Meet The Celebrity Chef: Wolfgang Puck

Meet The Celebrity Chef: Wolfgang Puck


Gina Baksa meets celebrity chef and global entrepreneur Wolfgang Puck and chats food, celebrities, life and business over afternoon tea at CUT, his London restaurant at the 45 Park Lane hotel, Mayfair


Wolfgang Puck is one of the world’s most successful chef-entrepreneurs. From his early start peeling vegetables at a local restaurant in Austria (his mother was a chef) to creating iconic LA restaurants Spago and Chinois, as well as over 100 restaurants across world, consumer products, a TV series and syndicated column – the main is a phenomenon.

He is also the founder of Wolfgang Puck Fine Dining Group, Wolfgang Puck Catering and Wolfgang Puck Worldwide. Widely recognised for his nurturing and encouragement of new chef talent (including CUT 45 Park lanes Executive Chef David McIntyre), Wolfgang recently received the exceptional Cateys 2018: International Outstanding Achievement Award.

He opened first flagship restaurant, Spago in LA back in 1982 and has been on the fast track to success ever since, catering for the Oscar’s Governor’s Ball for the last 24 years and only the second chef ever to receive a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame.

I met the 69-year-old phenomenon in London recently for his Chinois on Main Pop Up at CUT at 45 Park Lane. Marking the 35th birthday of his successful Santa Monica restaurant, Wolfgang brought his Asian Fusion cuisine to London.

We’re upstairs at Bar 45, a glamorous bar that has the largest selection of American wines in the UK, including Wolfgang’s own Wolfgang Puck-Schrader ‘Beckstoffer Georgess III Vineyard, Napa Valley, of which only 80 cases were made.

He’s in his whites, looking fresh, relaxed and has the energy of a man half his age. I’m a little intimated – the man is a culinary idol.

“My group is arriving at 12,” he tells me over tea. “My fellow classmates from my Harvard business course. About three years ago a journalist asked me if I had fulfilled all my dreams. And I told him I had always wanted to go to Harvard. 

“Then a few days later, Harvard Business School calls me up and asks me when I want to start!”

Wolfgang joined the University’s Owner President’s Management Program (OPM) which is one month over three years.

I panicked at first,” he reveals. “I didn’t know how to use a computer. But it’s been brilliant – you stay and sleep in a dorm – like being at boarding school” he smiles. “As I’ve got my pop-up here at CUT they are all coming for lunch here about 120 here from all over the world. Next March is the last month. Then we have a graduation ceremony.” 

So what has he got out of the Harvard experience so far?
I’ve learnt how to look at the business from the outside more and get input from different people on how to manage my company better. Also how to give people a clearer vision of what I want. And how to structure the company more efficiently.

Who’s your main right hand man?
Alex (Resnik) runs the restaurants and he’s responsible for their performance. He’ll give me suggestions if anything needs tweaking. We always want positive sales growth, so we sit down and discuss what’s needed.

Which restaurant is his best performing?
Number one is Spago in Singapore – that’s our best right now. It has a huge bar and lounge with 166 seats and an amazing location on top of the Marina Bay Sands hotel. Our second best is Spago in Beverley Hills. And the third is CUT in Las Vegas.

Why Chinois so popular?
Chinois was the first fusion restaurant in Los Angeles – it gave people a taste of something completely different. In the beginning, I’d never cooked traditional Chinese food and never used a wok. So I built an island kitchen at the restaurant. On one side I had three woks, on the other a wood burning stove and six flames. So that meant if I couldn’t use a wok I still had the flame!

Did the West Coast Asian influences inspired him to develop fusion cuisine?
Totally! The West Coast has so many great Asian influences: we have China Town, Korea Town… I wanted to cook using local ingredients but with flavours from different cultures.

And express my take on Chinese rather than using traditional recipes. For example instead of thickening a sauce with corn starch I use butter. And in certain situations I use cream. I definitely didn’t want stir-fried beef – enough LA restaurants are doing this. So I decided to make a New York steak, which Americans love, and then add an Asian-tasting sauce with it. So I caramelised shallots with some chilli flakes, added some soy sauce, some mirin and stock and reduced it then finished with a little butter.

It was a whole new flavour! What was also good was that we didn’t have the history. It would be hard to do that in Italy for example with such a rich tradition. Much more adventurous cooking originated from the west coast.

Had you got bored with Spago?
I opened Spago in West Hollywood, then another in Japan, and I remember being jetlagged in Japan seeing the same chairs, plates etc. and thinking I can’t continue to do this – bring out one after the other. I was always interested in Chinese food, so I decided to open my own Chinese restaurants. We trained a little bit at Spago – I tried out a few things and did it my way. It worked and became hugely successful.

His restaurant expansion has been incredible…
Yes it has but it’s happened over a long period of time. We didn’t expand and explode in 3 years. We’ve also expanded in different areas: upscale dining, airport restaurants, appliances and stuff, in supermarket foods. All different industry sectors.

