Peter Jones, talks to Raymond Blanc, the UK’s favourite French man. Born in Besancon, in the region of Franche-Comté, Raymond Blanc is one of Britain’s most respected and popular TV chefs and lives in Oxfordshire, Southern England where he caught up with Peter to talk about being a chef, the early days and life in the UK…
Raymond Blanc’s people had allowed me half an hour on a busy Saturday morning at The Brasserie Blanc in Jericho, Oxford at the end of what had been a very exciting week for him. He had just been awarded the Legion d’honneur at the French Ambassador’s residence in London just a few nights earlier.
His very first visit to this country was at the age of 19. He came to London on a two week holiday, with no knowledge of the English language – but, he told me, was very successful in talking to the ladies because of his ability to quote the names of all the pop groups of that time: Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones were two he recalled, but his greatest successes were with Eric Burdon and The Animals. So successful was this ‘chat up’ system that those two weeks turned into two months.
After being dismissed from his job in France in 1972, a colleague arranged for him to work as a waiter at ‘The Rose Revived’ in Newbridge just outside of Oxford. He arrived for the second time in England in his pride and joy, a Renault 5 Gordini complete with a bank of eight Marechal spot lights.
‘No one will mess with me’, he thought.
We will return later to the motor cars that play a big part in his time in Oxfordshire.
His trip from the channel port took him three days as his English was still non-existent and very few people were able to give him directions to ‘Hoxxxfforrdd’, but arrive he did and the rest of his story is quite well known – but he tells several amusing anecdotes that were new to me.
‘I knew I was in England, for as I approached Newbridge, the road was blocked with a herd of cows that had escaped from a nearby field. The local policeman had parked his push bike against a wall and was ‘shooing’ the cows back into the field. In France the policeman would have been looking for the farmer to arrest him! When the cows had been moved, I drove over the River Thames and in front of me was this stone pub with a thatched roof and I thought, ah this is England.’
‘My lack of English and my French accent was, in those days, both a curse and blessing. A curse because of the miscommunication and a blessing for better communication… especially with the ladies.’
Raymond’s move from waitering to cooking happened when the chef failed to turn up one day and a frying pan was stuck in his hand and he was told to cook!
It was in Oxfordshire that he first touched a frying pan.
‘As soon as I held it, I knew it would change my life…this was my raison d’être and it gave me an opportunity I took with both hands. From this, my first restaurant was created and many other ventures would follow culminating in the Brasserie Blanc and The Manoir aux Quatre Saisons’.
Let us return to his passion for driving and motor cars. One day on the Woodstock Road F1 World Champion Fernando Alonso…at that time a resident of Oxford was stopped at some red traffic lights. Pulling up alongside him in a big BMW was Raymond Blanc. The lights turned to green and in a squeal of burning rubber and exhaust fumes the World Champion was left standing. This still rankles him to this day apparently – beaten off the line by ‘that French chef!’
On another occasion he was driving through Oxford when: ‘I was going much too quick when I noticed ahead of me a little old lady on a zebra crossing carrying her shopping bags. There was no way I was going to stop so I closed my eyes and braked as hard as I could, my car stopped inches from her! She was completely unfazed and came around to my window…wagging her finger she said ‘Monsieur Blanc that is the third time this week you have nearly hit me!’
These days, following a couple of speeding bans, he drives a big 4 x4 with soothing music playing on the CD.
It would have been wrong not to have talked about food, especially as during our chat an endless stream of tit bits had been put in front of us by his staff, including a delicious steak tartare.
He learnt his love of cooking from his mother, the legendary ‘Maman Blanc’. He helped her prepare rabbits and chickens and his passion for good fresh ingredients comes from his father – foraging for mushrooms and asparagus in the woods of Franche-Comté where he lived, near Besancon.
Some years ago on a radio programme he was asked for the recipe for a classic bacon sandwich. I remember him enthusing about how you should only use buttered, processed bread, thin streaky supermarket bacon and Heinz ketchup. With that ever present twinkle in his eye he admitted it had been a complete wind up!
Then his passion for food emerged as with much Gallic hand waving he lectured me on the art of bread making, my allotted half an hour had by now gone into the second hour!
‘I once bought a processed loaf and could not believe that after two weeks there was no mould on it! In France, every little village has a boulangerie and the French buy fresh bread sometimes three times a day! You English must encourage more artisan producers as there is a wealth of them in this country, they must be supported’
We touched on the recent horse meat scandal which caused him much amusement. With a huge grin covering his face he said, ‘Peter, I swear that when I stood here in Oxford I could hear the sound of 50 million Frenchmen laughing from across the other side of the Channel.’
Another anecdote refers to a time when the Queen Mother visited the Manoir aux Quatre Saisons with 50 guests. ‘After she had finished her meal I was presented to her and she asked me what my greatest success had been. I told her it was after a successful dinner at the Manoir when I persuaded 200 Britons to sing the Marseillaise!’
Her entourage froze in embarrassment at which point she stood up and sang the first few bars of The French National Anthem herself!’
The Thursday before our chat, Raymond Blanc had been presented with France’s highest honour, the Legion D’Honneur.
In a moving ceremony he thanked each and everyone who had supported him over the years during both his triumphs and the difficult times… ‘I felt very privileged and accepted it with immense appreciation’.
I asked if his mother had attended and that twinkle in his eye reappeared and he said, ‘No, she can come when they award it to me in France, either at the Elysée Palace or The Palace of Versailles.’ I think he was being serious…
We touched on his retirement, something that is many years away yet: ‘I will divide my time between both France and England, remember, I am a Frenchman,’ he said.
What strikes me most is that Raymond is a very proud, passionate man who is superb company and one who tries to find good in everyone.
In a recent survey, 90% of the men polled said that this was the Frenchman they would most like to have a pint with. 75% of the women polled wanted to do something quite different!
I was very lucky to have been able to sit and talk to him, though all I had to do really, was listen,
My only regret is that space does not allow more stories…
Peter Jones is one of the new breed of exciting journalist/photographers emerging out of the UK. With a French mother and a Welsh father he brings a fresh insight to the world of travel writing, restaurant reviewing and celebrity interviews. Many of Europe’s top chefs are personal friends and he is lucky to be able to spend so much time with them. But he is at his happiest when exploring and walking his way round his favourite North Oxfordshire…
This article was first published in The Four Shires magazine.