You Talkin’ To Me?
William Sitwell struggles and eventually gives up trying to get a word in edgeways with the Michelin-starred chatterbox Raymond Blanc
I’M IN THE grand lobby of The Landmark hotel in London just off the Marylebone Road. I’m talking to Raymond Blanc, or rather he’s talking to me. What he’s saying may be in response to a question I asked. Then again I can’t remember quite what the question was and I have a feeling neither can he.
‘The world is changing,’ he says. ‘We have to think very carefully about our nutritional levels. Every molecule that we consume has an impact on our skin, eyes and our hair. It is very important – my God it is important – that you have some awareness of this. Lycopene, for example, you must have it in your diet because it prevents cancer. That is why I always eat two walnuts per day.’
Really? I say. ‘This is a new era,’ he continues, ‘before we were just barbarians. We grabbed food, we swallowed it, we chewed it up, we defecated. Food is something that connects us to the world around us but more than that. It puts us in contact with the land, the soul, our health… but we need to re-learn how to eat food better.’
I have a quick sip of the fresh mint tea I have in a cup beside the notebook into which I’m hurriedly scribbling down quotes and remember the question I had put to him. I’d ask him if I could pour him some tea. But the man is off. Running with the ideas in his mind, pouring out his thoughts.
Raymond Blanc, passionate cook and Frenchman who surely sounds just as French as he did when he came to the UK several decades ago. This self-taught chef who ended up running a celebrated restaurant in the middle of the Oxfordshire countryside and under whose eyes worked youngsters with names like Marco Pierre White and Heston Blumenthal. This zany, loveable, talkative, charming, funny chef who built a wonderful garden and treats all his staff like an extended family.
I once went to see Raymond at Le Manoir and he walked me through the kitchen. For every person he came across as he walked passed the ovens, hobs and fridges there was a ‘good morning’, a ‘bonjour’ and a kiss. He embraced pretty young waitresses, bearded chefs and then a big character in blue overalls. The man recoiled as Raymond’s lips reached his cheeks. He was an Eastern European delivery man who’d never met and had no idea who this nutty Frenchman was.
Back in The Landmark and Raymond appears to be tackling the development of gastronomy. ‘We eat too much protein,’ he is saying, ‘and the body can’t cope with it. It’s not normal. All this meat we are eating and the body cannot digest it properly.
‘Do you know why so many people have food intolerances today? It is so simple. Corn and wheat today has higher protein than it used to have and there is more and more gluten. The body has a problem with breaking it down. But people wear these problems as if they are fashion icons. Intolerances are like a new shirt. We can’t go on like this…’
THEN RAYMOND MOVES to the subject of vegetables. ‘…I remember 25 years ago when I did my first vegetarian menu. It was a nightmare. I had to fight my chefs. They were all strong carnivores who thought that vegetarian food was pointless. I had to convince them that gastronomy could be expressed through vegetables. I fought to make them use my garden… Now at last the British are looking at taste, at textures, at colours and flavours…’
Here Raymond’s voice is growing louder and louder. There’s a wild look in his eyes, he gesticulates with such animation that I worry he’s going to knock over the teacups and pot.
As he chatters away he occasionally stops to laugh. I‘m sure at times he almost froths at the mouth. He’s saying something about ‘re-conditioning and desiccating mushrooms… then he’s onto something about Chinese lacquer – ‘sexy during the night, beautiful during the day’ – then we’re back onto nutrition.
‘When I came to England, my God, the amount of sugar the chefs used, the amount of salt… They said that without that food doesn’t taste of anything. But what was happening? Disaster, my god, thousand of deaths, many of them violent…’ (Really, I’m thinking, who? where?) ‘But today we are moving into an exciting era of food…’ Then suddenly he’s talking about dates and percentages, he mentions mortgages, something about buying three chickens for the price of one. I look at him and he spots that I’m slightly lost.
‘Ok, give me your notepad,’ he says. He takes it and I hand him my pen and he starts writing down some figures. There’s the year 2000 and 65 per cent, 2009 41 and 2012, 32 per cent. I nod and ask for my pad back and immediately we’re onto apples.
‘British orchards died and all because of a singly British apple called Golden Delicious. It was engineered so it had a high sugar content, it could be stewed, baked and would make a beautiful tart, but not a tarte tatin (use a Cox for that), and it was good raw…’
Then we’re on to plums ‘…we need to reconnect with varietals, with the soil, with the climate, we can re-invent our agriculture, let’s expand what we can grow well in this country… I had an apple experience’ (we’re back on apples) ‘it was Princess Cox Pippin, it ate magnificently… Flavours of vanilla, almond, hundreds of essential oils… You know there is so much parentage in apples, my God, it’s like an orgy, it’s like our multicultural society… Our whole system needs a balance of everything… You can’t eat in a good restaurant every night. It would be like having hard sex every night, you just can’t do it.’
Illustration by Rebecca Buckland
I NOD DILIGENTLY. The mention of the word ‘restaurant’ reminds me of what my first question might have been… I’m here on this occasion to talk to him about the on-going development and expansion of Brasserie Blanc, his chain of casual French eating houses.
I get a question in and among his chatter get a good idea of what his aim is for the business ‘…modern classic, a centre of excellence, but also affordable and with quality and with strong ethics, it will obey the rules of sustainability and be simple and delicious. But not sexy, it’s not meant to be sexy.’
Not sexy, I say. ‘No!’ he says as if it was I who suggested it, ‘just bloody good… the chains – and I call us a group with a conscience, not a chain – will be defined by the food of their region, menus created by chefs using local food. Take Loch Fyne…’ Loch Fyne? I say. ‘I don’t want to talk too much about Loch Fyne.’ Not a problem, I think. After all it was you who raised it.
Then he’s onto the team of people who are running the business. ‘You must meet, er, you must meet him. Then you can really live in his head.’ Meet who? I say. ‘John, I think and, er, the other man. He was not a good marketer so we took that away from him.’
Then Raymond grabs my notepad again and starts to draw a diagram of the business hierarchy. Except he can’t remember all of the names. But there’s Clive. ‘Clive is straight talking, he’s a northerner.’ Ok, I nod. ‘But he will probably kiss you on the mouth as well.’ I’m not sure I need to meet with Clive, I think.
I ask him about the competition. He’s in the same market as Jamie’s Italian. ‘Jamie Oliver’s not Italian,’ he says, quick as a flash, ‘at least I’m French and have a funny accent. And we’re better value for money than Jamie. If a Jamie opens opposite us, business dips for a month but then they come back.’ And then we’re onto the food. ‘Recipes are everything: ethics, sustainability, seasonality, cost, training, consistency, knowledge, vision…’
Raymond’s voice builds, the crescendo mounts as he delivers the list. It’s almost operatic, music swelling, hearts stirring, then suddenly he slightly splutters and says, ‘My God…’ I’m expecting another cascade into swallowing and defecation, but he looks at me and says, ‘What am I talking about… I’ve lost my train of thought…’
But he quickly recovers, ‘Yes, risotto…’ he’s found a way to making it more efficiently, with less stirring ‘…I will reduce staff by three hours and the flavour will increase by 30 per cent… Simplicity is always complicated, it’s never that simple. Give me your notepad, I’ll explain…’
My notepad has another page of scribbles, lines and numbers. I’ll frame it. One day this piece of paper, this work of a charming genius of the kitchen could be worth a fortune.
Read more by William Sitwell