Where does he get his energy from? Does he work out?
I have a personal trainer who comes two or three times a week when I’m in LA – and I have a gym in my house. And a tennis court too so I play regularly.  I think it’s important when you get to a certain age to keep on moving.

Does he enjoy cooking when he’s at home? Or does he let his wife Gelila take over?
Gelila’s (designer and creative director at Wolfgang Puck) is a very good cook too and if you ask my kids who makes the better pasta they’ll tell you mum makes the best Bolognese sauce and the best lasagne.

Have his sons followed him into the industry?
One of my sons, Byron has followed me into the business. He went to Cornell Management School and I sent him to different restaurants to learn the trade. He trained at Guy Savoy in Paris and also at Nobu here in London when he was at high school. I wanted him to work somewhere we he would be inspired.

Will he take over the reins of the company?
Yes, that’s what I am hoping. If he takes over the company, in say 10 years or so, it’s important that he’s a good cook. So he can tell the chefs his vision, what direction he’s taking.

Do you follow modern trends in cooking?
We create a blend of tradition and innovation. That’s what works. An example is our restaurant The Rogue Experience. It’s a tiny restaurant with a kitchen on one side; the customers sit at the counter. We do about 15 to 18 dishes. I’m very impatient so they have to move fast. Six dishes an hour for this tasting menu. I have two chefs there. Then I bring in chefs from different restaurants. So generally four chefs are cooking for 8 customers.

An amazing dining experience! And the chefs cannot do anything that they do in their own restaurant. They have to be creative. David McIntyre (Executive Chef at CUT 45 Park Lane) is very talented – he’s constantly reinventing. Once many chefs reach the age of 40 they get into a pattern and don’t want to change. I want them to continue to create.

Who has inspired him?
I got inspired at the age of 19 when I worked at Beaumanière (Provence) and I told myself I wanted to be like the owner-chef Raymond Thuilier. He was in his 70s at the time and still so passionate about food, about the ingredients and cooking. And also about hospitality. He owned the hotel and the restaurant.  Picasso ate there, so did Queen Elizabeth it was a Micheln 3 star.

Why did he leave Europe for the States?
I was working at Maxim’s in Paris and everyone said to me: ‘You’re young. What are you gonna do?” My friend was the pastry chef there and he told me I’d make much more money and have a better life in the States.

So when the opportunity came, I went. I was living in Monaco and a motor racing fan, so when somebody offered me a job in Indianapolis I took it! At that time it was complete culinary backwater. From there I moved to California after I got my Green Card.

We lost Tony Bourdain and Paul Bocuse this year. Did he know them?
I was more friendly with Paul than with Tony. I did a TV show with Paul at his restaurant and at his country home. And he came to cook with us at Spago in Beverly Hills and Las Vegas; he was very generous and very sweet. And I’m good friends with his son Jérome.

Tony and I had a little disagreement about fois gras once. He was working at Les Halles in New York – way before he became famous. He chided me for caving in to public demand and taking fois gras off the menu. I told him I didn’t want people demonstrating outside my restaurant. And that when he was running a successful restaurant himself he’d be better qualified to give me advice!

Is fois gras still off the menu in California?
Yes, it is, but for the Chinois pop-up here in London it’s on. Fois gras is still in demand so we give the customers what they want. They love it. The pop up is very successful, it’s a good mix of old and modern. The signature dish is Chinois Lobster. People also love the sizzling fish, and the pineapple and fois gras.

What are the qualities of a good leader?
I think you have to really tell people your vision very clearly. Then train them over the years; establish a culture and hold people responsible. For example if David here at CUT 45 Park Lane wants to change the fish, he doesn’t have to call me and ask me if he can change it. He’s been with me 23 years. If he can’t do it alone then he shouldn’t be working with me.

I want each restaurant to be independent. They can play with the menu to a certain point, but they have to have clear guidelines. I want them to own their creation.  The individual chef in each restaurant knows much better than head office what their customers want.

Many of your staff have been with you for years?
Yes, we have great continuity with our staff.  I have two chefs – one in LA and the other in Vegas who have been with me many years who oversee the openings. They work with the local chefs who are ultimately responsible. They have autonomy.

Do you still source locally?
Yes, I love it. Even at home I go to the local markets. Every Sunday in Beverley Hills there’s a little farmer’s market in Santa Monica. I love the smells; same with the fish market. I tell all the chefs it’s all about the ingredients. You must know the produce inside out.

Did growing up on a farm help him hone his nose for good produce?
Yes, I was always close to the farmers. At Ma Maison in LA where I used to work I’d go to a farm south of LA and I’d get the perfect ripe strawberries; the perfect green beans. It was amazing. I learnt how to smell the produce. Just like where I grew up. When I was a boy my mother just went to the vegetable garden, picked 5 vegetables and made a soup.

