40 years after Raymond Blanc was exiled from France, his accent remains as thick as hollandaise sauce and his anecdotes are still peppered with “oh la las!”
“Exiled” is Blanc’s word, naturellement; he does nothing by halves. “I wanted to be a chef but I started not even as a waiter. I started as a cleaner…” he elaborates. “Every night I would read books about food science, food nutrition, food history, food farming, food politics, food sex! I would read all the books and then I would cook for my friends. I had cooking in my head, in my heart, in every part of me.”
Young Blanc polished the loos until they shone and was promoted to glass washer and eventually waiter. But then he became too big for his boots. “I told the chef his sauces were a bit too rich or needed lemon juice. I had forgotten I was just a freshly promoted waiter and the chef was two metres tall with a big moustache, a dark eye and a very bad temper. And then one day – bang! I lost my job and my teeth and I was exiled to Great Britain.”
This inauspicious start in the catering industry perhaps explains why Blanc has an aversion to what he calls “theatre” or “food rock ‘n’ roll”. “I stopped TV for five years because I thought it was all about theatre. There was no substance. I was invited and they offered to pay me loads of money, and I said ‘no, I’m not interested.’
“This show completely broke people. When you see a boxer like Barry McGuigan – a world champion – crying in front of the camera, something is wrong. Something is terribly wrong.”
Uncharacteristically coyly, Blanc refuses to point the finger but he’s referring to the fittingly titled Hell’s Kitchen, which ran for several series in mid-noughties. Barry McGuigan felt the lash of Jean-Christophe Novellis tongue but he wasn’t the only one: Gordan Ramsey and Marco Pierre White were equally ferocious during their stint on the show. Fortunately for d-list celebrities, those days are over or so Blanc believes.
“Food had lost its way on television whereas now food is at the core: learning how to cook, where my food comes from, what’s in it etc. There are now magnificent programmes, which deal with the real issues rather than the varnishing, fashionable aspect of food.”
And there is nothing Raymond Blanc relishes more than debating – or rather discoursing on – the issues of food. Rarely pausing for breath, he veers from the importance of sustainability, to Michael Gove’s plan to reintroduce cookery classes in schools, to molecular gastronomy (he was a pioneer but “didn’t want to create a fashion”) and back to sustainability.
During an impromptu cookery lesson, it takes him a full thirty minutes to demonstrate how to poach an egg because he’s busy explaining why it’s a fallacy to believe that the yellower the yolk, the healthier the hen (there’s often colouring in the animal feed), how to tell whether it’s fresh (the white should be viscous), and arguing that retailers should stamp on the date an egg is laid as well as the “best before”.
Halfway through he pulls into the kitchen the nutritionist he employs at Le Manoir Aux Quatr’Saisons, his Michelin-starred restaurant, to attest to the health benefits of eggs. “That’s a programme I would love to do next: food health. We could – not solve our every problem – but if we really understood nutrients – what do you need at the age of 30, for example, or at 50? Every bit of food we eat…”
Suddenly Blanc swings round and claps his sous chef on the back. “Look at Adam! Adam is the perfect example! He’s got shiny eyes, shiny hair, waggy tail; he’s got it all!” Adam carries on chopping – embarrassed but clearly not concerned for his front teeth.
Finally, after a nudge from the producer (perhaps fearing that will be no “next” if we don’t get down to business) Blanc remembers the subject at hand: his new series.
“What I wanted to do was create – not a show – a programme which doesn’t educate. I hate the idea of educating people but I want to share my knowledge, my 40 years of experience.”
“There are a number of techniques and once you master these techniques, you can cook thousands of dishes. When you know how to poach an egg, you know how to poach everything on earth. Understanding that basic technique will give you the confidence…” And he’s off again, explaining how “Maman Blanc” used to make a fantastic jus for her shoulder of lamb with a few tomatoes and a little water.
The company of Raymond Blanc is an education but he needn’t fret for it’s certainly not dull.
Read this week’s Radio Times for Raymond Blanc’s guide to the perfect poached egg.