Just a few months ago, he was battling Covid and pining for the lush gardens at Le Manoir. Now, the indefatigable Raymond Blanc is back – with exciting plans for the restaurant reopening and a homage to Maman Blanc.
Country Living interviewed Raymond for our June magazine issue, out now. SUBSCRIBE HERE
When Raymond Blanc left hospital this year, after being treated for Covid, he headed for the gardens of Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons. He took a few steps and collapsed. During his month on the ward, when things were “touch and go”, he longed to drift among the crane-shaped shrubs in the Japanese tea garden and check on the 150 types of apple in the orchard. Now he was here, he was almost too weak to walk.
Raymond lives near Le Manoir in north Oxford, but had been isolating in his west London flat, so hadn’t been to the gardens for two and a half months. They are not just the heart of his restaurant and hotel, they represent his way of thinking: “Food and gardens, for me they go together – actually, I’d put the gardens first.”
It all goes back to his childhood near Besançon in eastern France, where the family lived off homegrown vegetables and the odd rabbit. Such fervour for what this taught him is at its peak today, although Raymond regrets he is not “totally cohesive”. Our conversation cartwheels through seasonality, omelettes, toast he has burnt, omelettes again, Hippocrates, Escoffier and Maman Blanc. Several times we end up disoriented. “Sorry, I got lost… You’re going to tell me how we got here… I forget sometimes. It’s simply to do with the coronavirus; it still has an impact on my health.”
After being ill for four months, Raymond has regained much of the 13kg he lost in hospital, when he spent days on oxygen, and seems so perky that a break almost appears to have done him good. But he doesn’t want to downplay “this pause”.
His lungs, he says, took a battering and he had to plead with doctors to keep him off a ventilator: “Coronavirus completely breaks you… It takes a long time to recover.” As well as growing weak, his eyesight and dexterity deteriorated: “I did some terrible things: sending texts to the wrong people. Nobody could understand me. There are many cognitive issues… You worry your abilities won’t come back.”
Raymond, 71, has been working “bloody hard” to recover. The panic attacks have gone and his spark and stamina have returned: “I do a minimum of two and a half hours’ exercise a day, breathing, yoga, stretches.” He should be “fully well” by mid-June: “Every doctor has said I should recuperate 95 to 100%. That’s fine. I don’t have to run like a young man; I can let others run for me.”
Surviving Covid has had “huge implications” for Raymond. “It’s allowed me to reorganise my life and make certain priorities number one – there will be less work, it doesn’t mean no work, but I will do less.” He will still oversee everything. “I’m a micro-idiot: I look at the micro-detail. That’s what excellence is all about. Whether it is cooking a dish or cleaning my table, it has got to be right.”
He won’t be pinned down on implications outside work. Will he spend more time with Olivier and Sebastien, his adult sons from his first marriage? Will he propose to Natalia Traxel, his partner of 18 years? “No, we’re not into that… We’re not interested. We’ve been there before. So, no.”
A woman of importance
He will talk for Britain and France about family, as long as it’s about his childhood. When he speaks about the influence of his mother, a theme of his new book Simply Raymond, he returns to those fabled years. Simply Raymond started off in early 2020 as a way for the chef to celebrate his two inspirations: his mother, who produced “three-Michelin-star home-cooking”, and Édouard de Pomiane, the French scientist behind Cooking in Ten Minutes. But, as the year went on, his aims changed.
The first twist was lockdown, which gave many of us more than 10 minutes to cook. Raymond also began to consider how the pandemic might affect what we ate. Perhaps we would finally value local produce and tackle food waste. “I think the environment is going to define very much what we eat from now on,” he says. “Post-pandemic, we’ll all be looking for local produce… There will be something great happening, a rediscovery of lost skills.” Alone in his flat, Raymond had to cook every meal himself. “While I cook,” he says, “I’m happy.”
Every day, he would call Maman Blanc in France. As the new normal set in, Raymond craved the comfort of childhood meals – a morteau sausage salad, tomato soup… He reminisced about his formative years: “My mother created the full foundation of my food philosophy. She taught me about the soil, the environment, about joy, about sharing, about teaching…”
Then, in June, Maman Blanc, 97, died from a fall. It was a shock. “My heart still goes to my mum,” he says, his eyes glistening with tears. His project took on new significance. He would include recipes that reminded him of her, including tartiflette and assiette de crudités. He would go all out on her values, championing the garden, seasonality, vegetable varieties and simplicity.
With every retelling of his childhood, Raymond’s story gets stronger. His mother would ask Raymond, the middle of five children, to bring her particular varieties of vegetables and he became expert at finding them to please her. “When she wanted potatoes, she would say, ‘Raymond, go and get me some Maris Piper’ or ‘Raymond, go and get me some Bintje’… Everything was a variety. It was never about this global name of potato.”
Today, gardeners and chefs at Le Manoir know the value of varieties. Once, Raymond made them taste 40 types of chillies before he decided which to plant. Some chefs rubbed their eyes with seeds on their fingertips. “Everyone was crying, no one could see… It was a bit cruel, but it was simply to find the best variety.”
A garden of one's own
In London, Raymond has a tiny garden, about three and a half metres square, packed with 20 vegetables, including red-leaf kale and chard. Recently, he has been cooking a lot of vegan dishes. Tonight, it’s spiced lentils: “Oh my God! It’s going to be beautiful. I will have it with a piece of sourdough.”
Cooks should strive for simplicity, but this “is not easy to achieve. It takes a tremendous amount of effort, removing the unnecessary and focusing on what matters.” It means knowing the best variety of produce, what it goes with and how best to prepare it. Produce grown locally and in season “makes sense”: it has “better taste, better texture, better flavours, better colours, better nutrients”. He loves the anticipation: “Maybe I’ve got a warped mind, but what is so beautiful is to wait for that first asparagus or that first strawberry… These first flavours, they’re so fresh, so pure… And it will not have been imported from millions of miles away, where you create pollution.”
Today, seasonality and local produce are often championed because they tend to have a lighter carbon footprint. Raymond has long pushed for organic farming, too: chemicals lead to poor soil. As head of the Sustainable Restaurant Association, he wants Le Manoir to do its bit – its menu changes monthly and it’s zero-waste.
The future of food
How far would he go? Would he serve lab-grown meat? “Being a person from the soil, I have a few problems with the idea that we can grow meat in laboratories. But it will happen and we’ll get over the repulsion.” It may suit “the bulk market”. He might make a TV show about it. He’ll do some research as soon as Le Manoir reopens in a few weeks after the latest lockdown, and once he’s seen the completion of a bee village and chicken houses in the grounds. He wants the beehives to look like houses, with the queen in a castle flying the tricolore “to tease my British friends”. The chickens, which will be employed to improve the soil and provide eggs, will have outbuildings in the orchard.
It will be good, says Raymond, to see life return to Le Manoir, where most staff, except a few gardeners, had to be furloughed. He misses “the laughter of the guests, the clatter of the forks and knives, the sommelier pouring the wine into the glass”. Cooking is about “generosity, it is about giving… Food is the greatest catalyst to bring people together. I long to sense that joy again.”
Simply Raymond: Recipes from Home by Raymond Blanc is out on 29th April.
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