Was your mother a chef in your home town? Did she inspire you to cook?
Not my home town but nearby at a resort hotel on a lake. She totally inspired me to cook. When I was 12 or 13 I would work at the hotel and spend time in the kitchen with the pastry chef. I loved sweets so it was perfect.

Did your mother live to see your success?
Yes, totally. And she was very proud of me. She was a quiet woman. My step father was another matter. Probably bi-polar and very boisterous but it wasn’t diagnosed in those days. He was crazy and used to drink a lot. Not good.

There’s the story that you were fired from your job and you went down to your local river to end it all?
Yup that’s true, I tried to jump into the river. But then I had the thought to go back to work. Maybe my boss was having a bad day and he’d let me stay. So I did. The apprentice above me hid me in the cellar and I peeled all the vegetables. A few weeks later the chef came down and ask me why I was there when I had been fired. I told him I wasn’t leaving and stood my ground. So I tell everyone now – never take no for an answer!

So what’s next for you – personally and professionally?
Right now, it’s exciting for me to see how Byron grows into the business. He’s cooking at Rogue now. He’s not yet an experienced chef but he has a great imagination. And he’s not afraid to ask for advice from the other chefs. He’s also great on TV – he’s appeared with me on the Shopping Channel and he’s not fazed by celebrities. When I was his age I was so shy. He’s very confident.

Right now I’m trying to find a balance between my professional and my private life. We only live once and are here for such a short time, So I’ve decided to take July off. Before, I used to take just 10 days’ vacation a year. Crazy. My wife is very happy about my decision.

What do you do when you take a break? Can you ever switch off?
You know I can compartmentalise everything really well. When I’m at work I concentrate on work. When I’m at home with the children I don’t have my phone with me. I don’t want to be interrupted. Even when I’m in a restaurant I don’t answer it.

My wife and I play tennis; we love art and go to the local galleries. You have to have common interests with your partner. My wife loves fashion so I’ll take her to Paris for the shows. She sees it with a friend and I hang out with my friends in a café. Perfect!

Fashion is a bit like our industry – we both have to constantly reinvent ourselves and be creative.

Is that the key to your fulfilment, being so creative?
Yes, and I always think I can do better. A perfectionist? I tell everyone that I’m easy-going as long as you do it the way that I want! Mostly I give positive feedback to my staff. I just tell them how I want them to do it without being mean. It’s so much better. I reward them so they feel good about it. It’s not good to hammer on someone.

Life is energy. If you do something good you get so much good energy back it makes you feel good and not tired. It’s like putting gas in a car.. and not running out, he smiles.

So for me to be in the kitchen, and to be with my customers feeds my energy. I meet so many fascinating people from Presidents to royalty to the Hollywood crowd.

How do you compartmentalise it all? How do you stay calm?
I sit and think. They think I’m daydreaming but I’m often thinking about what to do next. How to improve the business. It’s important not to sit still. This time next year the world will be a very different place. Everything is changing so fast. Who would have thought that everything we need is in our telephone? Each time I see a red phone booth in London I take a photo. Look what’s replaced it!

What does he think about the TV celebrity chef trend?
Much of the shouting and buffoonery is an act. You’d get sued for harassment in the States if you did that. In 1982 at Spago we had an open kitchen. So we had to.be nice as our guests could hear everything. The open kitchen is a good thing. Everyone has to look smart, shave and have good ingredients. And they have to cook it right as the customer can come up to the counter and tell you it’s not good! We are far more visible now.

I remember I cooked squab once for Lauren Bacall. She accosted me saying you don’t know how to cook this bird it’s still pink! And I told her yes, that’s the way you should eat it. She loved us but she was tough. She used to come to Chinois straight from the airport before she went to her hotel.

Will you continue to open more restaurants?
Yes, for sure. Hopefully another one in London, I like it here. My sons may go to school here, so I’ll be coming more often. We are opening another restaurant in Orlando in September this year. Then another one by next March in DC. We have no plans to stop expanding. Some restaurants fall by the wayside; the leases expire. We try to move forward slowly. As long as I have the talent to work with me we will continue to expand.

Is it hard to find good chefs?
We have a lot of cooking schools in the States, but it’s still difficult to find a good chef. The CIA (Culinary Institute of America) is in Napa Valley and we also have Johnson & Wells which is part of the university in Providence RI. To find people who are passionate and people who want to work is not that easy.

Does the younger generation of chefs want a different lifestyle?
Yes for sure. They don’t care so much about the money but they want a lifestyle balance. When we were young we had to work as hard as possible to make money. We didn’t think about having a ‘lifestyle’. When I was 25 I knew I had to work two jobs so that one day I could open a restaurant. So I did. Now people want free time and a better work-life balance.

