Raymond Blanc: "When I arrived in this country no one could understand me"

Raymond Blanc
Raymond Blanc has trained 35 Michelin-starred chefs  Credit: Chris Terry

We asked the chef, 66, what his younger self would think if he could see him today...

One day when I was 18 and working as a waiter in a restaurant near my home in Besançon, eastern France, the chef – a giant of a man with a moustache that bristled and nasty dark eyes – smashed a copper pan in my face. It broke my jaw and teeth, and I lost my job. All I’d done was suggest to him that his sauce could be a little lighter. But although the pan was my doom in France, it was to become my salvation in England, to where I was exiled. 

I felt so proud recently when guests at one of my restaurants asked if I came from Liverpool. They were very drunk, mind youRaymond Blanc

If you’d told this 18-year-old that he’d go on to build a whole career in la perfide Albion, including training 35 Michelin-starred chefs, he would have been completely amazed. At the time I loved the idea of England because I was a great fan of the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, but when I arrived I found a country that was in a bottomless abyss, completely divided by class. The food was particularly exclusive. I remember my first bistro experience in England: I saw a beautiful red building and thought I’d get a nice steak-frites with a glass of cognac. I walked in, saw a plastic tomato on the table, smelt the stale food and realised this was not what I was used to – of course, the “bistro” turned out to be a Wimpy. 

Blanc as a young chef in the '80s Credit: Rex Features

If you were a waiter in England, I discovered, you were a social outcast. But in France what had first attracted me to a career in hospitality was the glorious sight of this posh restaurant in Besançon, the waiters in their beautiful Bordeaux jackets, pouring champagne for the guests while the maître d’hôtel carved the fish and flambéed the pancakes in front of them. I started work there as a cleaner – everything shone. Then I became the glass washer and developed a new cleaning technique that cut down breakages by half. Finally, I became a waiter – the best waiter – getting closer to the kitchen until my fateful encounter with the copper pan.  

After the war, General de Gaulle had asked the French people to make children. My papa obliged

My younger self wasn’t always sure that cooking would be his future. My family were working class and my father built our house with his own hands. I was one of five because after the war, General de Gaulle had asked the French people to make children. My papa obliged. My siblings and I were the chief labour, working in the garden from a very early age. I hated it: removing the weeds, tip-and-topping mountains of beans. But it was a wonderful childhood – at 14 I was still spending my days hunting in the forests for wild mushrooms, which not many 14-year-olds would. 

I was not particularly good at anything at school, except music and French. My English was terrible and when I arrived in this country, nobody could understand my pronunciation. (I felt so proud recently when guests at one of my restaurants asked if I came from Liverpool. They were very drunk, mind you.) For some reason my teachers decided I should be an engineer and sent me off to engineering school, which I detested. 

A young Raymond had no idea that cooking would be his career

I was desperate to find my talent – I naively believed that everyone had one – and so my first job was as a nurse. I ended up on a leukaemia ward looking after young people and I saw about 12 of them die. It broke me up, so I decided I couldn’t do that. (Plus I was caught a few times in cupboards with other nurses.) And then, at 18, I realised what had been in front of my nose all along: I should be a chef. After all, wasn’t my mother famous for her cooking, and hadn’t I learnt everything from her? Finally, in England, where I also met my then wife Jenny [they separated after 12 years of marriage in 1985] I started cooking the same simple food that my mum had made, in a humble restaurant with an oven that had no bottom. We called it Les Quat’Saison, and it paved the way for the Michelin-star winning Le Manoir

I still feel like the same person I always was because I still carry the philosophy that my terroir and my parents instilled in me about the way to care for food. But I have learnt that you cannot have everything. I have a lovely house and I love sailing – but I don’t get to enjoy them because I never have time. The people who succeed are always the ones who work hard and I still work at least 14 hours a day, five days a week. But, believe me, I am not complaining. When I wake up one day and find I no longer have the fire in my belly, that’s when I’ll stop and go fishing.  

Raymond Blanc is hosting the Panoramic Restaurant at Royal Ascot, June 14-18. ascot.co.uk 

Interview by Olivia Parker