Raymond Blanc, 67, is one of Britain’s leading chefs. He runs a double Michelin-starred restaurant in Oxfordshire and has appeared on numerous TV shows, including Saturday Kitchen and The Restaurant.

I was in the garden...

I was cutting a big, wriggly worm into pieces with an old plastic knife I’d found. When it extended itself, it was about 18cm—a little earthy monster. I cut it into 20 or 30 pieces and decided to eat it. I was two and it was my first gastronomic experience.

My mum showed up at the end of the process. She wasn’t too pleased and she reprimanded me, saying that I shouldn’t eat that as we cook good food at home.

 

When I was about six... 

My mum found the perfect Christmas present in the shop for me. It was a completely unaffordable German tank and my father didn’t like it at all, as it had a white cross on top of it. He was in the resistance at 18; he was a hero. He went to Germany and accompanied the Germans right to the heart of Berlin.

At Christmas, I opened my present and what did I see? My tank with the white cross on it. It went backwards, it went forwards, it was spitting fire—it was unbelievable! I was so happy.

Once, I went to mass with my siblings and I left the tank in my room. When I came back, it was broken into thousands of little pieces. It was my eldest brother who did it and I was mad. But then he put back every part of the tank together—he would go on to become a very well-known engineer, working for micro companies and doing things that nobody else could.

 

Living three and half miles from the school...

Our winters were seriously harsh—one metre of snow in one night. There were blizzards all the time. Even at the age of four, still in nursery, we would walk every day in the blizzard and snow. We had to pass by nasty places where they would throw stones or do something tricky to you.

We were soaking wet and freezing, our skin was red and we couldn’t feel our hands. When we came home, we’d have a bowl of hot chocolate.

 

My mum would jar, pickle and dry the food from our garden...

There were vegetables all over the floor. Carrots, potatoes, turnips, beetroot and Jerusalem artichoke, would all be covered with a black jute and hidden from any form of light. On the shelf there were thousands and thousands of pots of fruit, wild mushrooms and all the vegetables from the garden.

The cellar had a single dangling lightbulb and it diffused this extraordinary halo of light. Papa would buy the cheapest local plonk and it was put into a big barrel for three or four months and it dripped. I can still remember that heavenly smell...

 

One day my papa did something interesting...

He scooped a whole handful of earth, which was dark and beautiful. He turned to me and said, “Look, Raymond,” so I looked at it. “Smell it,” so I smelled it. “Taste it.” And you didn’t argue with your Papa. The man was quite a fearsome character.

Oh, my God. It felt as if my whole mouth had disappeared. It was sucked out by the astringency, the acidity, the tannins—a bitter, sour note.

 

 

"I was a rich young man at the age of ten—whatever my mum couldn’t cook, I would sell at a restaurant."

 

 

It was only a few years [after] that I told Papa, “I can understand why you told me to look at the earth, because by looking at it, I can understand which minerals there are. But why on earth did you make me taste it?” And that’s when I discovered that my father had a sense of humour.

He said, “It was a joke.” I wanted to kill him but he was too big.

 

We would sometimes hunt by smell...

The petit-gris, one of the world’s best mushrooms, grows in little bundles under pine trees. You can’t see them so you have to follow the wind and smell them, like they did millions of years ago. And you know they’re there, under the moss.

You take your knife and you start there and then you know. You remove them all and you see hundreds of mushrooms as they grow in huge colonies. I tell you, I was a rich young man at the age of ten. Whatever my mum couldn’t cook, I would sell at a restaurant, never for a lousy price.

 

I worked hard for my first boss...

I was afraid of him because everyone was afraid of him. One afternoon, when I was about 19, I was in the middle of taking orders and I’d just filled up my tray with lemonade. A young girl was passing by and she pushed the tray out of my hands. I was terrified. He looked at me and I looked at him and I knew I would get a serious beating.

The young girl noticed the whole thing and she crouched down and helped me pick up the glass. It may sound corny but she said, “I’m sorry,” and I fell in love with her. She said these words and she broke my heart. I did get the biggest possible beating afterwards.

 

My parents decided that I would be draughtsman...

The problem was, I hate—hate—squares, rectangles, prisms. Anything that has a rigid defined shape. I love anything that is asymmetric. Obviously, I wasn’t made for that job and equally, in my heart of hearts, I saw my father failing. He worked in a factory where he’d craft gold, tin, aluminium or copper, but because he was a working-class man he’d never dare to set up his own shop.

 

 

"I ended up in the hospital. My jaw and teeth may have been broken but it was my ego that was seriously bruised."

 

 

He was conditioned by the ideas about working-class men. It had a profound impact on me. I decided I would find my talent. I became a very good trainee nurse in a hospital in Besançon. I loved looking after people and I was in the leukaemia department where I saw about 12 young people die. I stopped because I couldn’t take it emotionally.

I then found myself in a factory and it was a frightening moment in my life because I realised I was just a number there. Nobody knew my name; nobody knew how I felt. I was just a shadow clocking in and clocking out.

 

On a beautiful August night...

There was a big, illuminated tent in a courtyard in my town centre, where couples were holding hands and waiters were carving and flambéing. They wore their Bordeaux jackets,  balletically moving between the tables. I said, “Oh my God,” and I just fell in love, in love like never before. It was love so big, it filled my body, my heart, my brain, my ears.

I was given a job as a cleaner so I became the best cleaner I could be, and then I became the best glass washer. Meanwhile, I was reading about food, great chefs, great scientists, great nutritionists. I connected everything to food: food-love; food-sex; food-nutrition; food-science; food-family; food-geography.

 

After six months as glass washer I knew every wine...

I memorised every single one. I understood that a great restaurant only works if everyone knows what they’re doing. And I quickly became very popular—but not for long because I started advising the chef on sauces and he was a bigger man. I once told him that his sauce was a bit too salty. I wanted a chance to communicate as a chef and talk to him about food.

I was completely possessed by food. I would dream about it in the day and have nightmares at night. But the chef hated me. Once, when I was about to approach him, I saw his moustache bristle, his eyes darken and I knew something bad was about to happen. And it did—a fist slammed into my face. I ended up in the hospital. My jaw and teeth may have been broken, but it was my ego that was seriously bruised.

 

I couldn't believe it when I got my first Michelin star...

And the second star was even more unbelievable. I will always remember Albert Roux phoning me, in full service—you never disturb a chef when he cooks. Eventually, after 25 rings, I took the phone and started barking at him. He said, “Raymond, Raymond. Albert Roux. I’m a friend.” “What do you want? I’m in service,” I replied.

“Raymond, tonight you sleep on two pillows. You have two Michelin stars.” And I went, “Waaaaah!” And then you start dreaming of a little place, with two or three bedrooms, a large garden—you’re aiming for a tiny little place, but then you fall in love with a manor house with acres of land, dry rot and you say, “Yes, that’s it—that’s the love of my life.”

 

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