This change of lifestyle  also gives the partners of chefs the chance to do something too. Not just look after the children. It used to be so one-sided for women it was like oppression. They had to stay at home and never had anything to show for it. Making your own money and being creative makes you feel good about yourself.

What advice do you have for young chefs now?
I think that today the way everything is going so fast. Just be patient and learn while you work for someone else. Make your mistakes at someone else’s expense before breaking out on your own. Come and work at CUT and you’ll know what to do when you leave.

A lot of people forget how to learn to do the basics. They might be able to cook 10 dishes really well but after a while it gets boring. Or they want to be celebrities and appear on TV.. Nobody wants to really put in the work anymore to get there. They want instant fame and instant riches.

I teach new chefs about hospitality. Cooking with food is one thing but how you treat your guests is just as important. That’s why the dining room staff and the cooking staff must  have a good relationship. If not, the customers will sense it. They must be as proud as the chefs to bring the food to our guests. And to make our guests feel good.

You’ve cooked at the Governor’s Ball at the Oscars for the last 24 years…
We love it. And we are so organised its run like clockwork. It’s easy for me because I just decide what we’re gonna cook, and how we’re gonna do it and my team executes.

Do the celebrities usually want the same dish?
Some want the classic chicken pot pie with black truffle – Barbra Streisand always ask for it. As do the older board members. We make our pizzas, our smoked salmon Oscars, our golden chocolate Oscars. W mix tradition with new ideas.

You know once you know them they’re just people. Some are excellent at what they do. Some aren’t. Some are nice. Some not so nice. To me money doesn’t the man; man makes the money. Look at Federer.. he’s a very charming down-to-earth guy. He could be all pompous but he’s not.

What’s the key to success?
If you love what you do and you’re not afraid to work you can become successful. Hospitality is a tough job. I remember all those years ago when I started at Beaumaniere in Provence, Tuillier was already 72 years old. He was so passionate about the hotel and the cuisine. He was a great mentor. I was 19, he was 72.

One of my Harvard professors,  Boris Groysberg told me that now I am older I have to get younger men on board. The Harvard course has younger guys too so I can learn so much.

So I ask my son what he would like to drink when he goes out. His group are in their early 20s… it’s very different. They don’t go out to eat one big meal. They might go to a lounge for a cocktail. Then meet some friends at another place. Then maybe go to another place for a meal. Go home at 2am and eat in three different places. It’s a new paradigm. They are future customers.

Who have you met in your life that has had a lasting impression?
One person from my Beaumanière days. He was a famous actor and had just made a movie and he was so handsome and he had a beautiful girlfriend. Now he’s the Godfather of our children. His name is Sidney Poitier.  When Obama got in I told him: Sidney you have to go and teach Obama how to speak. He’s such a beautiful gracious man and a good friend.

He actually asked me if he could be my sons’ godfather. What an honour. He likes coconut sorbet so I often take him some. I was so lucky to be around at that time when Hollywood was a different place. I used to play tennis with Gene Kelly.

Do you have plans to write your memoir?
Well, I’m having a meeting in New York next week with Ruth Reichl, former editor in Chief of Gourmet Food magazine. She knows me very well. I have so many stories! Somehow I wasn’t intimated by these stars and they trusted me. I was always discrete.

How did you meet your wife?
Gelila was a customer. I just chatted her up. I talk to everybody. As well as being the company’s designer and creative director, my wife helps a school in Ethiopia – she supports 800 children there, and started with 20 children about 20 years ago. The kids have grown up and we went to their graduation ceremony. They are all such amazing children.  It’s so important to give back. Especially when you have been given so much.

Where and How
Where: 45 Park Ln, Mayfair, London W1K 1PN Website: dorchestercollection.com How: Phone 020 7493 4545 or visit dorchestercollection.com to make a booking. 

Interview: Mathilde Allibe, CEO of SECRETCAPE

Interview: Mathilde Allibe, CEO of SECRETCAPE


SECRETCAPE is the Mayfair-based design and architecture firm that creates multi-million pound interiors for royals, billionaires and celebrities. Gina Baksa meets its founder and visionary CEO, Mathilde Allibe


As elegant and enigmatic as the Secretcape interiors she designs for her affluent clients, Secretcape’s leader is a woman with a mission. Born in the south of France, Mathilde spent a Bohemian childhood in Central Africa – where her surgeon father provided healthcare to local pygmies – followed by an equally free-spirited adolescence on Guadeloupe in the French West Indies.

It was Guadeloupe where Mathilde’s interior design skills were first recognised and at 19 she received her first commission to design the island’s airport VIP lounge. Private projects followed and she began to make a name for herself. Hailing from an entrepreneurial family (her grandfather designed the machine that prints bank notes), Mathilde was encouraged in her design career by her father who nurtured her obvious creative talent. 

Yet she became tired of island life, “Everyone knows everyone else; it became claustrophobic,” she reveals. “I’m a very private person and I also needed to feed my brain and travel more, so I left. 

