My Garden to Your Plate: A Day at the Raymond Blanc Cookery School

My Garden to Your Plate: A Day at the Raymond Blanc Cookery School

It’s not gone unnoticed that Raymond Blanc and I share the
same(ish) name. Having grown up on a diet of his many TV shows –
the repeats of which I still watch at the weekend – I delight when
friends and family call me Chef Rae-mond as I chop and sweat and
saute. “Oh la la,” I reply.

You can imagine my unbridled joy then, as I approach the
celebrated chef’s eponymous cookery school. Travelling through the
of Great Milton, I pass undulating hills, manicured
lawns and thatch-roofed pubs. It’s quintessential rural
; a place of fetes and bulletin boards, bell ringers and

Here, the 15th-century manor turned award-winning hotel Belmond
Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons has been the benchmark of haute cuisine
for over three decades. With honey-hued walls framed by Provencal
lavender, it’s a happy marriage of
heritage and French fancy – which comes as no
surprise when you consider that its maître de maison is Raymond
Blanc OBE. You can feel his passion throughout, from the
individually designed suites to the restaurant’s seven-course
tasting menu. “The good does not interest us,” says Blanc, “only
the sublime.”

The restaurant is Le Manoir’s crown jewel. Just one year after
Blanc created the hotel in 1984, it was awarded two Michelin stars.
Today, it is Britain’s only country house hotel to have held this
badge of honour for over 30 years. Ingredients reign supreme. All
produce is local, much of it coming straight from the hotel’s
two-acre kitchen garden, which has over 90 varieties of vegetables,
70 herbs, a mushroom valley – yes, you read that right – and
heritage orchards. In the kitchens, some 28 Michelin-starred chefs
including Ollie Dabbous, Michael Caines and Marco Pierre White have
been trained. And now it’s my turn to join their ranks.

Keen to share his expertise with kitchen novices and budding
chefs alike, Raymond opened his cookery school at the hotel in 1991
– the first Michelin-starred restaurant to do so. “It’s a tool to
teach people the skills that I have learnt over the years and to
relay the passion I feel when it comes to food,” says Blanc.

Guests can discover a whole repertoire of dishes with over 40
inspiring courses. A Taste of Wellbeing taps into the current trend
for holistic health and nutrition while Blanc Vite teaches guests
how to master gourmet meals on the fly. The Magic of Vegetables,
Herbs and Pulses proves that no meat is no problem when it comes to
creating exciting dishes. Whether you’re an aspiring Masterchef or
a kitchen novice, there’s something for everyone including half-day
introductions, residential programmes and children’s courses.

Today, I’m taking part in the one-day My Garden to Your Plate
course. Like many courses, it’s one driven by the seasons, by
provenance and by sustainability; “you shall waste not!” is among
Blanc’s mantras. Guests are invited to harvest their own produce
from the sprawling kitchen gardens before heading inside to learn
the secret to Blanc’s culinary magic and create (and eat) a vibrant

On arrival, a cosy group of eight students are welcomed with tea
and coffee, the expected introductions and an exchange of epicurean
tales, as we don chef whites and aprons – the former of which we
get to take home at the end of the day. So far, so good.

Of course, it’s when I get down to cooking that things get
really exciting. Passing the gleaming counters of the hotel’s
restaurant kitchen, I ogle a rainbow of produce and feel a blast of
warm air radiate from a distant stove as an army of chefs dice and
slice faster than asparagus goes in and out of season.

Thankfully the heat of the kitchen doesn’t permeate the Cookery
School. The room is stage-set like a country home – albeit one
armed with a library of Blanc’s books and cookware. It’s a fitting
backdrop considering the familial zest with which the celebrated
chef flavours his food. “Food is about family and friends,” says
Blanc, whom the team affectionately call RB. “The ethos of the
Cookery School comes from the lessons my papa taught me in the
garden about growing and nurturing food, and from my mother in the
kitchen.” Indeed, all afternoon a picture of the transcendent Maman
Blanc watches over the class as we cook.

As with most courses, the itinerary focuses on the recipes close
to Raymond’s heart, on those dishes that have led him to become the
Michelin-starred chef he is today. The standout has to be the
tomato essence risotto. Taking cue from Maman Blanc’s tomato salad,
we pulverise the ripe, freshly picked fruit and gather the pulp in
a muslin bag and hang over a bowl. Several hours later, a clear
nectar has gathered and we gently cook it with Arborio rice. Quite
opposite from the stodgy, cream-based affairs so often associated
with risotto, the finished dish is delicate with an almost leafy
perfume and I’m left feeling light and satisfied.

It’s a sensation I get throughout the day. I’d gone to the
school wearing my slack-waisted trousers in anticipation of an
afternoon of pure gluttony. Instead, we prepare and feast on confit
artichokes with mustard dressing, pan-fried salmon with beetroot
salad and horseradish crème fraîche, and assiette de crudités – a
rainbow of vegetable dishes using produce we pick from the garden.
A rhubarb souffle satisfies the sweet tooth and I take home a
carrot cake, which goes down particularly well in the SUITCASE
office. It feels like a celebration of food, rather than gorging.
And thankfully the washing up is left to the kitchen porters.

I pick up tips all afternoon. I learn how to crisp salmon skin
without overcooking the flesh. I use a fresh egg yolk to rescue
separated mayonnaise. I blanch basil for an intensely coloured
pesto. Yet my biggest take-home of the day is that emotion plays as
big a part in the outcome of a dish as any fancy knife skills or
high-tech equipment. “Food is about celebration and love,” says
Blanc. “The best education comes when you can laugh and have fun
while learning.” By the time the course finishes I’ve laughed as
many times as I’ve tasted.

It must be said, however, that this isn’t the kind of cookery
course you’d come to on a whim. Prices start at £185 for half-day
courses and climb to £4,500 for a four-night residential programme.
Among my fellow chefs – yes, that’s what I’m calling myself now –
there was a couple celebrating their silver anniversary, another on
a visit home from Dubai, a girl whose family surprised her that
morning for her 30th birthday and a woman who tells me her dad
wrote the theme tune for James Bond.

The following weekend, back home, I ceremoniously buy a bag of
locally grown artichokes from Herne Hill Market. I carefully pare
off the leaves, remove the chokes and set aside in lemon water
before crafting a cartouche and gently poaching. I make mayonnaise
from scratch. By the time I sit down to eat it’s way past
lunchtime, though I hadn’t noticed. Bon appétit, I say to my cat,
Henry. Now, if only I had a kitchen porter to tackle my dishes.