The legendary Raymond Blanc – currently sharing his culinary know-how in BBC2’s Kitchen Secrets – passes on more hush-hush info…
Our food is going to cost us so much more in the future – that’s why we must all learn to cook, as it will halve our weekly food bills. I hope Kitchen Secrets will empower people to try, using my little tricks that make life easier. It doesn’t educate – I hate educating, it’s boring – it’s me sharing my passion, my enthusiasm, to help people reconnect with food.
My earliest memory is of Maman Blanc’s apple tart. It was a glorious thing, made of shortcrust pastry to which she’d add apples, then bake; then add sugar, butter, cream and eggs, and bake some more. I was only three when I tasted it but it’s not something you forget.
Food was a family affair growing up in France. Children sat with adults at mealtimes, something I hated at the time. Five hours in a smoky room – the French smoke a lot remember! It was boring hearing the adults talk about politics, the army, education and sex. The only saving grace was dessert arriving!
My first gastronomic experience was like falling in love, it was a huge discovery. I was a young student with a bit of money in my pocket from selling food I’d gathered to restaurants. French stomachs start working at midday and mine was no exception as I walked past a restaurant and smelt the most incredible smell – dense, rich, complex – very different to the simplicity of my mother’s cooking. It was beef kidneys and I went in and spent my small fortune on lunch and a glass of Cotes du Rhone, both tasting like nothing I’d tasted before. It was heaven.
I knew I wanted to become a chef the night I looked up at a restaurant terrace in my hometown of Besancon, and saw lovers eating under the moonlight. It was the Maitre’d that caught my eye, serving and moving deftly like he was in a ballet – the heart of the whole performance. Oh la la, it was so powerful. I knew then, at 19, I wanted to be the creator of that experience, the chef who cooked the food.
My motto is waste nothing. It’s the first thing I teach young chefs at my restaurant, Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons. Everything was kept in our family, even dry bread, which was made into bread and butter pudding.
The strangest thing I’ve ever eaten were live eels in Japan. They were served in the most elegant way by a Geisha in a beautiful silk gown who bought a huge bowlful of electric, silver jumping eels. She scooped some in a net, added rice vinegar and sake and then I had to swallow them without chewing. They don’t slide easily down your throat, they jump – it was very weird.
When I get home after an 18-hour day cooking at Le Manoir I make myself a simple omelette with cheese, pour a glass of burgundy and feel happy. After sampling hundreds of dishes you crave clean, simple tastes.
If I wasn’t a chef I’d be a bloody good gardener, although I dreamt of being a pianist, and tried for seven years, which was a disaster. It was pure vanity: I wanted to be a great chef and have another talent and had this dream that people would come from around the world to eat my food and then I’d burst out of the kitchen, throw down my apron and take to the grand piano. I gave an organist friend a recording of mine, not saying whom it was. He said: ‘That guy is a butcher, he should stop playing the piano!’
I wish someone had told me that relationships need as much love as your work. I made that mistake once and now try to live a more balanced life.
When I came to England in the ’70s it was the worst time for food. Everything was processed, intensively farmed and people believed it was OK to buy cheap food. Baked beans represented the tinned food culture I found myself in and that’s why I dislike them to this day. And malt vinegar as I remember my first fish and chips were soggy and drowned in it. Thankfully we’ve moved on since then.
I don’t have bad eating habits but I’ll admit to always leaving a little bit of food on my plate. I don’t know why I do, it was to annoy my parents. I still do it now, which annoys me!
A final secret about myself? I have none. I’m an open book.
Raymond Blanc’s Kitchen Secrets is on Monday nights at 8.30pm on BBC Two.