“But I was lucky I had that kind of free-spirited background, since it means I can easily adapt to any situation and any environment.

“It grounded me and taught me to become independent. My father told me he always knew I would succeed.”

Many summers were spent with her grandparents in the South of France: “I still go there to recharge,” and although travel to clients in the US, Europe and the Middle East is now a constant, Secretcape’s roots are firmly in London’s Mayfair, the exclusive location of her head office that is home to a team of 20 designers, architects, project managers, finance and aftercare specialists.

“I like to give my team the chance to express themselves, so that they feel part of something bigger. We are like a family in a way,” she tells me. 

Established in 2008, Secretcape’s client base is a discreet mix of affluent royals, celebrities, heiresses and entrepreneurs. Villas, apartments, yachts, luxury hotels and private jets have received the Secretcape stardust, combining luxurious architectural design elements with a sensual mix of textures and sophisticated bespoke craftsmanship. 

“Most of our clients are regulars,” she tells me, remaining superbly discreet. “They begin with one property and soon I find I am working across their portfolio. And if they decide to sell, their profit can be as much as 30%.”

A self-confessed “perfectionist”, Mathilde oversees every detail of every project. From personalised towels and linens, to artwork, tableware, lavish linens and exquisite and state-of-the-art lighting and shading. The result is an ‘art of living’ residence that is not just aesthetically beautiful, but also a functional living home. A refined space that provides a beautiful entertaining environment, as well as a retreat from often hectic professional and private lives.

We’re chatting at one of Secretcape’s completed projects at 30 Pont Street in London’s exclusive Mayfair. This Grade II listed, six-storey, Queen Anne mansion was designed in 1889 by architect C W Stephens, who also built Harrods and Claridges. Behind the mansion’s impressive redbrick façade is the most beautiful transformation all carefully orchestrated under Mathilde’s expert eye.

Originally six separate flats on each floor, Mathilde’s brief from the property’s Middle Eastern owners was to transform the house into three fabulous apartments. It’s a listed building and with a budget of over £20 million, a considerable responsibility that has taken 2.5 years of careful redesign, from initial planning to the present day design spectacular. 

The owners of 30 Pont Street are delighted with Secretcape’s majestic end result, but due to a change in family circumstances have now put the house up for sale. Each apartment is listed at over £7million and listed with Knight Frank Mayfair and Napier Watt. 

From the impressive concierge area with its original dark wood panelling, marble flooring and bespoke lighting we take the elevator (each apartment has its own lift entrance) to the top of the house. 

I’ve seen many beautiful interiors, in luxury private homes and high-end hotels, where the design is effortlessly cool but lacks heart. Mathilde’s vision on the other hand effortlessly blends warmth and sophistication, with delicate masculine and feminine touches. Bold dark wooden flooring is the perfect pairing for soft fabrics and a sensual mix of textures and colours. Vibrant art displayed on a neutral backdrop with red and gold colour accents, together with beautiful symmetry that creates calm and order without feeling contrived or controlled. 

Soft velvet fabrics, warm rich taupe-coloured sofas, and artfully placed lamps and Secretcape finds from markets, as well as high-end brands, make for an interesting visual mix that’s playful as well as grown up. 

The attention to detail is astonishing. Where does she source her pieces?

My clients sent me to Marrakech to find one-of-a-kind items,” Mathilde explains. “For example, these pieces are marriage certificates written on cedar wood. I found a bundle of these in the souk.” 

The stunning interiors at 30 Pont Street house the spirit of North Africa combined with a European relaxed sophistication. The French gray marble is cool and adds light to the spaces, while the velvet and cotton textures are warm and inviting. I want to move in. 

The exquisite oak flooring has been black tinted, providing the perfect showcase for the bespoke furniture designed in-house at Secretcape. I notice intriguing design details, such as the font-inspired basins in the bathrooms. It would take more than a day to go round the house just taking in all the details. 

Plush carpets you could sleep on, window boxes with fresh mint and rosemary, beautifully designed tableware… We look out from this magical eyrie to the beautiful terrace below with its fresh plantings and a specially made window (on the ceiling of the basement flat) that turns opaque at the touch of a remote. 

Where does she get her inspiration? 

“I love order and symmetry,” explains Mathilde. “And I love hospitality and receiving people. I love seeing people enjoying themselves and feeling good. These values are expressed in my design work.”

“I’m also meticulous – I cannot even leave my house in the morning if it’s not in order. So my clients can sense this when they get to know me.

“They can feel that I am giving myself fully for them. That I am fully committed to each project I work on. I am a perfectionist and very passionate about what I do.” 

As we make our way down to the second and third apartments – ever more spectacular – the vibrant artwork on the walls catches my eye. Who’s the artist?  

