Raymond Blanc has spent lockdown considering how and why to reinvent Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons, and he has found his mantras: keep it local, with both people and produce; kindness will save the industry; and overall, keep it simple. James Stagg meets him.
It feels fitting to be meeting Raymond Blanc on Bastille Day, when the French celebrate equal rights for all and commemorate a key moment in the country's revolution.
The celebrated chef is certainly on fighting form, challenging an industry in the midst of a staffing crisis to modernise and amend the conventions that, he believes, have held back progress – particularly when it comes to recruitment and retention.
"Of course, equal rights is an ideal, but it's a good ideal to have. It's not a French thing as such – we should all be for it," he explains. "I'm a Republican. I've lived in the UK for so many years and, having been close to the royal family, I've been tempted to embrace them. But I'm a proud French Republican who lives well in Britain – a country that has given me so much and enriched me, too."
He believes it is his roots in France – where youngsters are far more likely to seek work in local restaurants and hotels – that have been the key to Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons in Great Milton, Oxfordshire, maintaining the consistency to hold two Michelin stars for 37 consecutive years.
"It's up to us to create an environment that is better, more thoughtful," Blanc says. "We need to eradicate any form of violence or bad behaviour in our industry. I understand how it can happen – I saw it myself when I was a youngster. Originally, to come into this industry, you had to have a frontal lobotomy, be a social outcast, an economic failure. It was lawless. But now we have rules and we need to make them part of our values.
"Of course, that will cost us – but the returns are huge. We will have better retention, less illness and a more vibrant business. It is possible and it is already happening."
Blanc believes firmly in his ‘local' mantra, be it produce or people. He hopes that if there are any positives from the pandemic they might be a return to a more mindful way of being when operating a business or supporting colleagues.
"Young British chefs went through a period of a lack of identity, but now they have reinvented their identity by reconnecting with local suppliers: fisherman, farmers, cheesemakers and charcuterie makers. These local values are important," he says.
"That is now enriched in our food, with an open mind to new cultures. Young chefs aren't weighed down by the tradition that is felt so much in France and Italy. They are taking fusion in a highly creative and knowing way. And that is great to watch. There are now thousands of creative and great chefs in Britain. They have freed food from its past and embraced the future responsibly. And it's no longer London-centric. It is diffused from south to north."
This focus on the local and artisanal is far more likely to attract the next generation of hospitality employees, Blanc adds, if businesses better reflect their world view. Though he concedes that long hours and working conditions also have to be addressed for hospitality to really compete.
Smaller but better
At Le Manoir the number of covers has been steadily reduced, while the restaurant is now only in service on Thursday to Sunday and no longer offers à la carte. Blanc explains: "We need to give the team a proper break. When we started, it was 120 guests for every lunch and dinner. Now we're in a different world and wouldn't even go back to 85 guests. We don't want to. We may have to put the price up by 20%, but we'll only have 60 guests. And you gain in terms of time and the guests get a better experience."
Blanc says that though other businesses have made great strides in looking after their people, Covid and the furlough scheme have exposed flaws in the industry's approach to nurturing its workforce, even if the exceptional forces at play in the pandemic left no other option but to let go of large swathes of colleagues.
"We must take responsibility," he adds. "We cannot say we have evolved as much as we should. If we had been an industry that was truly caring, we wouldn't be where we are – because people would have come back to us, but they just didn't. We need to reinvent hospitality and make it seen as the most extraordinary industry in the world. We need to think about sustainability, care and support."
The needs of millennials present a particular challenge and a reason for the industry to renew its focus on work-life balance and employee welfare, Blanc believes. Though he admits that long hours were a regular feature of his kitchens, hospitality businesses can no longer expect this of employees if they are to achieve the standards they expect.
"We need to create big changes as we were tough," he confirms. "We'd work 16-18 hours a day – then it was alright, but not any more. Millennials are more fragile and it's up to us to reinvent a different form of management to support these young kids.
We only have a menu now – no à la carte – because the modern guest is exhausted. They don't want to make choices
"In most businesses, if you have values and good management, people become part of the family. There's pride in sharing these values. You want to know a boss cares about training and supporting you. If there is a problem, they are there for you, and that is important."
