Raymond Blanc is acknowledged as one of the finest chefs in the world. Completely self-taught, his influence on gastronomy has been so great that he is the only chef to have been honoured with both an OBE from Britain and the equivalent of a knighthood from France.
But his story started with very humble beginnings…
Raymond Blanc was born in 1949 near Besançon, in the Franche-Comté region of eastern France, between Burgundy and the Jura mountains.
Growing up in post-war France was both the best of times and the worst of times. Best, because Raymond’s village was a tight-knit, loving community and the forests that surrounded it were full of adventures; worst, because money was hard to come by, especially for a family with five children to support.
Can you spot Raymond?
This meant that young Raymond had to work hard to help his parents. Five days per week he toiled in the garden with his father to grow vegetables to feed the family. He also had to chop down trees in the forest and haul them back for fire wood. He certainly earned his bread… but his mother’s cuisine was always worth it.
Maman Blanc was a tiny woman but a powerhouse of energy, who his sons later nicknamed: ‘Mother Teresa on Speed.’ She was a fantastic cook who used fresh, local, seasonal produce to make delicious meals every day.
Raymond’s father was a watchmaker by trade, but he was also a war hero, having served in the army that drove the Germans right back to Berlin. He was a proud man who was not to be argued with but he instilled in Raymond all his values of rigour and hard work. He was also a keen gardener and he certainly knew his onions when it came to organic vegetables. He provided Maman Blanc with all of her ingredients.
On Raymond’s tenth birthday, his father gave him his best ever present: a beautiful hand-drawn treasure map of all the best places to forage, fish and hunt in the area. The map led to scores of adventures in the rivers, woodland and garden for young Raymond – deepening his understanding of the best quality ingredients and cementing the importance of the four seasons.
Like most teenagers, Raymond was unsure about what his future career should be. It was a time when teachers decided your future – especially if your parents were working class. They decreed that Raymond should be a draughtsman… but it didn’t go well because he hated drawing straight lines but at least it taught him that he was creative.
He began to train as a nurse instead and, although that didn’t work out either, he learned that he loved helping to make people feel good. He was convinced that each of us has a special gift and he desperately wanted to find his.
One evening, he was walking past a Michelin-starred restaurant called Le Palais de la Bière.
Through the window, he saw what he regarded as an extraordinary ballet: the waiters were flambeeing crêpes Suzette in a pool of light, wearing handsome Bordeaux jacketswith shiny epaulettes.
In that second his life was decided.
He wanted to create those moments.
He wanted help people by bringing beauty and theatre and celebration into people’s lives.
He wanted to be a chef!
The restaurant manager would only employ him as a cleaner… so he made sure he was the best cleaner they ever had. Soon, they promoted him to the washer-up and, again, his great work ethic saw him promoted to waiter.
As a waiter, he finally got closer to the kitchen and restaurant. He saw how the whole operation was about a team working hard together to delight a complete stranger. He realised that even the seemingly unimportant and unpleasant jobs played an important part in creating all the layers of a truly memorable experience.
Finally, Raymond was able to explore his fascination with tastes and flavours and he fell deeply in love with gastronomy.
But the Head Chef was a monstrous giant of a man and, unfortunately, he did not take too kindly to his keen waiter’s constant suggestions and questions about his cooking.
On that day, Raymond lost his job, broke his jaw and severely bruised his ego.
Once he was released from hospital, he was exiled to Great Britain.
That brutal chef had managed to break Raymond’s jaw… but not his dream.
So even though Raymond could barely speak a word of English, he became a waiter at an Oxfordshire pub restaurant called The Rose Revived.
Britain in the 1970s was a depressing place for gastronomy. All the food was frozen, microwaved or beige.
One day, the Head Chef of the pub was ill and couldn’t come into work so Raymond volunteered to take over the kitchen.
He had never had any training as a chef but he drew on recipes that he had grown up eating and cooking with Maman Blanc...and the guests were delighted!
After the service, he stood mesmerised in the kitchen, holding a frying pan – the very same thing that had broken his jaw. But this time he felt just as excited as when he had looked through the window of the Le Palais de la Bière.
A few years later, having married the daughter of the pub owner, Raymond and his wife Jenny left The Rose Revived to launch their new restaurant together. It was in Oxford, on the site of a former Greek taverna – a humble building sandwiched between the Oxfam shop and a store selling women’s woollen lingerie.
The restaurant had a tiny kitchen with a corrugated iron roof. It had a 1956 oven with no bottom to it and a 1962 Kenwood mixer.
He bought cheap red and white table cloths and put a statue of a cockerel out the front so there could be no question of its nationality.
He named the restaurant Les Quat’Saisons, after his education in the four seasons as a boy. Les Quat’Saisons was such a success that, within weeks, it was booked for months in advance.
It quickly became known as the best place to eat in Oxford and, in 1979, it won its first of two coveted Michelin stars and the Egon Ronay Guide award for Best Restaurant in England.
But Raymond was full of ambition and longed to realise his next dream; being Chef Patron of a small country house restaurant with a huge potager kitchen garden and perhaps a few rooms for friends to stay in.
