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 email@example.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.