To accommodate a better work-life balance at Le Manoir, Blanc is in the process of establishing limits on the amount of hours employees can work. This, he says, will better help attract that local workforce that up until now has been so hard to engage.
"My dream is to have local young people from 20-30 miles around. They are proud of their area and you really gain. It has been done in France and Italy, but it's much more difficult here. However, if you can say your work hours are no more than 45 or 48 hours and you can say when your days off will be, it can help. It will mean simplifying the food – making it more beautiful – and simplifying the working process too. This is our aim."
But when Blanc says simplifying, he does not mean losing anything that makes the Le Manoir experience so special. As he sees it, with the restaurant focused on set menus rather than à la carte, the brigade, led by executive chef Gary Jones, is able to concentrate on achieving the purity of flavour to best represent the produce that is so lovingly tended in the restaurant gardens.
"We look at what you do when you construct a dish. You can make it as complicated or simple as you want. The more complicated, the more steps you are adding, the more distractions you are likely to have. In today's world, simplicity is important," he says.
"We only have a menu now – no à la carte – because the modern guest is exhausted. They don't want to make choices. I have cut down the wine list by two-thirds too. From 1,600 references we now have 500, the majority of which are organic and biodynamic. We improve the guest experience, we improve workflow, we cut wastage."
Each improvement and tweak to the hotel, restaurant and gardens at Le Manoir contributes to the continued evolution of the property and its people, which in turn invigorates the guest experience.
"Our guests expect the best and they're right to demand it. It's what we have to deliver," Blanc says. "We have had to move from a space where a young team has been locked in and furloughed to suddenly having to work at that level. It's not easy but we must deliver. Nobody expects less – neither guests or Michelin. "The aim for us has always been creating extremely memorable moments. It's not just the food, it's the complete experience and it always will be."
The kitchen garden
Blanc is in the process of creating a winter garden for December, to allow guests who might not otherwise venture out a reason to roam the property. A winter igloo will be erected, decorated with lights and flowers to provide an alfresco spot for guests to sit and enjoy a glass of Champagne.
And Blanc has even greater plans to expand the one-acre kitchen garden, from beyond just serving the restaurant to supplying the local community, too.
"Eventually I will create an art garden and a vegetable farm, which will be seven times bigger than what we currently have," he says. "We'll work across seven acres to grow the same produce but at a bigger scale. I'll have a farm shop and sell our produce."
Meanwhile, work is under way to develop a vineyard growing the Champagne grapes Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier. This will sit alongside the farm and orchard, which has more than 150 cultivars of apple.
"My dream was to grow all British varieties," Blanc explains. "The idea was to show what we had lost and what we could reinvent. Now I'm working with a company that promotes all the best British growers. We must see more British foods in the supermarkets. We know that change can be created.
"Through all this Belmond has been really supportive with all of our developments. They understand the dream that I want to create and are completely with it. It's a great partnership."
Raymond Blanc on...
"The movement of youthful creativity is inspiring. And it fits with the post-pandemic situation. Maybe I'm a dreamer, but I feel like we will – and have to – reinvent many of our lost crafts: to import less, to grow more; and that applies to all our manufacturing, not just to food."
"The global economy will have to change completely, certainly in terms of luxury. Luxury, which has more often than not been totally careless, wasteful and abusive, must now be responsible. Belmond has understood that very well. It comes down to every detail – even the fabric in the bedrooms. There needs to be a redefinition and reinvention of luxury at all levels."
"There are big problems that the government needs to sort out with the visa situation. Europeans were the backbone of our industry and many have gone. Farmers are in trouble; we are in trouble. Businesses will fail. We need to make visas much more available. There has to be a way."
...nurturing the next generation
"Our industry has to change. We need to be modern. There have to be fewer hours and we must train, train, train; support and cradle."
"People want experiences. So instead of many choices, they want the operator to do the thinking for them and provide an experience and a story. But it has to be authentic."
...sustainability and wellness
"Through the pandemic the psyche of people has changed in terms of work, food and the environment. We have to react to that and deliver the experiences that our staff and our guests are looking for."
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