Raymond Blanc: Celebrating 40 years

Raymond Blanc: Celebrating 40 years

On cooking for the summer season’s most prestigious events, his love for Chelsea Flower Show, and 40 years of his acclaimed restaurant

Main image: (c) Imogen Candler

Seasonal sustainable dining has become the mantra for any restaurant worth its salt in recent years. But for Raymond Blanc and his restaurant at Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons in Oxfordshire, it has been a part of their DNA since the beginning. Celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, the organic gardens are full of produce for the kitchens, there are acres of orchards and beehives, too. And plans for a vineyard.

Of course, it helps that Raymond is absolutely devoted to all of the above but it was also instilled in him from a young age by his parents while growing up in rural Franche-Comté. The family of seven got what food they could from the land, the river and their garden.

10-year-old Raymond was given a hand-drawn map by his father of all of the local places to fish and forage. Maman Blanc would cook – Raymond learned a lot from her and she had a huge influence on him.

“I come from a working-class family,” says Raymond. “My father built his own house… there was a big garden all around us so we had a strong understanding of seasonality – that is behind everything we do at the restaurant and why it has the name, aux Quat’ Saisons… we are driven by the four seasons.”

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His father helped out when Raymond first bought the old manor house in 1984, bringing seeds to plant for the garden and sorting out the overgrown wilderness the grounds had become.

Raymond still sees himself as the ‘custodian’ of this beautiful Oxfordshire manor, “keeping the beauty while also enriching it”.

“So much has changed in 40 years and yet so little. We have tripled the size but organically and thoughtfully. We started as a restaurant-with-rooms with 10 bedrooms. We struggled financially. The money is not in the food, especially when you have high-cost ingredients, all organic and everything is created by highly skilled people.”

But he was clear on his vision and he stuck to his principles. In time, 20 more bedrooms were added, inspired by Raymond’s French background, British culture, and his travels. “Financially it works, aesthetically it works.”

One bedroom, the Lemongrass room, was inspired by the King of Thailand’s farm project. Raymond talks about the design of the hotel with passion, as he does about everything else. It is hard to keep up as he talks, but his enthusiasm is infectious.

“I’m interested in gardens, food, travel. I am enriched by so many cultures. Too often though fusion is viewed negatively. So I don’t mix everything with everything. I think carefully.”

The key to doing it all successfully?

“Whether it is the vineyard or heritage garden, I always use the best people. It is all very well to have the vision but that can turn out badly if you don’t have the best people.”

He is particularly proud of what he has achieved in terms of his orchards. He has written a book on the subject. He explains how his interest came about: “We were filming in Evesham – I saw that all this fruit had fallen and been left, plums, pears and apples. Europe was giving subsidies to other agriculture but not to orchards so we lost so much in the late 90s. I wanted to recreate them here.” The result is over four acres of 2,500 trees, growing a whole host of fruits.

Raymond’s ethos for having the best people around him is clear when he talks about training at Le Manoir. Maybe it is his own self-taught background, or because a chef broke his jaw with a pan when he first started out, that Raymond is committed to training and making Le Manoir a supportive atmosphere.

“We are entering a great space but it took a long time to achieve. Our industry has been careless because we never valued what people gave. We never trained people properly. I saw so many things I didn’t want to see. I wanted to create a space that is safe, caring, with values and training.”

“Le Manoir is a nursery for the young. Being self taught was not easy. It was a tough time. But I have gone on to be a mentor… and I am so proud of the team. It is humbling to see a young person giving so much.”

Some 54% of his staff are women. “We have created an environment that is a solid good environment – any young person, man or woman, can come and work here. And without a single degree you can be anybody.”

He says that everyone at Le Manoir, which is part of the Belmond hotel group, is essential to the guest experience. “It is about giving a total stranger a moment they will remember. Even that first contact they have with us when they make the reservation is so important. They want to hear warmth and kindness. If they don’t, it brings doubt and then the whole team has to work twice as hard to regain the trust. Everyone owns this vision.”

The restaurant was awarded two Michelin stars just a few months after it opened and has retained them for the last four decades. It also holds a Michelin Green Star for its sustainable garden gastronomy. In 2023, Luke Selby, a former Le Manoir alumni, returned as executive head chef.

To ease some of the pressure that such accolades bring, the kitchen is only open four days a week. The menu has been simplified and modernised to reduce the number of elements on the plate.

Celebrations for the 40th anniversary have included a charity dinner for Hospitality Action and there will be a special dinner with other top chefs.

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It will be a busy year for Raymond. First of the summer occasions will be Chelsea Flower Show where he hosts Jardin Blanc. He suffers though because the plane trees there are not good for his asthma but given his love for horticulture he is right at home. “I have grand plans to bring Versailles to the heart of Chelsea in a few years! Imagine… celebrate the entente cordiale. It could be fantastic… art, horticulture…”

He will also be hosting closer to home at the Blenheim Palace Food Festival in May. “It is an important event, with a big crowd, and it is always fun and joyful.”

As usual he will be at Royal Ascot as chefin-residence at the Panoramic Restaurant. “I love that celebration of summer. The elegance, the timelessness. The French must be so jealous,” he laughs.

I imagine Raymond, 74, isn’t one for many days off, but when he does, what would we find him doing? “I’d be walking with my partner Natalia. She is a great conversationalist, and supportive. She is the kindest, most fun person I know. And I love spending time with family.” Raymond has two sons from his first marriage to Jenny, with whom he set up Le Manoir. They divorced in 1988.

“Or I’d be fishing. I’d be very happy. I find it so relaxing.” It seems his connection with the outdoors, the land and the seasons are as close to his heart now as they were as a boy.