Raymond Blanc: You can’t separate food from life

Strolling through the expansive vegetable garden at Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons, French chef Raymond Blanc beams under the Oxfordshire morning sun.

Chatting with his gardeners, stopping to taste-test some freshly picked radishes, and grumbling about “bloody rabbits” eating his crops, Blanc clearly feels right at home at his trademark luxury manor hotel, which houses his two-Michelin-star restaurant and cookery school.

“Our cookery school was opened 22 years ago, and I pass on knowledge that my maman passed on to me, that was taught by her own parents and grandparents, and so on,” Blanc explains enthusiastically as he sips coffee on the lawn.

“We had an expression about food – that it be delicious at all times, with seasonality and purity of ingredients, and to love always when she prepared a meal… that philosophy is the cornerstone of what we have done here.”

For years Blanc has been an advocate for healthy eating, hoping to influence British people with his simple cooking techniquesand fight our high levels of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity.

“We can change this, just like that!” he exclaims, snapping his fingers.

The Blanc Vite cookery class, taught by head tutor Mark Peregrine, specialises in quick, simple meals with fresh ingredients, and has been one of the many platforms on which Blanc demonstrates the value of good food, the basics of good nutrition, and the importance of seasonality.

“The course is fun, and Mark is a wonderful teacher. The moment we have a carrot, you know everything about that carrot, which shop or farm it’s come from, which variety, which climate suits it best, how to grow it,” says Blanc. “Then we discuss how to cut it – should we peel it or not? The texture is important, both in taste and nutrients and how long you should cook it, so you see, that carrot takes on a whole life of its own.”

To Blanc, “seasonality” is still the most clichéd, yet important, subject, and the most misunderstood, though to him it translates as “close to home”.

“The closer to home the better it is – less travel, of course, less pollution. Then of course it’s fresh, it’s in season, and if it’s in season there’s a lot of it. It’s less expensive, better taste, better colour, better nutrients!”

Hoping to pass on this message to younger generations, Blanc encourages readers to practise good nutrition and experience the joy of cooking, while passing on those messages to our children, as we start to slowly become more open to his ideas. Blanc wants people to remember that food, along with sustenance, represents celebration, joy and bonding.

“Twenty years ago, I had to fight so hard here,” he explains. “English gentlemen would sit at the edge of their seat, eat their soup in a funny way and they would talk about the weather. So the first thing I did was to kill this habit at the table to create joy, because how can you have joy in a straitjacket? You cannot! You have pain.”

Blanc feels the greatest mistake we’ve made in Britain is to separate food from life, reducing it to a mere commodity whose only virtue is cheapness, leading to health problems, loss of true craft, and food scandals.

“I’ve really seen that food has sparked the British consciousness more and more – the consumer has had enough and wants to reconnect with food, with truth and authenticity, and the chefs now as well, at last! Young chefs are connecting with the true values of gastronomy.”

Blanc also embraces molecular gastronomy, a sub-discipline of food science that aims to explore what physical and chemical impact food has and how this changes with the cooking process.

Studying in his late twenties, under Oxford physicist Nicholas Kurti, Blanc became the first chef to champion the more scientific consideration towards food and nutrition, which he delves into further with his latest BBC series How To Cook Well.

Though most UK citizens are creatures of habit, enjoying only around seven or eight routine meals, Blanc says experimenting with simple meals can improve health and bring families together. “Maybe not every day but once a week, together as a family, cook a meal together. One is cooking, the other is peeling, and then as a family you cook a simple Sunday meal. And of course if kids are around, just make them participate in the cooking, they love stirring up the pot, tasting a bit of this and that. It’s great fun for them,” advises Blanc.

“That’s how they will learn, with fun, not taking it too seriously. I have eaten so many humble pies, really, how can one be serious? When I first started teaching children, I wanted a school that would be about fun and the celebration of food… because food is love.”

Bonnie Gardiner