One day, in 1983, he was reading a magazine when he spotted a country manor house for sale in Great Milton village, just outside Oxford.
It was far more expensive than he could ever afford, and was much bigger than he was looking for, but he had fallen in love with the place already. He headed straight over there in his battered green Vauxhall van on a Sunday morning.
The manor house looked broken and in need of gutting throughout; in fact, it was on the verge of being sold to be dismantled into flats.
But Raymond loved the grand drive, the yellow Oxford stone, the gardens on different levels, the tall Elizabethan chimneys.
It was another key moment in his life.
He knew he had to buy it.
He knocked on the door and was met by a woman whom he assumed was the cleaner.
She was actually the recently-widowed Lady Cromwell. Raymond announced that he wanted to buy her house. She looked at the young man at her door, thinking he was having a joke, but when he told her his name, her eyes lit up and she ushered him in.
By a lucky coincidence, Lady Cromwell had enjoyed a wonderful meal at Les Quat’Saisons only a few weeks before. She was overjoyed with Raymond’s plans for turning the house into a stunning restaurant with gardens rather than soulless flats.
With the help of his wife, many loyal friends and regular customers - and Lady Cromwell herself – Raymond managed to raise enough money to buy the manor house and he named it Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons – the house of the four seasons.
Le Manoir became the quintessential English country house with a very French heart.
It rapidly grew from having nine bedrooms to 32 individually-designed suites – each one inspired by Raymond’s travels and influences.
Le Manoir became one of the ultimate gastronomic destinations in the country, creating a world-class reputation for culinary excellence.
And Raymond was very proud of the fact that it is class-less not class-led; there are just as many standard family cars in the car park as Ferraris and Mercedes. It is a place where his working class father would feel relaxed and at home.
Now called Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, it continues to go from strength to strength.
To this day, it is still the only country house hotel in Britain to have retained two Michelin stars for over 30 years and its eleven stunning gardens, including the vast organic kitchen gardens, are the envy of gardeners and chefs worldwide. It is the inspiration from which his gastronomy is born and goes from strength to strength thanks to an extraordinary gardening team led for 35 years by Anne-Marie Owens.
It is a modern classic.
As Le Manoir was growing, Raymond also launched a restaurant brand, now called Brasserie Blanc, which has more than 20 successful restaurants around Britain.
It is a collection of beautiful brasseries that are affordable for families and professionals to enjoy local, sustainable and seasonal French food, plus a few dishes inspired by Raymond’s travels abroad.
Each one serves food that is as welcoming, and as French, as Maman Blanc. The Executive Head Chef is Clive Fretwell – the former Executive Head Chef at Belmond Le Manoir. Raymond and Clive invent the menus together every season. Raymond loves Brasserie Blanc so much that he eats there himself almost every week.
“If Belmond Le Manoir is an elegant waltz, Brasserie Blanc is the perfect can-can.”
Brasserie Blanc, and the White Brasserie chain of gastropubs, share the same values, generosity and welcome as Belmond Le Manoirbut are more affordable.
As a self-taught chef, Raymond has always enjoyed passing-on his culinary knowledge so, in 1991, he established The Raymond Blanc Cookery School and, in 2017, the Raymond Blanc Gardening School.
They attract keen home chefs and gardeners from all over the world.
He has also taught more than 34 protégés who have gone on to earn their own Michelin stars, such as Michael Caines MBE, Marco Pierre White and Bruno Loubet.
And Raymond’s fertile imagination is still dreaming up new ideas on a daily basis, with many more exciting projects and partnerships in the pipeline.
He is a best-selling author of more than ten books and presenter of many enjoyable TV shows broadcast worldwide.
He is Culinary Director for Eurostar Business Premier, designing menus for millions of travellers to enjoy each year.
As an avid Arsenal fan, he is Chef Director of the Arsenal Diamond Club: a private members restaurant at the Emirates Stadium which is regarded one of the most prestigious destinations for sport.
He is Creative and Culinary Director to Jardin Blanc – a stunning private garden hospitality and dining space within the acclaimed RHS Chelsea Flower Show.
He is Culinary Consultant to Ascot Racecourse, hosting spectacular restaurant experiences across Royal Ascot and other race dates.
He is Brand Ambassador to Kenwood kitchen appliances both in the UK and in Asia, working with their teams to develop and promote cutting-edge kitchen machines for professional chefs and home cooks alike.
Raymond has received many awards and honours.
In 2008, he was awarded an honorary OBE by Her Majesty the Queen, in recognition of his services in promoting culinary excellence and for raising awareness about the importance of healthy food as a central element of family life.
In 2012 he had the honour of being chosen to carry the Olympic torch and, in 2013, he was awarded the insignia of Chevalier in the Ordre National de La Légion d’Honneur– the highest French decoration.
As ethics and sustainability have always been close to Raymond’s heart, he is proud to be the President of the Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA) and Vice-President of Garden Organic. They all champion the purity and nobility of ingredients.
He also continues to be integral in the day to day management of Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons as its Chef Patron.
Not bad for a boy who started with nothing but a treasure map and a mission to find his special gift.