Raymond Blanc has recipe to halt French cuisine's decline
French chef Raymond Blanc is leading a diplomatic offensive to restore the good name of French cuisine in Britain, saying it must escape its comfort zone to reign supreme again.
The 65-year-old has made his name in Britain but has stayed true to his belief in French food -- and the Michelin-starred chef is now helping to revive the prestige of French cuisine.
"I've spent more than 30 years in Great Britain, and I am 100 percent French," said Blanc, who has been honoured by Queen Elizabeth II for his services in promoting culinary excellence and healthy eating.
Blanc runs the Michelin two-starred Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons restaurant in the medieval village of Great Milton outside Oxford in southern England.
Despite his decades in Britain, his manner remains unmistakably French.
Blanc's hands fly through the air and his eyes sparkle when he talks about his warm confit of salmon, horseradish, butternut squash or risotto of wild mushrooms with Perigord truffles.
Self-taught, he has trained countless apprentices and 34 mostly British Michelin-starred chefs, among them Heston Blumenthal and Marco Pierre White.
Blanc is undoubtedly a big name in Britain, starring in popular television programmes like Masterchef, The Restaurant and The Very Hungry Frenchman.
He has written several books and works with organisations such as the Royal Horticultural Society and the Campaign to Protect Rural England.
A spoonful of boldness
But if he has made his life in Britain, the notion that he has turned his back on his homeland infuriates him.
"It's the biggest possible insult. I love my English friends, but I am who I am," he said.
This week he is putting his passion where his mouth is as part of the 'Gout de France / Good France' initiative.
Launched by the French foreign ministry, it culminates on Thursday with the preparation of French dishes by a thousand chefs on all continents, honouring the merits of French cuisine.
Blanc must also dish up a speech at a banquet staged at the French ambassador's residence in London.
Standing by his stove as the big day approaches, he describes on one hand a false case against France's 'culinary genius' and the need for an honest look in the mirror by French chefs.
Seeds of doubt have been sown by The World's 50 Best Restaurants, a list produced by Britain's Restaurant magazine, which since it started in 2002, has given first place to restaurants in Spain, California, Denmark and England.
The French are challenging the criteria. "Cuisine these days is obeying a fashion," one served by public relations, Blanc said, choosing his words carefully. "I don't believe in an Anglo-Saxon conspiracy. But it's the first time that our gastronomy has been called into question.
"There are questions to be asked, problems we can't ignore. In France, the traditions are sometimes heavy. It's up to us to open ourselves up, to enrich ourselves, to reinvent ourselves and to take risks without denying our heritage."
Among the things needing changing are France's 35-hour working week laws, tendencies of self-indulgence and "a lack of self-confidence".
Broadening culinary horizons
"It's up to us to add into our heritage spices, ingredients, flavours and techniques from elsewhere," he said, citing Japan, China and Thailand. To illustrate what he means, the chef plunges his spoon into a raviole of exotic fruits, kaffir lime leaves and coconut milk, with the ecstatic smile of a schoolboy. "We're not dead. We're still alive. France has a magnificent opportunity to embrace this," he said.
And Blanc is keen to celebrate the principles he learned from 'Maman Blanc': local ingredients from a good source, along with fresh, seasonal produce -- preferably organic. To this end, he is calling for France to emulate "the revolution under way in Britain" -- something he is partly responsible for driving.
"The consumers are in charge. They want to know what percentage of their hamburger is actually horse -- where their food is coming from," he said.
The enthusiasm in Britain is obvious. Food television programmes of all kinds fill the airwaves, while "many of our best-known celebrities are chefs," food critic William Sitwell wrote in The Daily Telegraph newspaper.
"Online, food bloggers lurk at every turn, and, pornography aside, the most searched-for items are recipes."