Raymond: 'Food is one of the great ways to woo somebody'
Over some champagne, world famous chef Raymond Blanc tells Barry Egan about how he doesn't lose it anymore, being a "disaster" as a father to his sons, and how he believes he can be engaged "forever" to fiancée Natalia
I can hear him before I see him. Lots of ohhs and ahhs and various other French-sounding guttural noises that indicate the gastronomical god is en route to the reserved table. Then this big smiling teddy bear of a man - aka Raymond Blanc - nearly breaks my fingers with a handshake, before flopping down on the couch and ordering a glass of Ruinart as if it is his birthright.
"They call it the champagne of the sommelier. Very low-sugar level, very dry. Bone dry. Clean. Oh yes," Monsieur Blanc says to the waitress as he takes a sip.
Before we begin (or, more accurately, before he begins - as once Raymond starts there is no way on God's earth of stopping him), I should point out that the Frenchman speaks in a gloriously Gallic manner, gushing at speed like the Seine. And no more so than when he talks about his childhood.
Apropos of the authenticity and the truth of food - two of his favourite subjects - Raymond says with a certain larger-than-life theatricality earlier that: "You learn this truth when you dig the garden as a child and it can feed a whole family of seven all year round. I am a post-war boy. I lived in a little village. My father was poor. I mean poor working class - not rich working class.
"My father built his own house. A tough man. He breaks the stone, grounds it up and built it. He created a huge garden that would feed the whole family.
"I used to hate gardens because when my friends were playing I would be in the garden removing the weeds, watering the plants, and then when harvest time came I would have to pick the plants," he continues, with a breathlessness that already has me drained and the interview has only just started.
"And then you thought it was all over, but God, it was not. You had to pickle them, bottle them, dry them, or whatever it might be."
In a 2007 profile of him in the Observer, Rachel Cooke describes Besançon, in Franche-Comté, where Raymond grew up, as a place where "the onions were sweet as honey, the chickens as free as, well, birds, and the pastry shorter than Napoleon".
Cooke continued: "It's a background that he has gilded over the years so that it now sounds impossibly corny, sort of Marcel Pagnol meets a Stella Artois ad - or, perhaps, the Gallic equivalent of that old Monty Python joke about Yorkshiremen living in a shoebox in the middle of the road ('It was tough, but you learned respect'; 'My mother is like a mountain goat. She cooks like an angel.)."
Of course, Raymond Blanc is both hugely entertaining and hugely engaging - if a little difficult to follow at times because he is liable to veer off, without warning, on epic detours in the conversation. But then there are very few people who can tell stories like his about cooking for the Queen Mother at the home of her horse-trainer, as Raymond would often do during the late 1980s and 1990s.
"She would always come into the kitchen, sit with me and talk French," he says.
"Her French was immaculate with that wonderful English accent. Eventually the Queen would arrive and say, 'come on, mum, we want to go home'. She was a lovely lady. I loved the sparkle in her eyes."
Born on November 19, 1949, Raymond Blanc, too, has just such a sparkle in his eyes. The last time I met him was in 2013 for breakfast in Blarney, Co. Cork. He talked about how he originally tried to gain the love of his long-term girlfriend, Natalia Traxel
The most important form of seduction was, of course, his cooking.
"To cook a very simple meal for anyone, they will love you for it. Truffles and scallops, not a heavy steak. You woo them completely. Of course! Food is one of the greatest ways to woo someone. A sculptor with his art, a musician with his music."
I asked him that morning what notes did he use in his music when he wooed Natalia.
"I am not a specialist in wooing women, okay? I am not a womaniser, as such, but I have wooed a few women in my life. Firstly, if you want to woo someone, you have to find more about themselves and what they like."
I say to him that the last time I spoke to him he was engaged to Natalia. Is he married now?
"No! I'm still engaged! We're very happy that way. You British all want to be married!" Raymond roars. "No! You can be engaged forever.
"We feel both the same. She's been married before, I've been married before. We are very happy as we are. I have seen so many divorces and I know the hell divorce can be," says Raymond, who has been married twice before (to Jenny Blanc and then to Kati Cottrell).
"Natalia and I are brilliant friends. She is a cool, quiet person. When I am stressed out, she cracks a joke and cooks me a simple meal with a glass of pinot noir."
