked with some of these people for 5 or 10 years, and it gives me a great deal of satisfaction to see them open up in business.”
A champion of sustainability
“My mother passed on to me a respect for people, culture and the earth – and it’s fascinating for me how the world is seriously changing. We’re going through such a maelstrom of change that businesses themselves must change – and faster,” he explains.
“We put in place management of waste, energy, people, workflow and community, because we recognise that we are after all part of society.”
In the restaurant sector, the consumer is changing,” he adds. “He is very much more knowledgeable. Before he was empowered by ignorance, but now he is more responsible and aware of the ethics of what we do.”
Maybe I’m naïve, but I still believe we can create something even better than we have now!
But given the momentous shifts in his sector, could a new Raymond Blanc really take Britain by storm now? “There are lots of them around today,” he counters. “People like Heston Blumenthal and Jamie Oliver bring real life to our business. To those who would contemplate breaking into the industry, Raymond advises: “Talent is never enough to carry you. You also need focus, ambition, and attention to the detail.”