Raymond Blanc on Royal Ascot, King Charles and training the next generation of chefs

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“I’ve touched excellence many times in my life, and the plan is for that to continue,” says Raymond Blanc, with a wide grin and that hint of Gallic charm he is famed for. As boastful as this may sound, Blanc is simply speaking an unarguable truth. 

His endless list of achievements makes it impossible to disagree; especially as he reflects on a culinary career that saw him arrive in the UK in 1972 barely speaking English yet still going on to become one of the most celebrated chefs, not just in the UK, but in the world. 

Besides having his own Michelin-star restaurant — Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons — Blanc has trained 14 Michelin-starred chefs, including Heston Blumenthal, Marco Pierre White and Michael Caines. He also heads Brasserie Blanc, an acclaimed restaurant chain with outposts dotted across the UK and was awarded an OBE in 2008. An impressive, star-studded career for a chef who is entirely self-taught. 

Now 73, Blanc spends most of his time at his beloved Le Manoir in the heart of Oxfordshire. “I can see guests coming in already and all is perfect with these beautiful blue skies,” says Blanc as we talk on a sunny February afternoon. These days, there’s not too much that manages to pull him away from Le Manoir but, for a couple of weeks in June, he calls another place home. “I’ve been chef-in-residence at Royal Ascot for eight years now,” explains Blanc. “I look forward to it every year.” 

raymond blanc

Although he has been heading up the culinary experience at the iconic racecourse since 2015, Blanc’s love affair with Royal Ascot started many decades ago. “I was first invited to Royal Ascot in 1981 by Captain Charles Radclyffe [who trained the Queen Mother’s horses] when I was a young chef. I had no idea what Royal Ascot was. I was a French republican,” explains Blanc. “I was invited into the Royal Box and met the Queen Mother. I was in awe. I’d never seen such an extraordinary celebration, it makes me emotional thinking about it. 

“I’d never seen such elegance, so much beauty, so many colours. I was mesmerised by the gents with their suits and black tie but the women — their hats were magnificent. From then on, I looked after the Queen Mother and the Queen at Royal Ascot every year.”

Despite being a self-professed “French republican” (a term he uses several times during our interview), Blanc has never kept his adoration of the Royal Family a secret. His fondness for the Queen Mother is widely reported (he once persuaded her to sing the French national anthem at Le Manoir), and he enjoyed cooking for the late Queen Elizabeth II many times, often at Royal Ascot. So, how does it feel to now be cooking for a king? 

“It’s marvellous. A couple of years ago, he came to Le Manoir and it was raining cats and dogs. For three hours, we just walked through my gardens,” says Blanc. “He loves his food, he loves his gardens, and he understands organic values. He had so many questions. 

“We planted a tree, it was raining sideways!” he guffaws. “But that didn’t dampen his enthusiasm. And seven years later, that tree he planted is better than mine. It bears much more fruit, so I need to improve my skills as a food grower. We’re all very excited to cook for him. I have great adoration for the late Queen and King Charles.”

Having grown up near Besançon, between Burgundy and the Jura mountains in eastern France, Blanc initially wanted to be a nurse but fell in love with gastronomy in his teenage years. His first taste of a professional kitchen was during his short-lived tenure at the Michelin-starred Le Palais de la Bière in Besançon but, in 1972, he was fired for upsetting the head chef by offering advice on how to cook a sauce. The manager found him a job in England, so Blanc set sail for the UK with a notepad on hand to help translate his French mother tongue. 

Blanc had been in the UK for just over a decade when he opened Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons in 1984. Within a year his menus had earned two Michelin stars. Blanc’s food is typically French — sophisticated but uncomplicated, making use of fresh produce and hyper-seasonal ingredients bought locally or grown organically on-site. “Seasonality has always driven my menus, that’s why I called my restaurant Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons — the four-season manor house,” explains Blanc. 

I missed having a mentor, I wanted that guiding hand to help me and that’s why, throughout my life, I have tried to help young people

Raymond Blanc

“Buying seasonal food helps the community so much. It helps the farmer keep his farm, it helps your village keep its post office, you help keep your town’s pub. You don’t need to import food from millions of miles away.” 

It is, therefore, no surprise that Blanc’s menu for Royal Ascot draws on classic British summer ingredients. “Luckily, June is an amazing month — a time of rebirth, reinvention and great food,” he says. “You have French beans, peas, broad beans — so many fresh vegetables. The lamb we are cooking at Royal Ascot is a beautiful piece of rump, very tender and juicy. It pairs with Jersey baby new potatoes just taken out of the Earth, so fresh you can peel the skins with your hands.”

Elsewhere diners can expect Scottish langoustines with bouillabaisse, red pepper and garlic aioli and British apricots with crushed strawberries, pistachios and almonds. The latter Blanc describes as “a lovely balance of acidity, great flavours and colours — just like the hats at Royal Ascot.”

While many of his high-end ingredients could be deemed as lavish and luxurious — befitting of an event like Royal Ascot — Blanc is aware of the impact luxury has on communities and the environment. “[With fine dining], it’s about creating responsible luxury today because tomorrow, all luxury will have to be responsible. For too long, luxury has been totally irresponsible. So it’s challenging but exciting.”

Joining Blanc at Royal Ascot this year is a string of talented chefs: Ollie Dabbous of Hide, Tom Booton from The Grill at The Dorchester and Sally Abé of The Pem, to name a few. As chef-in-residence, it is Blanc’s job to be the guiding hand for all the chefs at the arena, as well as running his own already-sold-out restaurant, The Panoramic. The key to success when catering such a high-profile event? Organisation. 

“When you have 120 or 140 guests turning up at once, you better be organised or you’re in big trouble. Everything is about planning. For example, if my apricots aren’t ripe then I’ve got to change the menu. You must have two dishes in case your ingredients don’t work. There’s such a huge expectation to shine with quality and service. 

“I’m surrounded by some great talent. We’re all going to visit each other’s kitchens. Chefs in the past were very competitive but now we all share and the camaraderie makes it even more fantastic.” 

raymond blanc

Training others — whether that’s young aspiring chefs or the waiting staff at his restaurants — has been a constant theme throughout Blanc’s career. Having worked his way up the ranks from kitchen porter to head chef, he is well-versed in all aspects of life in a restaurant. It’s that experience he believes should be passed on to the younger generation. 

“I’m self-taught, no one has ever given me a hand,” he says. “I really want to give young people what I wasn’t given. I missed having a mentor, I wanted that guiding hand to help me and that’s why, throughout my life, I have tried to help young people. 

“Every generation keeps on saying the young are lost. It’s wrong. It’s up to you as a mentor to strengthen and support this young generation and pass on your knowledge and resources with goodwill.”

Now in his eighth decade, Blanc shows no sign of slowing down and, it seems, he has no intentions to either. “Every year I say I will take more time for myself but for years I’ve said that and I still don’t do it,” he says, smiling. “I enjoy [my work] so much. The idea of retiring frightens me — I don’t need to and I don’t want to. I just want to continue this extraordinary adventure.”

Royal Ascot takes place from 20-24 June 2023. Visit ascot.com and raymondblanc.com.

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