Why did you want to open a cookery school in addition to having a restaurant?
We are proudly the first Michelin starred kitchen in the UK to have its own cookery school and it remains the best centre of culinary knowledge. Some 35 chefs have been trained here at Belmond Le Manoir and gone on to achieve Michelin stars of their own. They are our greatest successes – they trained, honed their skill and passion and have followed their dreams. For me, I was self-taught. Many of my guests want to nurture their love of food, not to become a professional chef, but to grow their own repertoire and translate this love into beautiful and imaginative cuisine.
Who was your best teacher and did you take inspiration from them when you opened your own school?
My parents and particularly Maman Blanc. My childhood was probably a cliché of French rural life. It established the foundation and the structure of my approach as much to cuisine as to people. From the age of seven, my father took me to the garden, made me take a handful of earth, look at it, smell it, taste it! And of course, I was very much involved in all the toiling in the garden, whilst my friends were playing football. Then the veg would be picked, topped and tailed and cooked by my mother and often bottled for the winter. I was also a hunter-gatherer across the woods of Franche-Comte where there are fields growing numerous types of wonderful produce – mushrooms, chanterelles, wild asparagus, wild berries and flowers. All that we picked would be handed to my mum to create a simple creative act of cooking and the rest I sold on the side of the street. This gave me a good understanding of the cycles – and also made me a rich young man by the age of ten!
Your cookery school is held in extremely high regard. What sets Le Manoir apart from so many schools?
I have created a school right in the heart of my kitchen at Belmond Le Manoir, where students can feel the thrill service in a Michelin starred restaurant whilst cooking in a practical and supportive learning environment. The Raymond Blanc Cookery School is not to be confused with the cooking of Michelin starred cuisine. The aim is to teach home cooking and to help students to understand some of the thought processes and techniques that will help to give them knowledge and confidence in their own kitchen at home. Whether you are an experienced cook or a complete novice, you will have a fantastic time, developing your culinary skills and food knowledge and learning the techniques that support my own cuisine and inspire my food philosophy. Most of all the courses are about fun and I hope that every student will leave sharing my passion for fresh, seasonal ingredients and understanding the joy of sharing a meal with friends or family.
Seasonality and sourcing locally are real buzzwords in the food industry today. Can you explain what it is that is most important about these ideas when it comes to cooking?
Each aspect of The Raymond Blanc Cookery School is driven by ethical, environmental and seasonal values. For me, the entire process of provenance is crucial; where it came from, how it was grown, how it was reared, how it was collected, how it was caught or slaughtered. We choose our suppliers carefully and visit producers whenever possible. This means we are satisfied that acceptable standards of stocking densities, medication and feed are met. Every place in the world will have world-beating ingredients because they are suited to growing in that place, often having developed and adapted over many generations to suit the particular soil and weather conditions of the area. For us, the gardens at Belmond Le Manoir are certified organic and supply the cookery school and restaurant with over 90 types of fresh salads and vegetables during late spring, summer and autumn. The vast patchwork of herbs is particularly strong on micro-herbs. These are harvested still young and tender to obtain optimum flavour. Both the familiar and the exotic are used. My chefs and the expert team of gardeners work hand in hand to find the very best flavours for the plate – on-going trials take place to discover the best varieties for each part of a dish.
What is your favourite dish or meal to cook at this time of year – autumn?
At this time of year we have a huge variety of mushrooms to enjoy. I am lucky to have an ancient wood close to my home in Oxford. The forest floor is thick with mosses and lichens, and wild mushrooms are abundant (of course, our shops offer a wide variety – look out for bay boletus, the beefsteak fungus, the cauliflower fungas, the pied bleu, and the winter chanterelle. A simple fricassee of wild mushrooms is ideal with some good French bread to mop up the juices.
Do you have a favourite ingredient or ingredients to cook with?
I am a Frenchman so of course I will say garlic. I do have my favorite varieties of course for the season ahead: for the best apple tarts – Chivers Delight. The unsung hero of the kitchen – the onion; choose Rose de Roscoff and grow your own, as it’s sometimes hard to find in the shops. My favourite kale varieties are ‘Black Russian’, ‘Westland Winter’ and Red Curled.
Which specific courses would you recommend to a.) someone who can’t cook at all and b.) someone who knows their stuff but wants to cook food at a higher level?
We have over 40 different courses to choose from – my team of experts chefs are here to guide you so you can work at your own level. For someone new to cooking, I would suggest the season dinner party one day course where you will discover how to create the perfect menu completely stress-free. For a more accomplished cook, the residential courses cover a range of skills and you will progress from course one up to course three as your skills improve. The advanced bread courses are very popular as well as the Garden to Plate course, where you will harvest fresh varieties from the gardens and create imaginative dishes.
Other than French cuisine, what is your favourite type of food to cook and to eat?
I have spent a lot of time in south-east Asia – the culture does not just influence my cuisine, but has enticed me to design some of the suites at Belmond Le Manoir with opulent, exotic Asian themes. There are hints of Asian influences through my cuisine. My dishes include vegetable indigenous to south-east Asia to achieve distinct, exotic flavours. In the gardens we now grow some of my favourites: lemongrass, galangals, Vietnamese coriander for the menu.
Which cookery school, apart from your own, would you recommend in the UK?
Leith’s School of Food and Wine is an institution that offers many of the skills you will need to help you become a competent cook.
If you could give only piece of advice to any cook from your own personal and professional experience – what would it be?
Preparation is key. Read though your recipe and have all your ingredients ready and measured before you start. Work with the seasons, and get to know your butcher/fishmonger to get the best cuts.
Who would be your dream dinner party guests?
I am fortunate enough to have met many of my heroes. I had the pleasure of cooking for the Queen Mother here at Belmond Le Manoir – I would loved to have heard her stories. But I am a Frenchman, so Napoleon would be at the top of the table! And those that are still with us: I would love to share the table with David Attenborough, Stella McCartney, Charles Aznavour and or course my dear Maman Blanc, who celebrated her 94 birthday this autumn and my boys, Olivier and Sebastien – always the best company!