If the Manoir is Haute Couture; elegant, sexy, where every stitch, fold and pleat is lovingly created, then Brasserie Blanc is a comfortable pair of slippers. You can’t wear Haute Couture every day, you wouldn’t empty the dish washer in your Chanel evening gown would you?
Food is of course a physiological necessity, you must eat to survive. But the Brasseries were born of something more than just food. Only a hermit should eat alone, I think food is the siren call and the glue of relationships. This has its roots in exactly the same place as my love of food; the family table and the cooking of Maman Blanc. The food she produced season in season out was the canvas to our family life; family meals were the centre of our lives. There is something deeply oedipal about food. I think I have cooked many great dishes, but deep down I know that they probably failed to match my customers favourite home cooked meal, even if technically I’m sure mine are better.
All this led me to open a small group of restaurants called Petit Blanc, starting in Oxford at the tail end of 1998. Now I would love to be able to write that it was a resounding success, but with a certain amount of humility (a trait not learnt in my native France) I have to admit to the contrary. After a good start, the gravitational pull of the Manoir started to have an effect on customers and staff alike. Expectations rose higher and higher, though the cost of a meal did not. It was a bit like trying to win a Formula One race in a 2CV, however good a car it may be, the chances are slim to none. This episode did teach me one very valuable lesson; unlike the Manoir, where my constant presence ensures that my vision is made reality, running a restaurant (or any business) in varied locations means you need a team that not only shares the vision but lives it, breathes it and most importantly is capable of implementing it. This team needed to think like me and act like me. Where was I going to find a small army of Raymond clones?
I finally gathered this team in early 2006 and set about rebuilding the restaurants. The first step was to rename them. This was to ensure that no further confusion was felt about what some customers were now calling “Le Petit Manoir”. So in mid 2006 we re-launched the Petit Blanc as Brasserie Blanc. Simple and to the point. There is much debate regarding the origins of the brasserie in France and what it actually means. The simple truth for me is that they are always a more relaxed place than a restaurant. One course or three is up to you, plats cuisines or plain grill up to you. By the way, for the sake of argument, I am pretty sure that brasseries (literally meaning brewery) originated from mid market restaurants in the late 1800s finding themselves wine-free due to the phylloxera outbreak turned to beer as a substitute.
I probably use the word re-launch incorrectly, what we did was start again from scratch. I went back to what had inspired me in the very beginning. In fact the Brasseries are about the things that first made me fall in love with food, cooking and eating. Back to those family meals I love so much. Back to a simpler style where raw product is king, the cook a prince and the company the emperor. The company is up to you but the mise en scene is mine.
In many ways simple food is far harder to cook; it is the customers' familiarity with it that causes the greatest test. A notable example in Brassserie Blanc is Boeuf Bourguignon. Now most people have at one stage in their lives eaten a beef stew with red wine. I have eaten many examples; some have remained engrained in my memory. If truth be known most not for the right reasons. This simple dish has had many crimes committed in its name and yet it can be.......sublime! This is why I think it is a great example of what I am trying to achieve. Good product is not enough, a good recipe is not enough. What a good Bourguignon needs, demands is patience. In a world of fast food, the Bourguignon is a beacon of slow or even leisurely food. It takes time, there are no short cuts. You just can’t hurry a good Bourguignon. If done correctly, when placed in front of you the pieces of meat are whole but can be cut with a spoon, the sauce is thick but not sticky, the taste rich but not overpowering and the aroma instantly makes you feel warm inside. The glass and a half of red wine in each serving helps. Other recipes from my childhood came back to me such as the Salade Composée or as we call it Maman Blanc’s Miscellany of Salad. This is a selection of six different small salads where each key ingredient has a dressing that fits it best: grated celeriac with a mustard mayonnaise, gorged cucumber and dill, beetroot with balsamic vinegar, chicory with blue cheese, Jerusalem artichoke and chives. The name of the dish stays but with every season I change the ingredients as it should be. I put a grill section in, why? Because sometimes less is more, a simple steak frites is a thing of joy, it takes no less skill to cook and even more skill to source a meat of good quality and husbandry.
Of course sometimes a classic dish is like a red flag to a bull to a committed foodaholic like myself, and I allow myself to tinker with an original. I tell myself that these dishes are variations on a theme rather than sacrilege. A perfect example is my take on the classic Bouillabaise. In a world where not only the quality of the product is key, but its very survival is in doubt, recipes can come to the rescue. Rather than relying on a vast quantity and variety of fish to achieve the result, I have sourced similar and more sustainable species, filleted them and made the sauce separately with the bones. I then gently poach the filets in a bouillabaisse stock. The result: the same wonderful fish stew taste, less waste of raw product and a damn sight easier to eat! Just as my mother’s repertoire is endless so is the inspiration for the Brasserie’s menus. The one thing the public are not ready for are the dishes she makes from leftovers.... Maybe one day.
Food is not enough and the whole look of the Brasseries had to change, looking back at the early nineties it is hard to believe that designers held such powers convincing us what we liked. Clean lines, white walls and blue tiles, fantastic for toilets and abattoirs but not best for a convivial dining experiences. The only good news as far as that type of design: there is very little to throw out before you start again. Back to basics, back to humanity. In came wood, candles, tablecloths, lighting that flattered rather than reminded you of interrogation rooms. I found a delightful artist based in Winchester called Jenny Muncaster who I sent real Maman Blanc recipes to and using these she created canvases showing tables bulging with the ingredients ready for cooking. I mixed these with grainy black and white pictures of myself and the team hard at work. These are not the posed Grand Patron set photos but the real thing. A photographer followed me for two days and night, even I cannot pose for that long. The result are Brasseries that are welcoming, warm and inviting, they are human; why would you want to design anything else?
What will the future bring? No one knows but one thing I can assure you is that nearly every Sunday you will find me having lunch contentedly in the Oxford Brasserie Blanc, en famille, chez moi.