“Ah, yes she’s brilliant!” smiles Mathilde. “Sylvaine Ebb is from Lebanon and has a great spirit. Her work looks amazing in this house and I have commissioned her a lot.”

With 7 projects on the go, I ask her if she gets time to recharge. “I am probably a bit of a workaholic,” Mathilde admits. “It’s not easy for me to take time off but I love travel. That energises me.” Her favourite destinations? “I love the South of France and Porto Vechio, Puglia and Doha are also places I love visiting.” 

Noticing an Hermès cushion on the bed, which are her favourite designers? 

“Hermès, I love, yes – also St-Louis for their timeless quality. But I don’t always use brand names. I often visit markets for one-off pieces that can look beautiful too and complement high-quality fabrics and furniture.”

Looking back at her success, what advice would she give her 19-year-old self? 

She smiles: “To believe in myself. Believe in my projects and ideas and to never ever give up!”

So what’s next for Secretcape? I get the feeling Mathilde’s motivation is not about the money.

“Not it’s definitely not,” she agrees. “I hate talking about money. I’d rather focus on creating great interiors and let my team deal with the accounts.

“For me, my motivation is to continue creating a career out of something I am most passionate about – interior design. To create beautiful homes for my clients and to express myself and my passion in the process.

 “I want to be the Natalie Massenet (Net-A-Porter founder) of interior design!” 

30 Pont Street for sale
The three Secretcape-designed apartments at 30 Pont Street are now for sale. Available as one lot or as separate apartments.
Listed with Knight Frank Mayfair. Call Stuart Bailey on 0207 881 7720 / 07789 956931
Listed with Napier Watt. Call Jonathan Adams on 0207 935 0011 / 07974 666634

SecretCape Interior Design
1 Down Street Mews
London W1J 7AU
Find out more via visiting www.secretcape.co.uk, phoning + 44 (0) 20 7499 7255 or emailing info@secretcape.co.uk.

Interview: Raymond Blanc OBE

Interview: Raymond Blanc OBE


Celebrity chef Raymond Blanc OBE, shares his pursuit of excellence and passion for organic food with Gina Baksa at the iconic Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons


It takes a magical ensemble to create a great restaurant. Lovely food is not enough.
There must be an ambience of genuine warmth. The staff must really care and provide attentive service. The food should make you dream…”

Raymond Blanc is in a jovial and expressive mood, beckoning me into the dining room for breakfast. Our very early meeting (I’m staying at Le Manoir overnight) is an entirely unarranged yet very welcome surprise; Monsieur Blanc has been a culinary hero of mine for years.

A hugely successful businessman, this pioneering, passionate Chef-Patron has trained 30 Michelin chefs, written books, starred in TV series, created the Brasserie Blanc restaurant group, launched a cookery school and is a director of the Sustainable Restaurant Association. His vision of ‘a hotel and restaurant in harmony where my guests would find perfection in food, comfort, service and welcome’ was awarded two Michelin stars in 1985 and has incredibly held it ever since.

 I share with him my excitement at this, my first visit to Belmond Le Manoir, and of the incredible 7-course tasting menu I enjoyed the night before.

We have created an incredible team here, really an extraordinary team,” says Raymond, tapping his boiled egg with gusto. “It’s an ensemble and I am very proud of them. If you put all your love and your intelligence and your curiosity into what you do, you can create excellence,” he adds.

“I don’t own the vision anymore which is great, it’s fantastic,” he smiles. (Raymond sold his majority share in Le Manoir to Virgin, who eventually sold it on to Orient Express (later rebranded as Belmond).

“It leaves me room for more involvement in other aspects of the business and I can have more fun with my creativity.”

As if to illustrate the point, he leaps up and points to a glass screen next to our table, decorated with trees and other nature motifs.

This represents the orchard we are creating. I’m still deciding on the colours. You see the green here? I might change it to blue.”

I tell him how much I love his attention to detail: in the gardens, the rooms, the menu – the whole Manoir experience is a work of art. Each of the 32 rooms has an individual design – what was his inspiration for the decor?

“From my travels around the world,” Raymond replies. “The Jade Suite for example is a reflection of my trips to Japan. I love that country.”

The Lace Suite where I’m staying particularly has a very sensual look and feel…

“Ah, the Lace… It’s like a Parisian French boudoir,” he smiles knowledgably, attacking the shell of his second egg. “Do you like the photographs?” He’s referring to a selection of tasteful black and white shots of a model in lace appliqué lingerie.

I nod appreciatively.

“In order to create them I went a London agency, with Natalia my fiancée, and found the ideal models.” So he was at the photo shoot? “Of course! I was directing it!” he replies, clearly relishing the memory.

“Look at all the details in the Lace Suite – from the wallpaper to the chaise longues, and all the elements in the bathroom, I love all the detail. For sure I am a micro-idiot,” Raymond confesses.

