The Restaurant Series 2: Interview With Raymond Blanc

As world-renowned chef and restaurateur Raymond Blanc returns to BBC Two for a new series of The Restaurant, he shares his culinary vision with Catharine Davey.

Born in Besancon, France, in 1949, Raymond is acknowledged as one of the finest chefs in the world. His exquisite cooking has received tributes from every national and international guide to culinary excellence and his hotel and restaurant, Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons, in Great Milton, Oxford, is the only country-house hotel in the UK to have received two Michelin stars for a total of 22 years.

Raymond began his love affair with gastronomy at an early age, learning a respect for the natural world from his parents.

“I come from a working-class family and I am one of five children,” he says. “In order to feed such a big family with little money, we quickly learnt to respect food. And this is the first thing that I pass on to any of the people who come to work with me – they must respect the food! I was lucky to live in a very rural part of France and I had a wonderful introduction to food and to connecting food with family and with seasonality – with the rhythm, the mood and the cycle of the seasons. I learnt, from an early age, about the importance of sitting down together and sharing a meal.”

As The Restaurant returns for a second series, nine very different pairs of contestants compete to win the coveted prize of going into partnership with Raymond. Each week, Raymond shares his culinary knowledge with the couples and puts them through a series of tough challenges, designed to identify those with the flair, enthusiasm and ability to succeed in the catering trade.

“This is reality TV in its truest sense,” says Raymond. “There is something very real about the show and that is the prize that follows it. The prize is to come into a partnership with me. I aim to dedicate a serious amount of my time and a lot of resources from my company to help these young people really make a successful restaurant.”

Raymond, along with eagle-eyed industry experts Sarah Willingham, one-time owner of The Bombay Bicycle Club, and David Moore, manager of two Michelin-starred London eatery Pied a Terre, knows exactly what he is looking for.

“We talk a lot about passion,” he says. “But passion is not enough – you need willpower. Very few people have the ability to make a dream real and, to make it real, they have to face some very serious challenges. Very quickly, we separate the dreamers from the real, potential candidates.”

Raymond refers back to Jane and Jeremy, the winners of the coveted prize in the first series. Despite the fact that the couple have now returned to Cornwall, where they want to open their own restaurant, Raymond talks about how the experience was a positive one for all concerned.

“Jane and Jeremy were the deserved winners of series one. They showed great strengths when they ran their restaurant,” he says. “They worked with me for eight months and, for all of us, there was a fantastic learning curve. And I believe that they walk away from this much better equipped to run a successful restaurant. I wish them great success in the future and they know I will be on hand to offer my support and advice should they want it.”

Raymond knows better than anyone what it takes to achieve success. At the age of 28, he opened his first restaurant, Le Quat’ Saisons, in Summertown, Oxford. After just one year, the restaurant was named Egon Ronay Restaurant of the Year and a host of other accolades, including Michelin stars and Pestle & Mortar awards, followed.

“We are looking for a pair with complimentary strengths – a proper partnership,” he says. “We are also looking for the ability to drive a team. And we are searching for important features, like good business sense, the ability to communicate – that is hugely important – and we want to see great creativity.”

Without formal training, Raymond attributes his own culinary brilliance to his early familiarity with the basic rhythms of the natural world.

“At the age of seven, my father gave me a handful of soil, not just to look at or to smell but to taste,” says Raymond. “How right he was! In a handful of soil there are numerous trace elements. And by looking at the soil – tasting it – you can identify a clay soil or an acidic soil. You can understand what should grow in that soil and at what time of year. And, of course, I became a hunter-gatherer. Like any other boy in my village, I knew where to find mushrooms, fruit… All this seasonal knowledge was passed on to me very early in my life.”

In his own working practices and through The Restaurant, Raymond is keen to promote an awareness of a sustainable food philosophy.

“We have about 40 farmers who work with us at Le Manoir,” he says. “We have always tried to source our produce from local farms. The garden – like the garden that I grew up in – is so important. The garden is the soul of food. I do not want produce that has been flown in from New Zealand – which has been pumped up with fertilisers, pesticides and sulphur dioxide! I want something that has been grown locally. But I think things are starting to happen, customers are now interested in the provenance of ingredients. And people are starting to learn how to grow produce again – in allotments, in their gardens, even on their windowsills. We are really reconnecting with the deeper meaning of gastronomy. And it is a gastronomy that is not elitist – it is inclusive.”

Equally, Raymond is a businessman and realist and he fully comprehends that the financial realities of running a successful restaurant are not always compatible with a wholly organic approach to purchasing.

“The great news is that the restaurant business is reconnecting with its soul – with its core values,” he says. “Farmers are re-discovering their own regions. It’s a really exciting moment because ecological and environmental issues have become the most important thing. But it all comes at a cost. Of course, a high end restaurant can afford to buy organic produce, but in a high-street restaurant that has to offer lower pricing, buying organic can, of course, pose a great problem. The key is to do a little bit but not so much that you go out of business. You cannot teach anyone anything if you are closed!”

Raymond hopes that the future of the food industry is one which will continue to embrace environmental issues.

“It is important to have a sense of place,” he says. “As we increasingly are becoming citizens of the world, I think it is important to rediscover a sense of belonging. In the past, we have simply reduced food down to a mere commodity. Now it is time to reconnect with the true meaning of gastronomy because the current approach is not sustainable.”

And, for himself, this culinary master has two wishes for the future – to achieve a third Michelin star for his beloved Le Manoir and to find the perfect winning couple for this series of The Restaurant.

“It’s a huge prize!” says Raymond. “Most people work a lifetime to get their own restaurant. So, to be given not only a restaurant but all the existing infrastructure around it is of great value. And it’s a huge responsibility for me to choose the right pair. Viewers will see some excellent competitors in this series. But can they run a successful restaurant? A good restaurant is meant to make things look easy but, beneath the surface, is a great complexity – like the engine of a Rolls Royce. That is the great trick – the secret magic of success…”

Tonight at 8:00pm – BBC2

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