How would Natalia describe him?
For the record, in an article in the Daily Express in August, 2013, Natalia was quoted as saying: "I turned down Silvio Berlusconi three times when I lived next door to him in Bermuda. When you mention the name Berlusconi anywhere in the world everyone knows who he is, but when you mention Raymond Blanc nobody knows him. I remind Raymond of this - when he gets too big for his shoes."
You have to imagine his answer delivered here in a grand French accent complete with de rigueur exaggerated facial and hand gestures ...
"How would she describe me?" Raymond asks rhetorically.
"Kind - yes! 'He can be sometimes losing it' - yes, she would say that."
I ask him what was the worst time he ever lost it.
"It was a long time ago. A very long time ago. I have had a transformation from the tempest to being a reasonable man. I am still passionate. Completely! I am still excited ... Totally excited ... about something beautiful.
Raymond recalls having a beautiful conversation with Seamus Heaney when he met him in a Dublin restaurant not long before the great poet died.
"I didn't speak to him for a long time, maybe 20 minutes, but I enjoyed it. He immediately opened my eyes as a great thinker. He has the deep connection with the bigger stuff of life and lots of humanity and warmth, because I was a stranger."
"I will tell you something intimate," he adds. "I don't know if I should!"
"It's okay," he says. "Years ago, I had a great problem to settle in England. I was a waiter. A lowly servant of the empire. And then I had some Irish friends, so warm, so funny, so direct. I visited Dublin and I fell in love. I almost opened my restaurant in Dublin. Then I fell in love with Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons," he says, referring to his feted Michelin-starred restaurant in Oxfordshire, England.
Although he is no stranger to television himself having been on MasterChef, Great Chefs Of The World and many other shows down through the years, Raymond decries the dumbing down of the restaurant industry as personified by rude celebrity chefs on the box.
"Too often TV has portrayed chefs who behave in a b*****d way, which was completely unnecessary," he begins.
"We undermine completely all the efforts that we've done for the last 40 years in wanting to create a better business where you will want to bring your child because you know your child will be looked after and cared for as in any other proper industry."
"What we need to do is work very bloody hard to create a modern industry where young people are looked after, nurtured, cared for, supported, appraised," he gushes.
"There is a real question here: by creating these programmes you have maybe 10 million morons watching these programmes which are so empty, full of ignorance. Whereas now we want programmes that are full of knowledge."
Raymond is almost as passionate when he talks about the importance, or the truth, of seasonality in cooking.
"People talk about seasonality, but most people don't know what it means; The impact it has on our economy, on our environment, on our family life, on our villages, on the health of the nation."
"If it is seasonal, it is close to home. The taste, the colours, the flavour!" he positively purrs.
"If it is close to home, you help your local farmer to keep his farm, then the village keeps its post office. It goes on. They don't have to import food from millions of miles away, which is out of season. And if you don't create food from millions of miles away, you don't create pollution."
Raymond Blanc is an essentially decent man who talks a lot about the importance of values and truth in living life. Be that as it may, he is neither long-winded or pompous with it. He is not afraid to look at the unvarnished truth of his own life. Indeed, when I ask him what he was like as a father to his kids, he doesn't flinch.
"I was a disaster," he says.
"The most terrible decision in my life, because England was very much a society that was lead by class. So I made a big, big decision to send my two children to a private boarding school at the age of seven.
"That was hard. I thought I was sending my two sons to be neutered, to be emotionally broken, and so that they would become English gentlemen. Their emotional intelligence would be robbed away. I remember at the age of 12 my son Olivier saying to me, 'papa, you are a stranger to me. I don't know you'."
How did he feel?
"When your son says to you that it was a big blow, 'orrible. I was completely blown away."
What did Raymond say to his son?
"I didn't say anything very much. I hugged him. I had never taken a holiday in years. So then I took him on a holiday for three weeks to Caribbean. We regained his trust, slowly. Eventually everything worked out with my two sons," he adds, meaning Sebastien and Olivier from his first marriage to Jenny.
"I am a very proud papa now," Monsieur Blanc says finishing his well-earned glass of champagne.
Raymond Blanc has his own cookware ranges in collaboration with the Meyer group