I, for one, very much appreciate his micro-idiocy – the rooms and suites at Le Manoir are stunning.

So how does he manage the high expectations of his guests?

“Some guests love a lot of attention, while others want to be left alone. We train our staff to adjust accordingly and allow for flexibility with each guest. When we set high standards, as we do here, guests’ expectations are also high,” he explains.

“I wanted to create the kind of luxury that is inclusive not exclusive. We want everyone to feel welcome here.”

Clearly Raymond and his team know exactly what their guests are looking for in Le Manoir experience:

“The modern guest travels all the time,” he says. “They are exhausted. So when they take their family, or their lover or their loved one to a hotel they want to feel well. They want to enjoy the menu, the Manoir, the grounds. They want to relax and also feel excited to be here.”

I can’t imagine anyone staying at Le Manor not enjoying all this incredible hotel-restaurant has to offer.

Raymond successfully cracks open his second egg.

“See, parfait!” he beams. I’m looking at a gorgeous yellow yolk.

When you boil it, leave it to swim for another 30 or 40 seconds, and you have a perfect soft-boiled egg,” he advises.

“Look, it’s barely coagulated. It’s trembling, you can see,” More of a hard-boiled egg lover, I can still appreciate the freshness and express my appreciation of the golden-hued egg.

“Ha! Don’t be mistaken by colour,” Raymond warns me. “A lot of eggs are not free range at all. They either use colouring or give maize feed to the chicken so the yoke looks more yellow.”

So what should a healthy yolk look like?

“The best eggs are not a deep orange colour; the best eggs are from corn-fed chickens with less sugar, a lower glycaemic index, lower starch content. These are much more natural eggs.”

We talk about supermarket food now containing fewer nutrients than ever before – many covered in harmful pesticides.

“Absolutely,” agrees Raymond. “We are being poisoned.”

Is the plan to cultivate more land at Le Manoir a grand design to produce all their own food – and maybe sell some to the public via a farm shop?”

“You put your finger on it,” he agrees. “In fact my next filming with the BBC will be all about how we are being poisoned. The trouble is that the consumer is attached to what the food looks like on the outside, rather than the inside.”

Is he talking about the wax coating on much of our supermarket fruit and veg?

“Yes, some fruits and vegetables are waxed to improve their shine and seal in the moisture,” Raymond tells me. “And we consistently are offered the same shape, the same colour. Natural apples don’t look like this! They have mixed up the varieties to create the perfect apple that is resistant to disease.

“The apples we eat today often have five or six times less nutrients in them than the apples our parents enjoyed. We are creating huge health problems because our food is heavily deficient in the vitamins and minerals we need.”

Is Le Manoir purely organic then?

“Definitely! All our food grown here at Le Manoir is organic. I would love to do a film where I grow an organic fruit and then compare it to something grown intensively, maybe a chicken or some wine,” replies Raymond passionately.

Did you know some wines have up to 250 chemicals in them?”

I didn’t and I’m shocked.
“It’s frightening how many toxins we take in via our food. So many people don’t know about this,” he adds.

Looking at the plan of the garden it seems Raymond is creating a huge orchard.

“Yes,” he confirms. “We have already planted 3000 trees, many from my friend the winemaker Xavier Guillaume, who lives only 20 miles from my village near Besançon.

“He is also a fabulous pépinière – his family have been grafting and growing vines for more than 100 years. He’s one of the three greatest vine cultivators in the world. Did you know he has actually changed the DNA of the trees so that they can better adapt to climate change? He’s a genius.”

Raymond’s new film project will reveal more about the true nature of our current food supply in supermarkets.

“The idea with my show is to show the public what we have lost in Great Britain. In supermarkets it’s all about sugar. Taste equals sugar.”

I ask him what he believes is the secret of Le Manoir’s sustained success.

“Warmth… generosity. The first thing I did here was kill the protocol of ‘table’. And do away with the aloofness of traditional fine dining.

“I wanted to create a happy place where people smile at you. A place of total gentleness and thoughtfulness and caring. A place where all guests feel special. It’s not about us. It’s about you, our guests.

“We are very lucky in that we have a team at Le Manoir who does this very well. The team here amazes me.”

Having spoken to many of the staff at Le Manoir, it’s heart-warming to hear and see the esteem and high regard they have for their boss. They clearly love working with Monsieur Blanc.

I mention the conversation I’d had the day before with General Manager Jan-Paul Kroese about emotional intelligence and the importance of training staff to anticipate guests’ individual needs.

“Yes, it’s all about emotional intelligence of course, and it’s also about curiosity,” Raymond tells me. “It’s much harder to train someone who has no curiosity, and to share your ideas with them.

“Emotional intelligence is crucial, but it’s also about giving the staff that work here the feeling that they are co-owners. For example all the gardeners here own their own part of the garden. It took me a long time to understand this.”

Is it easy to recruit the right staff?

