CHEFS

Raymond Blanc Wants Food to be Classless

"It’s a shame that food is still class-led when it should be classless,” says the Michelin-starred French chef. “My father was a working class man but my God, we ate so well."

by Daisy Meager
13 August 2016, 10:00am

Raymond Blanc might have spent the night dancing to Robert Plant and just finished prepping a four-course meal for around 400 diners, but somehow, he manages to make you feel like he has all the time in the world for a cosy chat.

I've wangled 15 precisely timed minutes with the Michelin-starred French chef during his stint cooking two banquets at Wilderness Festival, a four-day arts event in the Oxfordshire countryside.

Greeted with kisses on both cheeks (natch), I start by asking Blanc how he thinks the British public's attitude towards food as changed. Immediately, he is in the zone.

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Raymond Blanc prepping for the Wilderness banquet. Photo by Danny North.

"For generations, people ate everything, swallowed everything, and then defecated everything. And we didn't ask a single question," he says. "Now, there is a very British revolution going on, reconnecting with the food that we had previously separated ourselves from."

He continues: "People are asking, 'Where has my food come from? How is it grown? How much horse is in my burger?'"

Horsemeat scandal reference noted. But provenance is a message Blanc has been preaching long before the British public started finding "neigh" in their nuggets in 2013.

READ MORE: What Visitors to the UK Really Think of British Food

The self-taught chef moved to the UK from France in 1972 and worked his way up from being a waiter. Throughout his career, he has championed ethical sourcing and seasonality via numerous cookbooks, a cookery school, and kitchen at the famed Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons.

And all the while, doing so in his own inimitable style. But Blanc's thick French accent and intense gesticulating aren't a show. He cares.

From checking each table setting to taking up the food waste cause in earnest (Blanc is the president of the Sustainable Restaurant Association), he is the definition of a "hands-on chef."

"I know the provenance of every ingredient so I feel happy cooking my free range eggs and free range pork, and all the vegetables are in season," Blanc tells me.

"For generations, people ate everything, swallowed everything, and then defecated everything."

I ask him why he thinks the British public are beginning to cotton on to this idea, too.

Blanc explains: "The change is happening because we're a culture of fast food which has created a nightmare for us. A nightmare of obesity, a nightmare of cardiovascular disease, of diabetes."

"People are starting to understand that food is connected with what kind of society you create," he continues. "But one great thing that's come out of it is the revolution in the British artisan. It's exciting—you have more cheeses than the French now!"

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Blanc seasoning a dish. Photo by Danny North.

I raise my eyebrows. Surely, this proud Frenchman can't be saying the British cheese industry is … better than le fromage?

"They're not all great though."

There you go.

As well as his enduring loyalty to French cheese, Blanc's upbringing in France continues to have an influence over his cooking. In fact, Maman Blanc's tomato salad and îles flottante pudding make an appearance on today's menu.

Blanc tells me the first thing that his mum taught him was: "You shall waste not."

"Even the coffee grounds were used for the roses or put in the soil to improve the taste of the snails," remembers Blanc. "Nothing was ever wasted so I teach my young chefs this very simple principle of respecting food."

Before I can ask my next question, a young guy buts in to ask Blanc for a photo. Blanc momentarily breaks eye contact with me to politely but firmly tell the intruder that he is answering my questions at the moment. What did I say about making you feel like the most important person in the room?

READ MORE: Do Consumers Actually Care About Where Their Meat Comes From?

Back in the Blanc bubble, away from the sound of children running around, bands tuning up, and general festival chatter, I ask his opinion on the UK's growing food waste problem.

The first thing that his mum taught him was: "You shall waste not."

"There's no doubt that cooking skills have been lost and for 60 years, we have reduced food to a mere commodity," he says. "Today, there is much more awareness about the food waste problem which is exciting. But we still have a long way to go."

And on that note, he gets deep.

"I would also like to make a serious remark that it's a shame that food is still class-led when it should be classless," he says. "I was born into a family where my father was a working class man, we were five children but my God, we ate so well on a very little budget."

I'm guessing they didn't come to fancy foodie events like the one we're at, through. Looking around at Wilderness, this is probably about as middle class as a festival can get (you know it's posh when the loos are cleaned twice a day and rosé runs out by day two).

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Blanc raising a cup to the banquet. Photo by the author.

But what about the people who can't afford to come here and listen to the food talks or attend the beautiful, fairy light-lit feasts?

Blanc answers quickly: "There's a great mix of people here. There are some people, and I know many of them, who have saved their money to come here for these four days."

But, of course, a feasting banquet is not the answer to the wider problem of malnourishment or food poverty. Blanc acknowledges that these issues are much bigger than Wilderness.

"We need to start at the beginning, protecting our farmers and fishermen," he says. "And not forgetting that food should also be a celebration of life."

And on that note, my time is up. More kisses on each cheek and Blanc is off. The guy wanting to take a picture has his moment and I'm back in a field, surrounded by screaming children.

Thank God the wine's decent.