“Actually no,” Raymond reveals. “Our business is hugely popular, and we are well known, yet we have difficulty in recruiting staff who understand the true meaning of service.

“Generally our industry has not trained or cared for them well. We want to change perceptions of the hospitality industry, which is why we have created an encouraging environment at Le Manoir. We’d love it that more young people felt inspired to join us.”

Le Manoir has some wonderful paintings and sculptures – mostly owned by Raymond – does he find art inspires his own creativity?

“Absolutely!” he enthuses. “I love art and especially love the work of Kenyan sculptor Juginder Lamba who works in bronze, stone and wood. I love his female shapes and I’m now collecting his fabulous seedpods.

“His sculptures help to soften the masculinity of Le Manoir, which structurally is all about the power of man, the money of man, the vanity of man.

“So inside the Manoir I wanted to bring all the warmth and all the curves and create an environment that is warm, happy and female. Let’s face it most guys look into a room and never notice the softness of a fabric, the flowers… so I always think what women would like.”

I suggest he has found a perfect balance of masculine and feminine in his creative expression, whether it’s via his interior design, the gardens or his gastronomy.

“Yes, it’s important to have a balance of both,” Raymond agrees. “It creates harmony.”
Revealing a distinct lack of harmony, he points to plant display in front of us – reminiscent of a 1930s palm house arrangement and frankly dated.

“I hate this horrible jungle,” says Raymond. “It’s terrible.”

He finds a pen and paper and begins sketching a new design.

“Here…” He passes me his drawing of a Japanese-style planting with a large canopied tree in the centre and smaller trees around it.

“See… what you have here is something very Japanese. It will look so much more beautiful and feminine. A major tree with canopy, freedom and space. And I will put a little stream around it with smaller trees. More freedom and space.”

Raymond’s love of creativity is at the heart of everything he does. I ask if his mother, Maman Blanc, played a significant part in instilling this passion in her son.

“Absolutely!,” Raymond agrees. “She probably has had more influence on me than anyone else.

“We had a huge plot of land which would feed our family the whole year round. I learnt how to do the garden at a young age and helped my mother prepare the vegetables in the kitchen.

“Of course I hated it because while most of my friends were playing football I was working in the garden. It’s non-stop. You have to till the earth, you seed the earth, clear it of stones. Then, when you think it’s all over you have to harvest the plant, then top and tail them. I would then give them to my mum, who practiced her extraordinary craft on all the vegetables we grew.

“So I learnt all about seasonality, the phases of the moon; about the act of giving. My mother would give me a bag and tell me to go foraging. She was an amazing woman.”

It seems the English love growing flowers more than vegetables?

“I think so,” says Raymond. “A French garden will have 95% vegetables and fruit and 3% horrible dandelions. Whereas in an English garden it’s the opposite: you have 90% potted plants and a veggie garden full of flowers and shrubs.”

Was this the case at Le Manoir when he bought it?
“Yes! The garden was the most frightening part of my experience when I first moved in,” Raymond reveals. “It was in such a mess. What was also frightening was the fact that the house once belonged to Lord Camoys who murdered about 5000 French people at Agincourt!” he jokes.

They do say revenge is a dish best served cold.

The gardens at Le Manoir are beautiful… soft, gentle and picturesque. Raymond worked with landscape designer Robert Ketchell to create a tranquil Japanese garden. Within it, a beautiful teahouse enables guests to contemplate the beauty and simplicity of their surroundings.

“I went into so much detail to create it,” he smiles.

Would he call himself a perfectionist? “Well some people call me obsessive,” he laughs. “Of course there’s a difference between obsessive and perfectionist!”

I mention the water garden. “Yes, that’s fed by natural springs,” Raymond tells me. “The monks who lived on this land in the 16th century created it.

“My head gardener, Anne Marie Owens has been with me since the beginning. Our veggie garden is planted with over 90 varieties of vegetable and 70 types of herb.”

The standard of service and attention to detail at Le Manoir is astonishing.

As Raymond says: “For me, excellence lies in small details, brought together lovingly and patiently in a constant quest for perfection in cooking and hospitality.

“It’s about love; it’s about caring. People come to Le Manoir to be looked after and cared for. They come to relax and to step into another world,” he tells me at the end of our chat.

And that’s exactly how I felt during my stay at Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons. I certainly stepped into another world – and didn’t want to leave.

Where & How
Where: Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, Church Road, Great Milton, Oxford, OX44 7PD, UK
How: For reservations, please phone +44 (0)1844 278881, email reservations.mqs@belmond.com or visit belmond.com.
Getting there:  London Heathrow Airport is 36 miles (45-minute drive) from Le Manoir. You can land at Oxford Airport, about 16 miles away if arriving by private plane. The closest station is Haddenham & Thame Parkway, a 45-minute journey from London Marylebone. A taxi to Le Manoir takes 15 minutes.